The Morris family Christmas nightmare -- 1964
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, December 20th, 2007 @ 8:29 am
Rosa Williams is coming home for Christmas next week.
Her last visit to Ferriday was 20 years ago for the funeral of her aunt, Helen Branch Wimberly, known by everyone as Auntie Polly. She was the woman who reared Rosa.
During the Christmas season 43 years ago, on the morning of December 10, 1964, Rosa's friend Ernestine Hawkins knocked on Auntie Polly's door at 601 South Fifth Street, near the Mercy Seat Baptist Church.
Ernestine brought bad tidings. Frank Morris' shoe shop on 415 Fourth Street (Hwy. 84) had been set on fire during the night and Morris was in critical condition at the Concordia Parish Hospital in Ferriday.
Everyone knew immediately that either the Ku Klux Klan or a handful of men who wore badges were the likely culprits, or certainly knew who set Morris' shoe shop on fire. A few other shadowy men involved in gambling and prostitution were also suspected.
FBI and other documents point to this bunch.
This circle comprised a small terrorist organization, loosely formed but deadly. These bullies threw fire bombs at the homes of old widow women. They beat people. Occasionally, they killed.
As fear gripped the black community in Ferriday, FBI agents moved into town to investigate the arson of Frank's Shoe Service. Six months earlier, Vidalia Shamrock porter Joseph Edwards went missing. His 1958 Buick was found abandoned on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. He hasn't been seen since.
"I can remember when the FBI people came to the house," said Rosa. She was 12 then, but recalled that the adults told the agents little.
"Everyone was afraid," said Rosa.
FBI documents confirmed Rosa's memory. Witnesses steadfastly refused to talk because they feared for their lives and most said they "would not testify in court."
So deep was the fear that when the Burlington County, New Jersey, branch of the NAACP asked for the help of two high-ranking state officials -- U.S. Sens. Clifford Case and Harrison A. Williams -- the chapter requested confidentiality "to avoid further reprisal against other relatives" of Morris. Williams asked the Justice Department to provide him with a report on Morris' case.
A day or so after the arson, Rosa's mother -- Clementine Morris of Las Vegas -- arrived in Ferriday. She was Frank Morris' daughter.
Clementine visited her father at the hospital and returned to Auntie Polly's house to tell her about his condition.
Rosa, listening from another room, heard her mother say: "He's in bad shape."
The weather was cold and Christmas day was nearing.
Though there was gloom in the homes of Morris' loved ones and friends, in much of Concordia, the joy of Christmas was everywhere.
There was a piano recital at the New Era Baptist Church.
The Ferriday and Ridgecrest Garden clubs announced their Christmas lighting and outdoor decoration contests.
A concert by the Ferriday bands -- beginners, junior high and high school -- and the girls' chorus was slated.
The 14th annual Christmas display at International Paper Company in Natchez was underway.
Elvis Presley was starring in "Roustabout" at the Arcade Theatre.
In Room 101 at the Concordia Parish Hospital, FBI agents interviewed Frank Morris four times over four days. Ministers left his bedside shaking their heads at this man's suffering.
In the hours prior to the fire, Morris told his 11-year-old grandson Poncho to spend the night in the small house behind the shoe shop. Living there was Snoot Griffing, Morris' only full-time employee. Apparently, Morris feared there might be trouble that night.
Sometime after midnight on December 10, 1964, Poncho and Snoot heard a commotion and ran onto the front porch of the small house. An image permanently marked the event in Poncho's memory. This little boy saw his Papa Frank emerge from the back door of the shoe shop in flames.
As Morris stumbled and fell to the ground, he told Snoot to get his grandson to safety. Snoot grabbed the child and ran, while Morris stumbled to the Billups station nearby. The attendant there wondered if what he was seeing was real. Morris was naked, his body scarred and bleeding. Only the neck band of his t-shirt and the waistband of his underwear survived the flames.
For the next four days Morris suffered pain of a physical and emotional nature almost unspeakable. Fire can cause three degrees of damage to the human body and Morris suffered all three.
The most damaging, third degree burns, are actually painless. That's because this destroys muscles, nerves and bone.
But the first and second degree burns opened Morris' flesh and exposed injured nerve endings, but did not destroy them. The pain from these burns was horrendous. Doctors prescribed morphine to provide him some comfort.
The fire robbed Morris of 15 pounds of body fluid. As the flames wrapped around him, his blood pressure plummeted and as the blood flow through his kidneys became inadequate, he went into a deep state of shock. Dehydration, hypoproteinemia, sodium depletion and other rapidly changing internal conditions sucked the life out of him.
Emotionally, the impact was intensive. He was too ill to fully understand the severity of what had happened, which explains why so many visitors to Room 101 left with the impression that Morris thought he would recover.
His condition required 24-hour observation by nurses who wore sterile gowns and masks because of the danger of infecting Morris' open wounds. In his final hours, he required a tracheotomy due to the extensive burns to his face and neck. He had inhaled hot gases, smoke and flame.
The fire was devastating to his eyes, blinding him.
At 7:30 p.m., December 14, 1964 -- four days after the inferno -- Morris took his last breath.
Back at 601 South Fifth Street, this news hit everyone hard.
"We were kids and we were confused," said Rosa. "But in Poncho's world, there was no one he depended on more than Papa Frank. They loved each other."
One image from Morris' funeral at the Mercy Seat Baptist Church remains clear in Rosa's mind.
"It was a closed casket," said Rosa. She understood why.
Afterward, Poncho went back to Las Vegas with his mother. Rosa remained in Ferriday with Auntie Polly.
Frank Morris' death changed the course of many lives.
Poncho lost the man who meant everything to him.
Rosa lost her grandfather.
Young black boys in Ferriday lost a job. Morris hired scores in his lifetime, allowing them to earn a little money as he guided them in their young lives.
A few soldiers missed his patriotism. Morris always bought war bonds. "I'm buying some hats for the boys," he would say.
Ferriday lost the man who kept families in shoes.
Rosa moved briefly to Las Vegas in 1969 but soon returned home. For a while, she worked in the kitchen at the Magnolia Restaurant in Ferriday.
In 1977, she moved to Las Vegas permanently.
That Christmas for the Morris family 43 years is one Rosa can't forget. She has wondered about the two men who stood outside the shoe shop that night as the birth and hope of Christ was being remembered by Christians around the world.
She can't understand what manner of hate fueled this ghastly crime.
And there are many questions.
How many of the men involved -- directly or indirectly -- will be eating the Christmas ham this holiday?
Is the world safe from their evil?
Forty-three years ago, these men and their co-conspirators brought gifts of death.
A single-barrel shotgun.
A five-gallon can of gasoline.
And a match.