"The scriptures have said, 'The things that have been done in the dark will be known from the house tops.'"--Civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer
Up a dirt road about a mile south of the small North Texas town of Ladonia, the men came. It was past midnight, but a nearly full moon washed the aged cotton farm in light. The men were looking for Harrison Ocie Jones, a handsome and well-liked 31-year-old black farm worker whose labors in the field earned him food and a roof over his family's heads. Jones wasn't hard to find. Most people knew he lived with his family in a primitive, unfinished four-room house behind the barn on the Walker farm.
In the cool of those early morning hours, Jones, his wife, and their four children, ages 6 to 11, slept in the ramshackle house most recently used to store hay. They had no water, no electricity, no indoor toilet, no telephone. It was 1951 in the Deep South, where living conditions for black farm workers hadn't changed much in the century since Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.
Past the main farmhouse on the hill, past the smokehouse and the chicken yard and the barn to Jones' shack, the men came. They were angry. They had vengeance in mind, and before long, Jones would be dead, his wife a widow for life, his children fatherless. Jones would be laid to rest in Ladonia's Pleasant Grove Cemetery in a section designated for blacks. Buried with him would be a nasty tale about life in a small Texas town at a time when being "colored" meant you did certain things to stay alive. You lived in debt, and you kept your mouth shut.
Officially, Jones died of "miliary tuberculosis" at 2:55 a.m. on August 20, 1951, after a two-year illness. That's what the death certificate filed at the Fannin County Courthouse says. His four children would be told that a falling car killed their father, a story they believed until a few months ago, when work on this report began.
The truth, say older family members and those who knew Jones, is that he was an otherwise healthy man who died from injuries inflicted by the gang of white men who dragged him from his family's shack that August night 50 years ago. Afterward, the killers threatened to murder Catherine Jones, Harrison's wife of 12 years, and the rest of her family if anybody said anything to white authorities. Catherine Jones died in the late 1970s, having never told her children the truth about the night their father died.
Now, the dirt that buried this town's secret for all these years is being churned to the surface, and authorities are interested in what's left in the darkness of Jones' grave. Jones' story is finally being told in public, and Fannin County's district attorney and sheriff are listening. There is no time limit for filing a murder charge, and if any of those responsible are found alive, they will be prosecuted. The truth about Jones' death may have been stifled by fear for 50 years, but as a result of one man's desire to fight injustice--and his own feelings of guilt--the facts are coming out. Jones' story will not conclude as that of one more unknown black man killed by the white South and forgotten along with the crime that sent him to a pauper's grave.
"I thought if it was going to come up, it would come up about a month or so after it happened," Eddie Bogar, Jones' 80-year-old brother-in-law, says. "I mean, they swept it under the rug. Nobody cared."
Jim Parsons jumped out of the C-119 (nicknamed a flying boxcar) and into the dark with the rest of his company of paratroopers on a weekend training exercise at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1952. As the men jumped, a static line inside the airplane pulled the ripcords, and the parachutes opened automatically. The men were trying to land close together on a ground target, and they jumped too fast. Outside the airplane, they bunched up.
"When my chute opened, I was right above a sergeant," the 67-year-old Parsons says while looking out of a car window at the fertile fields passing by him just west of Ladonia, 80 miles north of Dallas. "When I pulled my risers to move, why, my chute Roman-candled, dumped the air out of it. I fell down on top of his chute. We already had the sensation of the ground rushing up at us, and you don't get that until the last 30 feet.
"It was too late to get a reserve out. I had 125 pounds of equipment on top of his chute," he says. "I tried to get an arm over into the hole on top of his chute. I thought it might break the fall, but I couldn't get an arm into it, and I slid off the top of his chute."
He crashed down through a pine tree, breaking his neck and his back in three places. His injuries were severe, but Parsons recovered and stayed in the Army. While the accident averted a trip to Korea, he eventually served three years in the Green Berets and finished a distinguished military career in 1987, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
Parsons, director of the Arkansas Christian Educators Association and a member of the Northwest Arkansas Community College board, is not a quitter, and he's not one to let things go out of deference to public opinion. He has been called a "political activist" and "tireless gadfly" by the Arkansas press because of his David-and-Goliath-like efforts to fix government's ills and reprimand politicians such as Bill Clinton. His very public quests are sometimes belittled for their supposed pettiness. (He recently got a schoolteacher reprimanded for putting a school board candidate's campaign material into other teachers' mailboxes.) But he's moved mountains of bureaucracy, too. Last year, thanks to lobbying by Parsons, highway signs declaring Arkansas the home of Bill Clinton were removed or covered. Parsons has fought mightily for teachers, as well. One of his recent successes was to ensure that teachers controlled their own retirement fund, he says.
No matter what the press calls him today--he particularly dislikes the implications of "gadfly"--Parsons says he has set a course for his life that compels him to speak up for what's right. That's because in 1951, Parsons and his family witnessed the aftermath of a killing and said nothing.
About a mile south of Ladonia, beyond a rusty wire fence just off a deeply rutted dirt road, Parsons surveys a dark brown, fallow pasture once known as the Walker farm and Parsons' home. Wearing a navy blue suit and tie he put on for a meeting with the district attorney later that afternoon, Parsons takes a long, hard look at the land his family unsuccessfully tried to farm all those years ago.
"Boy, this has really changed," he says, furrowing his brow as he reconstructs a picture of the farm from his youth. "I'm guessing that our house was right about here. I think our house must have been right about there, and Harrison's house was there, and the barn was there. We used to park our car at the other road and walk up to the house because in the muddy weather like today, you couldn't drive this.
"Our house was right there," he says, pointing. "Right there. It's totally, just completely gone. The house, the barn, and the other houses. It's completely gone."
Parsons' family moved to the farm in 1949, his father leaving a good job as a teacher and football coach in Kansas to tend land owned by his wife's family. The Walkers were longtime Ladonia residents and well-known in the area. The high school football field was initially named for a Walker boy who was the first from the area killed in World War I. Walker Field became Walker-Bishop Field after World War II, when another of Ladonia's sons was killed, this one at Pearl Harbor.
Parsons doesn't have fond memories of his time in Ladonia and not just because of Jones. The Parsons weren't farmers, and three straight years of too much rain for the cotton and too little money made life miserable. Besides that, he was tired of the mud. In the rain, the roads turned to mush, caking wheel wells and choking cars to a stop with thick mud that locals call "black gumbo."
"We had to pick cotton and pull corn. We were poor at the time. We lost everything we had," he says. "We had several years of rain, plus we weren't farmers. We came here and went belly up. We moved down here onto the farm, and our money went pretty quick. Life was hard."
The Parsons befriended Jones and his young family. They let them use the house behind the barn as part of their payment for work on the farm. Parsons' younger brother could often be seen playing with the two younger Jones children. For their friendship, some people in town called the Parsons "nigger lovers."
"We were very friendly with them. They helped us by working in the field and so forth. We helped them by giving them a house and supporting them, too. After slavery, that's kind of the way things worked," Parsons says. "He wasn't an employee necessarily, but in a way, I guess he was. I was called a nigger lover because of this relationship. White persons weren't supposed to do that."
Parsons, once a Ladonia High School quarterback, looks out over downtown Ladonia, pointing out now-crumbling landmarks. Most farmers left Ladonia when Asia took over the cotton market. Cotton isn't even grown around Ladonia anymore, and downtown looks as though it was abandoned about the time Jones died. Once-bustling stores are boarded, and the town is so quiet that in the middle of the day, you can hear the sound of a woman's hard shoes on the pavement from far across the street. She opens the bank door, and the sound clatters across the square as the door slams shut behind her. The bank is one of the only viable businesses left in Ladonia. The other is Delta Funeral Home, the same funeral home that tended to Jones' body 50 years ago.
About a block from the center of this dying town, two elderly black women sit talking. Neither wanted to be identified, but the older of them is a common sight in Ladonia, perched on the wooden porch of her dilapidated early 1900s-era house. She waves to passing cars and smiles. With her deeply wrinkled face, leather moccasins, flowered skirt, and scarf tied gypsy-style over her head, she looks as though she stepped out of another era. She isn't out of place here, though. She makes sense but talks in a rambling, disjointed way about church and the town and the way things were. When asked, she says she thinks Jones was a preacher. The younger and more lucid of the two on the porch is a large woman who wears gold-rimmed glasses. Most of the time, she is hunched over on the porch rail, silently doodling with a pencil on a newspaper ad while the older woman rambles. But she speaks up, talking directly and loudly when she has something to say. She remembers Jones and his family well, she says, interrupting and quickly correcting her friend.
"Harrison Jones is the one got hurt down here. Damn right."
Lemme tell you, white man,
Lemme tell you, honey,
Nigger makes de cotton,
White folks gets de money.
Ef you work all de week
An' work all de time,
White man sho' to bring a
Nigger out behin'.
John A. and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York, 1934)
The stories about Jones' fate start at different places, but they all end in the same way. Everyone who remembers says Jones was dragged from his house by white men and beaten, and injuries from the beating--not tuberculosis--caused his death in the early morning hours of August 1951.
The stories differ when they try to explain why these white men took it upon themselves to beat this man. Some, like Parsons, say Jones was accused of looking at a white woman's legs displayed in a short skirt. In another version, Jones was supposedly fooling around with a married white woman. One story even said he molested a white high school girl. Chances are none of those accounts are true and were fabricated after the fact, maybe as some sort of justification for the murder. The more convincing reason, the reason told by members of Jones' own family and the woman on the porch, seems to be that Jones owed money to a white man in town. While Jones was working for the Parsons family to earn food and a house, the man in town got impatient for his money. Whatever it was, the white men came for Jones just like they had fearlessly come for other blacks in the South's horribly violent past. Parsons' father told him what happened the next day.
"He said four black cars pulled up in front of Harrison's house last night, and the men went in and they drug him out," Parsons recalls.
Parsons heard that the men took Jones with them and then beat him with baseball bats, wagon spokes, or clubs until he was near death. They broke a rib that punctured a lung, relatives say. Parsons said he heard that the men poured a bottle of whiskey on Jones, then left him on the railroad tracks that ran through Ladonia until they were ripped up and sold for scrap iron a couple of years ago. The men hoped the morning train would come through and destroy the evidence, but the train didn't come that night, and Jones was either found or stumbled home.
"Word of mouth went around that they claimed that the train ran over him. They were going to say he was drunk on the tracks," Parsons says. "The black people went and got the body, and they just had a funeral. That was just in-house and private, and they were all afraid to talk about."
Parsons says he vividly remembers his brother saying he was told that the blacks in Ladonia were going to have to "funeralize" Harrison after the beating.
"My father was very angry about it and very upset," he says.
The second woman on the porch knows the story, too, and she gets fervent in its telling.
"Those damn boys got together, and they took him out and beat him. Shit. He wasn't never any damn thing but good. Ever.
"The only thing his wife said was that he owed them some money," she says. "They beat the hell out of him. Sheriff wouldn't do shit. They thought it was all right."
Bogar corroborated the story and laughed at the idea that Jones died from tuberculosis.
"They broke his ribs," he says while sitting on a couch in his modest Fort Worth house, where a television blares a soap opera, and pressed shirts and half of a broken mirror hang from the wall. "They punctured his lungs. He didn't have no tuberculosis."
No newspaper wrote about Jones, and apparently no one investigated. Catherine Jones was threatened with her life if she talked, so she didn't. Bogar says his sister told him what happened and that she was terrified for her children.
Catherine Jones buried her husband and a short time afterward moved what was left of her family out of Ladonia. Soon after they moved, their shack burned down, one family member says. Catherine Jones told her four young children that a car fell on their father, and that's the story she took to the grave after dying of leukemia in 1979.
"She thought if it got out, they would beat up her family and get her and her kids," her clear-speaking, solidly built brother says as he closes his bluish eyes and rubs the top of his mostly bald head with one hand. "She knew I wasn't going to broadcast it. It was for the sake of her kids."
Harrison Wendell Jones pulls his weathered, pea-green 1970 Volkswagen Beetle to the curb. He gets out and stands, leaning over to look at the meter in front of the offices of the Dallas Observer. A short-haul driver of 18-wheel tractor-trailers, the 57-year-old Jones is a large and sturdy man whose doctor says he needs to lay off the greasy foods. Nicely dressed in a long-sleeve polyester black shirt and slacks, the gray-headed Jones extends a hand. Maybe it's nerves, or an affable personality similar to the kind attributed to his father, but Jones doesn't seem a terribly serious man. He laughs with little prompting. Bogar says his nephew's jocular façade is a result of the distance Harrison Jones wants to keep from the reality of his father's fate. Learning what had been hidden from him all these years was a jolt, and Jones wants to put it in its proper place.
"It's too emotional," Bogar says.
Jones doesn't remember much of his father or of Ladonia. He was only 7 years old in 1951, and like his one surviving brother and sister, his memories are faded. (His sister Edith Faye Moore was a 10 at the time and does not remember the events. Her other brother could not be reached.)
"I used to bring back the water. They had a well. That water was cool. That always was cool," Harrison Jones says. "That was in Ladonia."
When Jones was first contacted in Dallas several months ago as part of the Observer's investigation into the veracity of Parsons' story, he seemed to put off the question of his father's death. A falling car killed his father, he said. It sounds like you've got the wrong guy. Must be a different Jones.
"My mother told me that a car fell on him, and he died, and no one ever said anything different," he said then.
Contacted a second time more recently, Jones told a different story, and this time he was more interested. He had talked to Bogar, who said the story about the car falling was fabricated by Catherine Jones to protect him and her other children. The uncle told him that the truth was that his father was beaten to death by white men.
"I said, 'After all these years, why didn't you tell me that?' He said, 'Because your mother said not to. Your mother didn't tell you, and so I didn't want to tell you because we made an agreement,'" he says.
Bogar told Jones that his father was a sharecropper and that because there was no work in the winter, he was forced to borrow money and accumulated debt that became impossible to repay.
"He worked with a guy sharecropping. He said that in the wintertime, you don't have nothing to do, and he wanted to take care of his family, take care of us, so he borrowed money...They know he'd pay them back. I guess they did it all the time. I don't know. They'd borrow money just to make it through the winter.
"I think he was working for one guy to pay him back and hadn't got to them [the killers] yet, and so I guess they must have gotten angry about it," Jones says.
After the beating, the family was threatened, Jones says matter-of-factly. "They said if you tell anybody, we're going to kill your whole family."
Catherine Jones eventually moved to Dallas. She didn't remarry, and she supported her family by working as a housekeeper. She never said a word about the beating.
"I guess she didn't want to tell us because maybe the kids would get into a problem themselves," Jones says. "Laying on her death's bed, she didn't tell us."
In 1997, in an effort to explain why he is such a "gadfly" to an editor, Parsons wrote a guest column called "An Unforgettable Life Experience" for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
It said in part, "As a member of the Northwest Arkansas Community College board of trustees, I know that the college officials and others must wonder why I become so vocal when events of injustice, prejudice, intolerance, denial, or censorship of free speech occur at the college."
He went on to describe the killing of Jones and how it changed the course of his life. Although Parsons had first names and some other minor things wrong in his commentary, an investigation into his allegations proved that substantive parts of what he said appear to be supported in the public record and by those who remember. Among those who corroborate Parsons' tale are surviving members of the Jones' immediate and extended families as well as nonfamily members.
The whites in town who were asked about Jones had no recollection of the story or the man, but why would they? In the first part of the 20th century, whites in the South were notorious for continuing a long tradition of black intimidation through brutality. Most of those crimes were secrets kept by victims' families, who feared more violence against them. Although the numbers are unknown, those who study such things say thousands of blacks were murdered just like Jones and that the crimes were simply buried with the bodies and forgotten.
One of the very few of such crimes that recently came to light--after more than 40 years--was the random killing of a 25-year-old black mother of 10 children in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964. The woman, Johnnie Mae Chappell, was shot to death as she looked for a lost wallet while Jacksonville exploded in racial riots. Chappell, who was miles away from the racial unrest in the city, was killed by whites who said they were disgusted with the riots and were out to get a "nigger" that day, according to the St. Petersburg Times. Only the doggedness of a family member who didn't want her mother remembered as a "nobody" killed on the side of the road finally brought the tragedy to light. Unlike in the Jones case, four white men were indicted for shooting Chappell. One served three years in prison; charges against the others were dropped. Chappell was recently memorialized as a martyr in the civil rights movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit Alabama group that fights racial injustice.
Mark Potok, spokesman for the center in Montgomery, says that determining how many blacks were murdered by whites over the years is impossible because nobody talked. But, he says, no one denies the number of murders is high.
"I've heard it said that down South, when Gideon returns and blows his trumpet, so many bodies will rise from the rivers of the South that you'll be able to walk from one side to the other," Potok says. "That may be slightly overstating the case, but there is no question that there are many, many, many black people who were murdered in the South and whose stories will never be known."
That's what's so unusual about Harrison Ocie Jones, Potok says. It isn't that he may have been murdered by whites who never faced charges or were even questioned. That happened all the time. What's far less common is that anyone has taken an interest in his story. Jones was just a sharecropper who could no more afford "a loaf of bread for his family" than his family could afford a tombstone, one Ladonia resident says. He wasn't part of the kind of high-profile incident that would generate wide interest such as the deaths depicted in the film Mississippi Burning. No one in his family even has a photograph of Jones.
Nor is Jones' death the kind of thing that typically would have fueled one of the very few modern-day investigations of white crimes against blacks in the South's recent past. Victims' families generally just put it behind them and try to forget, and any perpetrators left alive aren't likely to come forward and face jail.
"My guess is that for many of the families, this is far enough in the past that they don't particularly see any utility in pursuing it or have much hope that anything would happen anyway," Potok says. "And, to count on people with some sort of conscience pangs coming forward is a little bit utopian. Obviously, it happens from time to time, but I think most people would rather not tell and avoid jail than ease their conscience and spend the rest of their life behind prison walls."
Parsons waits in the hallway inside the Fannin County Courthouse in Bonham, a place so outdated it would be in black and white if it were televised. It's taken Parsons 50 years to get this far. In all that time, he's not talked to the younger Jones or any other member of the Jones family, and they are not what drew him here, at least not directly. Standing in the hall with a manila folder containing copies of his 4-year-old newspaper commentary in one hand, the fit but graying Parsons is driven by guilt, he says. Guilt and a yearning for closure. Parsons contacted the FBI but couldn't get them interested. So he wrote letters to Myles Porter, Fannin County's district attorney. On this day, Parsons expects to get bureaucratic double talk. He says Porter's secretary made it difficult to set up an appointment because she could never seem to say for sure when Porter would be available. Now, the long wait in the hall seems to confirm his suspicions that he'll be put off again.
After Parsons paces the hall for about 20 minutes, the elusive, boyish 32-year-old district attorney finally appears. Porter is busy--he's working on three capital murder cases, an anomaly in this rural county--but he's not disagreeable. He escorts Parsons into a modest, worn office just beyond the front counter and the ancient-looking wooden mailbox cubbies.
Porter knows about the story from Parsons' letter. He doesn't put Parsons off at all. Porter says in an enthusiastic and sincere way that he's quite interested in the case and that he's already talked to the sheriff about it. Ladonia, he explains, is "kind of off the beaten path" and has no police force. A sheriff's deputy will need to be assigned to the case to find out if anyone in the area has any recollection. With the family's permission, Jones' remains need to be exhumed and inspected, he says.
"We need his body dug up first," he says. "It might not prove anything...There might not be much left, but if we can find him and the family consents to digging him up, that's where we start."
Even if the pauper's grave can be located, the remains may not show anything. But, Porter agrees, broken bones or a cracked skull would certainly lend credence to the story that everyone seems to tell. The meeting doesn't last long. Parsons has what he came for, and his spirits are lifted. The truth may not be far away.
A Fannin County sheriff's deputy is assigned to the case, but nobody from Fannin County has contacted Harrison Wendell Jones yet.
Jones' remains lie in Pleasant Grove Cemetery, a couple of miles outside Ladonia. It's cold at the cemetery on this early morning, when Charles Doyle, an ancient, lanky caretaker, ambles among markers in the cemetery's "colored" section. The white dead are buried on the other side of a chainlink fence a dozen yards away. If embalmed properly by the funeral home and if the 50-year-old corpse can be found, it should be in pretty good shape, one archaeologist says. The caretaker also knows about Jones and, when asked, immediately relates the same story about the killing. But with white clouds of breath, he says he's not sure he can find the grave so fast. A wooden marker would have long rotted away. There's a "Howard Jones," and Harrison is probably buried nearby, but Doyle says he'll need to talk to some real old-timers to be sure.
Back in Dallas, on a downtown sidewalk, Jones says he would agree to exhume his father's remains, and he's sure his family would, too.
"I would like to see the truth to be told at least," he says. "Maybe those guys are dead. If they are dead, they are dead. I'm 57. I imagine they are dead. I don't know...The truth is the truth. Let it come out. Why not?"
He doesn't doubt the story told by his uncle and other older family members, but now that he's heard it, he'd like to find out for sure if it's true. Surprisingly, Jones is not angry or seeking some sort of revenge. If anybody can actually be tied to the killing, Jones doesn't even expect a trial.
"They didn't get away with it. I mean they really didn't let it get out, but you have to live with yourself," he says. "They knew it was wrong. They probably suffered all their lives knowing that it was wrong. Oh yeah, they had to have known. I mean everybody knows right and wrong. You don't go through with life like that."
Parsons is less magnanimous.
"Those men at the Nuremberg trial, the men were getting up in years, and still they are bringing those Nazi war crimes to justice, and some of them are 85 or 90," Parsons says. "I do think there needs to be some sort of punishment for it; I don't think we should ever let things go. There needs to be some closure brought to it. For all of us who have had this on our minds for 50 years.
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"I think they have a right to know what happened to their father. What is the truth? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe a car did fall on him. Whatever it is, I think we have a right to know."
The younger woman on the porch, who lived her whole life in Fannin County, maintains that her faith is in a power higher than local authorities.
"I was young at that time...I was maybe a little older than they was, but they just thought this is just the way that you do it. You just beat 'em, hang 'em up, and don't say nothing about it," she says. "But now, see, everything is turned back. God's going to really fix this thing, baby."
Fanny Lou Hamer's quote and the folk song lyrics were taken from Trouble in Mind by Leon F. Litwack.