One of the most interesting days of my vacation, now coming to an end, was spent in the environs of Philadelphia, Mississippi: the scene of an infamous triple-murder that had national implications, yet which, I think, is fading from memory almost 50 years later.
When I decided to take a trip down to Mississippi--a state I'd never visited--I also decided I would see what of Mississippi history I could experience while there. One of the key episodes of our nation's history, the achievement of civil rights for non-white citizens, played out in a powerful and often bloody way in this state. And the scene of one of those dark chapters was Neshoba County, the seat of which is Philadelphia.
Here three young men, part of the "Freedom Riders" effort in the mid-60s to bring about voter registration and participation for black citizens, were murdered on June night in 1964. I thought it would be a suitable tribute to these men, and their sacrifice for justice, to trace the path they took that fateful day and night.
On June 21, 1964, they drove up to Philadelphia from Meridian to visit the Mount Zion Baptist Church, a black congregation located east of town. They had been their on Memorial Day as part of their voter-registration efforts; and they came back when they found out the church had been torched. The site of the church was where I picked up the trail.
The road up to the church is a country road becoming suburban; and had sharp contrasts between very poor structures, along with others more aptly associated with "working class" or "middle class."
The church has been rebuilt; according to an inscription-stone by the front door, the church not only had to be rebuilt in 1965--after being destroyed by Klansmen the year before--it also had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1971. I haven't learned the cause of that fire, but imagine losing your church twice in a decade? The church there now is a simple brick building, and from outside (no one was around so I didn't even try to enter) it looked to have room both for services and for fellowship. It also had a graveyard beside it. In front is a large gravestone, inscribing "in loving memory" of the three slain civil rights activists. A state-provided marker also stands near the road.
According to the reports I read, the three young men then drove back to town; and shortly after entering the city limits, they were pulled over, around 3 in the afternoon, allegedly for not slowing down. They were taken to the city jail at 422 Myrtle Street. That's where I drove next.
The GPS--not always accurate--took me to a narrow street, just a block from the county courthouse, but there was no sign of a jail; just a nondescript building that might have been a warehouse or the back of a retail business. I drove back and forth, nothing looked like a jail. One of the accounts I read said the jail was "tiny," so it wouldn't surprise me if this had been used as a jail then, and not now.
Before leaving, the three men had told associates in Meridian that if they weren't back by 4 pm, to start looking for them. Whoever answered the phone at the Neshoba County Courthouse denied seeing the men.
They were released around ten--in the intervening time, the Klan had been alerted and a lynch mob had formed. When the young men drove south out of town, several cars trailed them. The account on Wikipedia mentions the men passing by a "Pilgrim Store" but not stopping, due to a sheriff's car being parked there.
As I drove the same route, about a mile or two out of town I saw broken down old gas station on the left side. Was that the Pilgrim Store? I stopped to look around; but as there was a residential house right behind--it looked like the empty store sat on the same property--I thought my snooping may not be welcome. I drove on, too.
From the accounts I read, I'm still fuzzy on just what point this drive became a chase, but apparently the rest of the mob was parked at the store, so the chase probably began right there. As I drove easily down Highway 19 on a sunny afternoon, I tried to imagine being those three men being pursued down a dark road with few houses on either side.
The activists turned off 19 to the road toward Union, Mississippi, and this is where the lynch mob caught them. As I followed their path, I tried to guess where that might have been. My guess was, not too far from the main highway, but that's just a guess.
While I was following this trail, I kept pulling over, both to take in the scene, but also to consult my iPad, for the details of what happened next. To be honest, even though almost 50 years had passed, and there was nothing remarkable about anything I was doing, I found myself looking over my shoulder a lot. Would someone come out and ask why I was there? Would my movements seem suspicious? I was getting a little spooked by it.
From here, the mob drove the men back up Highway 19 to "Rock Cut Road." When I searched the map, I couldn't find that road. Digging further, I discovered a story online that said the name wasn't used anymore (I wonder why?), now it was simply County Road 515. I also discovered that a state marker had been placed at the sight--where the men were killed.
So it seemed the next stop would be easier to find. And finding 515 was no problem, I'd noted it coming down. Now I drove back, turned onto 515, and--based on the accounts I read--expected to see a marker fairly quickly.
But no. I drove and drove, no marker. Eventually I ran out of 515 and pulled over to look at the stories I'd bookmarked on my iPad for clues; I can't find the stories now, but when I looked closely, they indicated the spot should be right where another road intersected. I drove back there. The road there, and an adjacent road, were being worked on, so my guess is the marker had been taken down. Then I thought, if they took down a marker, the workers would probably have marked the correct spot with a stake or something; there were lots of stakes, and nothing special about any of them.
As far as I could tell, this was where they died that night. So I got out of my car, and said some prayers for the men. Then I drove on.
The next, and last stop was the place where the bodies were disposed of. This would be trickier, because they'd been buried in an earthen dam on private property. There wouldn't be any marker, and there was almost no way I could get to the spot. According to the stories I read, the man who owned the farm where the bodies were buried was tried on federal charges in the 60s (the state wouldn't bring charged at the time), and along with a lot of others, not convicted; and he was never tried, as one of the principals was--and convicted--by the state of Mississippi in 2005. What's more, from what I read, still living in the area, along with family. So it occurred to me snooping around that man's farm might be a little risky.
As I drove back through town--I didn't try to go the back roads which the killers had taken, especially since I didn't know their route--I saw the "visitors center" at the old train depot, and stopped to see what attention this episode rated there. Think about it: if the biggest mark your small town made in national history was this bloody event, would you want to call attention to it? Especially if there were a lot of folks around who might not be so proud of the role they or their kin played in the story? (I might add here that while looking for the site of the murders, I passed a house with the same name as one of the killers in big letters on the mailbox. It sure made me jump.)
Well, this visit was a nice break in the action. The old train station was pretty empty, just a few items on the walls, a kiosk with touristy pamphlets, and an old floor scale that made a funny click every time I walked past it--only after the third or fourth time did I realize I was stepping on the scale.
A young man, about 17 I guessed, was sort of dozing behind the counter when I walked in. He seemed happy to have someone actually, well, visiting the visitors center. When he learned I wasn't "from around here," but was from Cincinnati (!) he prodded me to sign the book. I did. I asked a few general questions while I poked around. He got up and showed me a few things, adding that "trains still go through here, and the whole building just shakes when they do!"
I asked him about the murders. He knew about them, and pointed to a pamphlet. (Stupidly, I left it behind at a hotel I stayed at that night.) I observed that there must be folks around who remembered it, and he said, oh yes, his grandfather had been part of the "patrol" back then. I didn't ask too many questions, but it seemed like the whole thing was ancient history to the boy. Should I mention he was white? Does that matter? I'll let you mull that question.
About this time, his friend showed up; and while I can't recall how the subject came up, we were soon talking about a good place for lunch. "Oh you should go to Peggy's," he said. Today was "chicken day." Fried chicken? "Oh yes"--and he said it was good. "Everyone goes there, and it runs on an honor system"; you get your food and you just leave your money.
Seeing he was eager to get lunch, and I wanted to finish my pilgrimage, I thanked him and after we all left, I decided a to-go lunch from Peggy's sounded like a good idea. It was a small town, and the fellow had given me directions how to get there--it was less than a mile away ("you could walk there but you'd be all sweaty")--yet I didn't find it right away. That's because I expected a normal sort of store-front; instead, Peggy's was a house, with no obvious sign it was a restaurant, other than an awning out front saying "Peggy's" and cars parked every which way in the front. So I parked and followed an elegantly dressed woman, who got out of her car about the same time, up onto the front porch.
The two boys got there ahead of me, at a table right by the door. I nodded to them and followed the lady in. The rooms were crowded with tables; there were no servers. Instead, you just went to a food line--set up on a small table that blocked the near end of a narrow hallway--and got your lunch. There was no menu: just that day's offerings. Sure enough, it was fried chicken, plus salad, "butter beans," potato salad, rice, peas, and what turned out to be banana pudding.
But no apparent way to do a take-out. When I caught the attention of a lady who seemed to work there and explained what I want, she directed me around through one of the rooms, and said, "go through there, and walk all the way back." She'd sent me through the kitchen!--already fairly crowded with two or three folks fixing food and filling orders, but they seemed used to folks doing as I was doing. I saw a couple of people standing just inside the back door, in a cramped entry, and concluded that was the line. "Excuse me," one of the workers said to me--more than once--trying to get from the kitchen to a couple of rooms behind me, where items were stored and I think dishes were washed.
As I waited, one young fellow showed up who was expected, and about six or eight orders were placed in his hands. He paid with a check, as did someone else ahead of me. While waiting, I asked one of the fellows which one of the ladies was Peggy. He didn't know, and if any of the workers overheard me, they didn't say. I got my turn, and ordered a lunch, "no lima beans please," and asked for a diet Coke. "We have iced tea." I asked for unsweet. (I love me some Southern sweet tea, but there's enough of me for now, especially after several trips to the Gulfport Krispy Kreme.) Lunch was $8, tax included.
Well, time to finish my search. I drove west out of town, looking first for the Neshoba County Fairgrounds, because all the accounts I read said the farm owned by Olen Burrage Sr. was "just south of" or "a mile or two beyond" there. I figured I could eat my lunch there, while I studied the information I had for any other clues. Instead, I had trouble finding the fairgrounds, so I pulled over at a Baptist church, found a shady spot at the other end of the property, and had my lunch. A woman was coming and going to her car in front of the church, and surely she noticed me, but never bothered me.
After lunch (sorry Visitor Center guy, but the food was good, but not great!), I went looking again for the fairgrounds; and after being misled by the iPad GPS, I found it just south of the church where I had been. Now I hunted for the farm, hoping--if not for a mailbox labeled "Burrage," then at least some other sign. The stories said the man had a large farm and was well off. One of the stories suggested it ought to be down the Highway 21 I was on; another said that the actual site of the dam, used for the burial, was closer to Highway 19, a couple miles to the east. There--according to the story I read, I'd find a "swampy area" and an "old metal gate." I found a metal gate, but no area seemed particularly swampy. Here the trail ran cold.
Once more I pulled out my iPad. This time, I found more items online referring to the Burrage farm, still in business, co-owned by "Sr." and "Jr."--but, tantalizingly, no street address, just P.O. boxes. I can imagine when you are widely identified as someone who ought to have been tried for murder--the Clarion-Ledger in the state capital had done a fair number of stories about the man over the years--you don't like giving out your address.
Anyway, as I was reading these stories on my iPad, clearly close to the farm but not sure how close--I finally found a story that said Mr. Olen Burrage Sr. had gone to his eternal reward just two months ago. So by now, he has faced the highest Judge and the matter is decided.
There the trail ended; and it was time to start making my way toward home.
Before I close this post, a few odds and ends. When I drove down Highway 19, recalling the night the three men were being hunted, I noticed a sign designating this the Chaney, Goodman, Schwermer Memorial Highway. When I visited the Mt. Zion Church, across the way was a sign promising a "community center/civil rights museum" in an empty, untouched lot. When I visited Peggy's, I noticed the workers were mostly white, but one black woman working alongside. And as I poked around today online for some stories to verify some of the details I'd recalled, I noticed something: the city of Philadelphia, Mississippi elected it's first African American mayor in May 2009.