The first wave of reaction to my new blog is in, and the message is clear: Enough already about you and your book. We want to hear more about Evelyn Smith McDowell. (See “Mississippi Snapshots,” 3rd picture from the top.)
Yeah, well … I knew this was coming. I think we all did. Evelyn was awesome, and I still lament that I didn’t get to hang out with her more during my various trips to Mississippi. By the time I got back there a second time, she had passed away.
I met her thanks to another great person I interviewed during my first trip to Laurel, way back in May 2005: Cleveland Payne, an African-American historian and novelist who knows as much as anybody about the lore of the town. We talked a while in his living room, and, naturally, I asked him if he knew of anybody else I could speak with, since at that time I was still at Square Zero, unsure of what I was even doing down there.
Payne told me about Evelyn, said he thought she might have been distantly related to Willie McGee, dialed her number, and started chuckling as he handed me the receiver, explaining that she was “a character.” I was picking up on that, since I could already hear a sort of beepy-screamy thing coming through the earpiece: “TELL THAT MAN TO GET OVER HERE!”
I went over to her apartment building the next morning and we set up shop on her sun-blasted back porch, where she delivered a long debriefing about her knowledge of the McGee case—all of which is fully recounted in my book.
What isn’t in there is what we did the rest of the day, which broke into two parts: 1) Us driving around in my little seed-pod-shaped rental, with Evelyn yelling directions as we looked for other people who might know something about Willie McGee. And 2) Us driving around to geographical spots in town associated with her younger days as an ass-kicker.
She volunteered the stirring details of her old juvenile-delinquency war stories, so I’m not “telling on her,” as she would have put it. There was, for starters, a spot on some railroad tracks, where (as a schoolgirl) she set herself up as a dues-collecting troll who took change from other kids who had to come that way to get where they were going.
Then there was the site—foundation-only when I saw it—of an old drive-up burger place. Evelyn said she had a brother who used to work there in the kitchen, and that a white female car-hop had tried to come on to him. This happened sometime in the mid-fifties, which meant her brother could have gotten in serious trouble if, say, the carhop had decided to point a finger and say he’d come on to her. Evelyn claimed—with utmost seriousness—that she hid in “some weeds” one night and jumped the car-hop, cutting her badly enough with a butcher knife that Evelyn had to be sent out of town for months (living with relatives in another part of the state) to protect her from the law.
I never know what to make of stories like that, so I just asked repetitive non-questions, like some new arrival from Dorkland. “Really? You just cut her up with a knife, huh?”
“Uh, huh. Messing with my brother.”
The last place we drove by was (I think) a laundromat that used to be a sit-down burger joint. Evelyn said she was part of a group of black teenagers and young adults who rampaged the place in the late 1960s, the riot supposedly starting because they were tired of being forced to order their food from a Jim Crow-style side window.
“You guys wrecked the place over that?”
“Yeah! Tore that shit up.”
“So you just up and …” Etc.
Obviously, stories like that aren’t easy to check, especially since I didn’t have an exact date. But … it happened. After the trip, I spent some time online looking around randomly in the files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state-sponsored intelligence-gathering organization that was active throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. One field agent’s report started with this.