Death in the Delta

Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret

Molly Walling
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Death in the Delta
    Book Description:

    Growing up, Molly Walling could not fathom the source of the dark and intense discomfort in her family home. Then in 2006 she discovered her father's complicity in the murder of two black men on December 12, 1946, in Anguilla, deep in the Mississippi Delta.Death in the Deltatells the story of one woman's search for the truth behind a closely held, sixty-year old family secret. Though the author's mother and father decided that they would protect their three children from that past, its effect was profound. When the story of a fatal shoot-out surfaced, apprehension turned into a devouring need to know.

    Each of Walling's trips from North Carolina to the Delta brought unsettling and unexpected clues. After a hearing before an all-white grand jury, her father's case was not prosecuted. Indeed, it appeared as if the incident never occurred, and he resumed his life as a small-town newspaper editor. Yet family members of one of the victims tell her their stories. A ninety-three-year-old black historian and witness gives context and advice. A county attorney suggests her family's history of commingling with black women was at the heart of the deadly confrontation. Firsthand the author recognizes how privilege, entitlement, and racial bias in a wealthy, landed southern family resulted in a deadly abuse of power followed by a stifling, decades-long cover up.

    Death in the Deltais a deeply personal account of a quest to confront a terrible legacy. Against the advice and warnings of family, Walling exposes her father's guilty agency in the deaths of Simon Toombs and David Jones. She also exposes his gift as a writer and creative thinker. The author, grappling with wrenching issues of family and honor, was long conflicted about making this story public. But her mission became one of hope that confronting the truth might somehow move others toward healing and reconciliation.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-615-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Primary and Secondary Players
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-2)

    Two stories are imbedded in this narrative. The first tale is a deeply held, sixty-year family secret that came to light in 2006, and involved the murder of two black men in the Mississippi Delta after World War II. The perpetrator was, allegedly, my father. At first, I was confused and overwhelmed by the weightiness of the event. My only recourse was to take in the family version of the story and pursue a larger truth, one that would reveal hidden causes and consequences. All of the men directly involved, black and white, were dead. My aunts and close family...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Out of the Blue
    (pp. 3-6)

    The phone rang. It was my brother, Jay, calling from the road, driving from our uncle Tom’s funeral in the Florida Panhandle home to Asheville. He had something startling to tell me. It could have been anything, if it had to do with our family—some oddity, strangeness, eccentricity.

    “Hey. How was the funeral? Who did you see?”

    He bypassed the usual “catch me up on the family” details and plunged headfirst into the thing that was on his mind. “Molly, you’re not gonna believe what I heard about Dad.” “What?” The mere mention of my father sent the muscles...

  6. CHAPTER TWO A Secret Will Out
    (pp. 7-12)

    I asked myself, “Who was my father?” if what they tell me now is true.

    July 18, 1943, North Africa, World War II

    From Dad, age twenty, to the family in Anguilla, Mississippi:

    Dearest Family,

    How my thoughts turn to home and loved ones this beautiful Sunday morning. It’s now 20 minutes to 10 and I can see you all bustling around getting dressed for church. “Aunt Mat” is probably rushing around the kitchen, clearing breakfast dishes off the glass top table on the side porch, and fuming because she’s going to be late again for church. Bub and Bill...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Scion
    (pp. 13-22)

    Before the heat under a pot of water reaches 212 degrees, the liquid becomes vexed, and it roils around the edges while bubbles rise off the bottom and gain momentum. Mississippi and other southern states began to simmer under new pressures that arose between World War II andBrown v. Board of Educationin 1954. Even before this pre–civil rights period, the efforts of “rugged individualism” had created a neoplantation system in which each unit was self-contained and ruled at the whim of the owner. In Anguilla, my family at one time owned twenty-five hundred acres and was one...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR My Mother’s Version
    (pp. 23-32)

    While I prepared to make my first return visit to Mississippi since my grandmother died in 1984, my focus shifted once again to the past. I became engrossed in reconstructing my parents’ early married years in Mississippi. After the war, Dad returned to the Delta to step into his father’s farming boots. But he was not cut out to be a farmer. Dad was a thinker who delighted in language and ideas. He balked at the family business, borrowed money from Mamaw and the bank and bought theDeer Creek Pilot, a weekly newspaper serving three counties. His first issue...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The New Mississippi
    (pp. 33-50)

    It was a beautiful spring in Asheville in May, two months after Uncle Tom died, as I prepared to go to Mississippi and find out the real story of the shoot-out. When I moved here in 2001, I bought a new arts and crafts–style bungalow that fit with the art deco architecture of the city. It was situated on a hillside facing south toward mountains. From the front porch rockers I could sit and stare into forested slopes. Often Jay came over for dinner, and we sat outside way past dusk until we were starving for real food, not...

  10. CHAPTER SIX What King Evans Told Me
    (pp. 51-60)

    I could hardly wait to get back to Asheville so I could call the mayor from the quiet of my home. But driving the 650 miles across the South with Jay was not going to be quick or direct. Only an hour out of Anguilla, he wanted to stop in Yazoo City to visit the Willie Morris exhibit at the local museum. I remembered one of Dad’s typed reminiscences. He posted it to Laura, Jay, and me.

    The following is occasioned by a Christmas 1990 gift from my son, Jay Fields, Jr., ofFaulkner’s Mississippi, with text by Willie Morris,...

    (pp. 61-77)

    Before venturing back to Mississippi, I vacillated between thinking about Dad the writer and Dad the gunslinger. One thing was for certain: he was bigger than life. In fact, my mother quietly gave Dad the nickname “Big,” and used it when he was out of earshot. I doubt she knew that Dad weighed eleven pounds when he was born or that he was allowed to breast feed until he was four. Before she died, Mamaw told me that he was walking and talking when he quit. I still shudder at that thought.

    As a younger man, he developed a larger...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Undertow
    (pp. 78-96)

    For as long as I can remember, my father drank. When we were young children in Knoxville, he often displayed a youthful vibrancy. The mood changes that occurred in him when he had consumed too much slipped by me without much notice. What did register was the way his habit affected my mother’s mood. She was also a drinker who enjoyed her evening snort, but it was different. Her unhappiness was not limited to the time of day. Now, as I considered the family secret and how it had smoldered in a corner of their minds, I looked more intently...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Revelations
    (pp. 97-102)

    I set the trip odometer at zero, locked my doors, and positioned the map of Mississippi on the passenger seat. I decided to take the southern route through Atlanta, but I only made it into South Carolina before stopping at a busy new gas station where I bought a pack of cigarettes, the first in a number of years. I would deal with the guilt later; smoking would ease the tension and make the miles go by faster.

    I was relieved that Jay was not along on this trip. He was swept up in caring for his new girlfriend who...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Yet Another Version
    (pp. 103-112)

    Oh, my God.For the second time that day, my body registered new information with a shudder, my stomach tightening into a hard knot. My grandfather, whom I never knew, seemed to have been adored by his wife and children, though they rarely spoke of him. Had he cheated on my grandmother? Had he taken a black woman as his lover?

    Pat continued, “It seems that your grandfather deeded land on the north side of Ashland Plantation to Simon. Your dad and his brothers went to the Pan Am station to kill him. It had nothing to do with alcohol.”...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Silencing of a Community
    (pp. 113-122)

    Both black people and white people in the Deep South were so fearful of each other, so intimidated by the potential for power struggles to erupt into violence, that the safety they found in their own numbers contributed to a hardened code of silence. My family began to suppress the truth the moment it became known. Mr. Evans told me that the black community shut down for days, fearful to mention the shootings to one another. Even on the plantations, the races may have worked side by side and interacted freely in the course of a day’s work, but they...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Obstacles
    (pp. 123-132)

    I’d spent the fall studying the family tree, sifting through photographs, poring over my notes. I could accept, intellectually, that Dad walked into a quagmire when he and Mom moved to the Delta after the war. He encountered opposition at the Pan Am that night, physical aggression that sparked into a fistfight and David Jones’s drawing his pistol—all of which he may have thought he could handle sanely and maturely, but if he drew a gun and began to fire it, some stress point in him must have been triggered. Or instinct took over. When that happened, the aftereffects...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Breakdown
    (pp. 133-145)

    When I spoke to Charles Weissinger, the attorney in Rolling Fork, he suggested that Fielding Wright might have represented my father before the grand jury. In 1939, Wright left his law firm to become governor of Mississippi and moved to Vicksburg. After the shootings, Dad was immersed in newspaper work. He was chairman of the Press-Radio Committee of the Delta Council, wrote articles forSouth Magazineand several major southern newspapers. He covered the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 1947 for theVicksburg Post-Heraldand became a member of Fielding Wright’s staff. Charles thought Wright’s papers might still be...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Digging Deeper
    (pp. 146-156)

    Rose. I could not stop thinking about the lovely woman sitting on her daughter’s sofa weeping softly as her sister recounted the tragedy of their uncle Simon’s death. She appeared to be reconnecting with the loss that happened when she was a child, still experiencing the shock and grief of her parents and grandparents, the fury that could not be tamped down, the uncertainty of what would happen next—would there be justice? Later, when I got to know her better, I realized that some of those tears were for me. Rose had a deep, intuitive sense of the disappointment,...

    (pp. 157-163)

    After months of being stymied, I sat with the unresolved story until I felt a nudge to revisit a primary source, Aunt Sis. Maybe time had softened her resolve to keep the secret to herself. I wrote her a letter setting out my findings and asked if she would talk with me again. On Sunday, February 20, she called after writing out her response to my letter.

    She started the conversation by giving me some context for the time in which the shootings occurred.

    “You have to remember that Tom and Jay were barely home from World War II and...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Dad’s Final Days
    (pp. 164-176)

    Mid-August 2000, Uncle Tom called to tell me that Dad was in the De Funiak Springs hospital in Florida.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked—as if I didn’t already know that too much alcohol for too many years was high on the list.

    “He has congestive heart failure and a massive aortic aneurism. I had a real hard time getting him to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to give up his cigarettes. Finally, when we got there, I asked Dr. Stewart to put a nicotine patch on him and give him whatever it would take to keep him...

    (pp. 177-193)

    When I moved to Asheville in 2001 and contemplated how ill prepared I was to deal with grief, to care for the terminally ill, I signed up for hospice training. A year later I was recruited as a trainer to set up programs in faith communities. My job involved the organization of care teams who would provide much-needed assistance to families of the dying. Before long, I found myself in a situation that brought me face to face with unresolved issues.

    A retired clergyman, lean, stooped, balding, with kind eyes and a Connecticut accent, asked me to visit the Church...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Springtime in Mississippi
    (pp. 194-201)

    I made phone call after phone call to forensic labs in Mississippi after my friend, a district attorney in Tennessee, suggested that the scene where Simon and David were shot could still yield valuable information. She told me that a retired specialist might be available and less costly to hire. Every place I tried offered to have someone call me back but no one did.

    Meanwhile, I worked to find out who currently owned the old Pan Am station. Finally, Mayor Richardson said—with certainty—that if I’d come down there, he would get me into the building. After our...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN Reasonable Doubt
    (pp. 202-208)

    Somehow the materials I photocopied at the Rolling Fork library shuffled themselves into a tall stack of papers on my desk. When I ran across them again, I found the June 1948 issue of theStaple Cotton Review. It interested me because on the front page was a copy of Governor Fielding Wright’s radio address to the “Negroes of Mississippi.” His speech was aired eighteen months after the shooting in Anguilla. He was a Sharkey County native and a lawyer, who might have represented my father. But the reason this article jumped out of the library files and into my...

    (pp. 209-216)

    I wanted to broach the subject with Mom yet again, but conversations in the past had turned to bitterness, anger, and mutual defenses. Why should I go through that again? Why should I subject her to painful memories? But it had been many months since we talked about the killings. During that time, something shifted. She was more open to me, eager to hear about my life. At eighty-six, she had become settled in the town where my sister lived. She had made many new friends. The last waves of her life were flowing back out into the larger mass...

  25. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 217-218)
  26. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 219-220)