Mississippi Snapshots

This is the old country-church cemetery—near the Mississippi town of Pachuta—where I think Willie McGee was buried after his execution on May 8, 1951. But many of the graves here are unmarked, and I couldn't find a burial plot with his name on it.

The main drag in Pachuta, a small town in south-central Mississippi. Willie McGee was born in this part of the state in 1914; his parents later moved south to the growing city of Laurel.

Evelyn Smith McDowell, my first (and still favorite) interview subject in Laurel, the town where the McGee case played out between 1945 and 1951. Evelyn commandeered me and my rental car for the better part of a day, in a quest for what she excitedly called “people who might know something!” Sadly, she died roughly a year after I met her.

W.O. "Chet" Dillard, a former Laurel prosecutor who came to town long after the McGee case ended (so he wasn't involved). In an episode that was typical of my encounters with people in Mississippi, Dillard dropped everything one day to show me around Laurel. Here, he's giving me a grand tour of the old Laurel jail.

An old cell door inside the jail.

Inside the Jones County Courthouse. This stairwell leads up to the second-floor courtroom.

Judge F. Burkitt Collins, who presided over all three of McGee’s circuit-court trials.

Interior of the courtroom, facing the north-side windows.

This is what’s left of an old corridor that connected the Laurel jail to the Jones County Courthouse. Willie McGee’s last walk would have taken him through here.

Old "colored" marriage records in the Jones County Courthouse.

Downtown Laurel. Lots of boarded-up buildings, but some revival efforts seem to be underway.

Another shot of downtown Laurel.

A house in the neighborhood where Willie McGee’s mother, Bessie, lived at the time of his arrest. Her house is no longer standing.

Gus DeLoach, a WW II veteran who went to the Pete Christian funeral home for a private viewing of Willie McGee's body after the electrocution. Mr. DeLoach, who died not long ago, was a great person with a wise perspective on all the social changes he'd seen during his life.

The Hinds County Courthouse, which once housed a “mob-proof jail” on its upper floors. McGee was brought here after his arrest in 1945 and taken back to Laurel for trials. He spent more than five years up there.

Sign for the King Edward Hotel, which was called the Edwards during the McGee years. It's been renovated since I took this picture several years ago.

Farish Street, downtown Jackson. Back in the days of strict segregation, this was the central business area for the African-American community. Ongoing efforts to revive it—as a Beale Street-like party strip, which isn’t really what it was about—keep stalling.

A house in the Farish Street neighborhood, where Rosalee McGee lived in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Mississippi state capitol building. In July of 1950, delegates sent by the Civil Rights Congress came here to plead for McGee’s life before Governor Fielding Wright. No sale, of course. Violence ensued, with beatings of two CRC people and a journalist from New York.

Entrance to Rowan Oak, home of William Faulkner. In March of 1951, Jessica Mitford and three other feisty female lefties cold-called Faulkner and got him to sign a press release, in which he said McGee was probably innocent and should be freed. All hell broke loose when that hit newspapers.

Library inside Rowan Oak. Faulkner built the IKEA-like bookshelves.

Katharine Carr Esters, a central Mississippi historian and writer who let me interview her the same day she came home from getting a serious emergency medical procedure. (Old school.) Katharine tried to help me find information about Rosalee McGee, who was from the same part of the state.

Entrance to Katharine’s backyard “mini-lakes,” where you can catch fish by the pound.

Mississippi's portable electric chair, now on display in the lobby of a police training facility near Jackson. The framed article is a Look magazine story about two AWOL soldiers who'd committed murder and were executed on the same day.

Bizarre-looking skull piece from the old chair.

4 responses to “Mississippi Snapshots

  1. Dwyn Mounger

    Thank you so much! Am a native-born Missisippi white retired Presbyterian (U.S.A.) minister who just barely remembers the Willie McGee case. The truth will out. Faulkner said it well: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” The Deep South (white & black) seems to be coming to terms with its past better than much of the rest of the U.S.A. It never would have, had not LBJ signed the Civil Rights Bill, declaring at the same time, “I’m consigning the South [he meant the white South] to the Republican Party for the next 50 years. Southern Repubs. continue the legacy of racism, however they may protest this charge, and however unconscious they may be that they are doing so.

    • Thank you so much for writing. It’s great to hear from people like you who have a connection to the state. I was originally from Jackson. Where were you from?

  2. You are a true blessing

  3. Alex, have just finished reading DEVIL’S SANCTUARY: AN EYEWITNESS HISTORY OF MISSISSIPPI HATE CRIMES, by my fellow native Mississippians Alex A. Alston, Jr., and James L. Dickerson. Although the book doesn’t mention Willie McGee, since the book deals with the 1954 Brown vs. Bd. of Ed. and the decades after. But it does deal extensively with both J. Edger Hoover’s and the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission’s obsessional but erroneous conviction that the Communists, somehow, were behind the entire civil rights movement and all efforts at desegregation and equal rights for African-Americans. I myself have so often wondered why any liberal or even “moderate” white Mississippian, such as my late father (like me, a Presbyterian, U.S.A., minister, but one who was fired and nearly driven out of the state because of his stand for justice), could be so easily branded a Marxist or Communist sympathizer (instead of one whose convictions sprang from profound Judaeo-Christian values). As I’ve written you earlier, your moving account of how Bella Abzug and other early Marxists championed McGee, while the largely middle-class black NAACP shunned him for that very reason, clears things up for me. This does not excuse by any means the racism or especially the lynchings, assassinations, and other terrorism that so prevailed then. And yet it does show how even people of deep religious convictions could, however erroneously, see themselves as striving against the atheistic, revolutionary “enemy” by their violent words and deeds
    I got to know Alex Alston and his son Shelton (also a Jackson attorney) so well when I served as interim pastor of the very progressive Fondren Presbyterian Church, Jackson, during 2008. I do wish that you yourself would return to Jackson to talk extensively with Alex and his friends (so many of them, brave veterans in the campaign to change Mississippi in those days), and pursue this matter further–in another fine book.
    Incidentally, are you related to the one for whom the Alexander Heard Library of Vanderbilt U. is named?
    Thank you again. Cordially, Dwyn M. Mounger, retired now in Knoxville, TN

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