Case Closed

The truth may set you free, but it takes a body to prove a 50-year-old murder

More than half a century has passed since Harrison Ocie Jones was seized in the night from his sharecropper's cabin in North Texas and beaten to near death by a group of white men supposedly trying to collect a debt. The story goes that after they beat him, they dumped the 31-year-old black man on the railroad tracks just outside Ladonia, hoping the morning train would destroy the body and the evidence of their crime.

The train didn't come that morning, though, and Jones managed to live a few days before dying of the injuries from the beating. Even though he might have been able to identify his attackers in the days he survived, those responsible never faced charges or even questioning by authorities.

Death threats directed toward the Jones family by the white men who were to blame for the killing instilled a fear so enormous that Catherine Jones, Harrison's wife, kept the story and the threats from her children and took the secrets with her to her grave in the 1970s.

The Reverend Jim Parsons opened the investigation into a long-ago lynching.
Mark Graham
The Reverend Jim Parsons opened the investigation into a long-ago lynching.

Until work began on a report for a March 1, 2001, Dallas Observer cover story, "Forget Me Not," few of Jones' surviving family members knew of the beating or his real cause of death. Jones' death certificate said he died of "miliary tuberculosis" after a two-year illness. Younger family members were told that Jones died when a car fell on him.

While Jones' family now knows the truth, it seems unlikely that those responsible will ever face justice for one simple reason--without a body, it's virtually impossible to prove murder.

Jones' story emerged after older family members began to talk about the killing. Fannin County records and family memories confirmed what a white Arkansas minister had been saying for years about the lynching of a black man in Ladonia, a small, impoverished town about 80 miles northeast of Dallas. Myles Porter, Fannin County district attorney, said he would launch an investigation and that he would start by exhuming the body. No statute of limitations exists for a murder charge. If those responsible were living, justice would be done, Porter promised.

Yet Fannin County records show that a judge signed what is known as a "burial transmit" for Jones and that he was buried at Pleasant Grove Cemetery, a couple of miles outside Ladonia. Such a transmit is used when a body is cremated or transported out of the county for burial. Since Jones lived, died and was buried in his county of residence, it would appear that he was cremated, a county clerk says. No one could find a marker for Jones' gravesite, possibly because his grave was designated with a pauper's wooden marker.

The Reverend Jim Parsons, director of the Arkansas Christian Educators Association, wrote about the killing of a black family friend as a testament to his experience with racial injustice. Parsons said he was a childhood friend of the Jones family children, and that the horror of the killing, which he didn't personally witness, inspired his lifelong passion for standing up for what's right.

The Jones family, he says, lived in a shack on the farm that the Parsons family leased in the early 1950s. Parsons says he clearly remembers the days after the killing and that no one did anything to stop it or to seek the help of the white authorities. After the killing, the Jones cabin was burned to the ground. Parsons, who first approached Porter about launching a murder investigation after being contacted by the Observer, says he is disappointed that Jones' body was cremated so many years ago.

"They wanted to get rid of the evidence probably, just not have any trouble with it," he says.

Parsons says the retelling of the tragedy helped him, even if it is just to make it known that these kinds of things happened in the 20th Century in the southern United States.

"This was just a very vivid example of what was going on at that time across the South, all the way from the Carolinas, all the way through Texas," he says. "It was kind of a catharsis for me to get that out after 50 years. If you can write about something, expose it, get it out on the table and kind of deal with it, I think that psychiatrists tell us all the time that the worst thing you can do is just lock it up inside and refuse to talk about it. For me, I think it was good for me to get it out and say it."

Betty Franklin, Jones' niece, talked to Porter and spent months trying to find the Jones burial site in cemeteries in Fannin County. Word that her uncle was probably cremated is disappointing and appears to end hope that anyone will find a grave, she says. In her own search for the truth, she says, she found that the impact of racial violence from the 1940s and 1950s has crossed seamlessly into the lives of today's older family members.

"These people were traumatized by this event, and they knew more than they were telling. Their lives were threatened, and they kept their mouths shut in order to stay alive," she says. "It's like I dare you speak up. They took away their sense of well-being."

Franklin says she talked to many older family members about her uncle's story but found unexpected resistance to discussions of childhood and growing up in the racially divided South.

"To me it was so strange," she says. "I don't know if childhood was so painful and scary that they blocked it out emotionally. It was so hard and so terrifying living in this county that we had to stay out of the way. I don't know if my mom and her sister were emotionally traumatized that they blocked it out. It was just amazing to me when she said, 'I don't remember my childhood.'"

The reaction to her inquiries was nearly universal among older family members, she says.

"That group of people, they are still traumatized," she says. "You can't get a lot of conversations out of them about it."

The fact that her uncle's real fate was revealed wasn't really a reason for joy in the family, she says. Family members who lived through the times of racial killings and death threats are still reluctant to visit the past, she says.

"It did open a door for dialogue," she says of the Observer story. "But I also know they haven't dealt with it emotionally, even if they saw it or witnessed it or heard stories about it. They never mention him...They haven't been through a healing process. They just forgot it happened."

What most amazes her, she says, is that the family seems to have chosen not just to blank out Jones' fate but everything attached to him. In all of her years of being around family, Harrison Jones was hardly mentioned and no one even has a photograph of him, she says.

"He was a light-hearted, really interesting guy. Even my mother could have said that, but she never said anything besides, 'I don't remember,'" Franklin says. "Did their silence protect them? Yeah, but did it make them better people? In a sense it taught them to keep their mouths shut, but will they take chances in life to achieve more? I don't know, but I feel like there's too much trauma in their lives for them to be all they can be."

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