Three angry men cornered Frank Morris in shop hours before murder
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, January 24th, 2008 @ 8:37 am
Sometime around dark on the evening of Dec. 9, 1964, 13-year-old Jake Davis and his 12-year-old brother, Jimmy, were sweeping and cleaning Frank Morris' shoe shop in Ferriday when three white men rushed through the front door.
"They were mad as hell," Jake Davis recalled this week. "They went straight toward Mr. Frank and you could tell he was scared."
The three men cornered Morris in the back of the building.
"They were yelling at him," said Jake, but he can remember little of what they were saying.
"But I do remember that they were yelling about a woman," he said. "By the way they were talking, the woman's husband was one of the men in the store. He was a tall man. He was taller than the others."
Within a moment, as the three men berated Morris, the shoe shop owner called the two boys over to him.
"He paid us and told us to leave," said Jake.
The boys bolted out the front door. They sensed Morris was in danger. Hours later, Morris emerged from the back door of his shop in flames.
At home nearby on Morning Star Alley, Jake and Jimmy told their mother, Alberta Leonard, about the three men who appeared to be threatening Morris.
"She told us to keep quiet," recalled Jake. "She knew there was nothing we could do. Everybody was afraid."
The next morning the boys and their mother learned that Morris' shoe shop had been set on fire during the early morning hours of December 10 and that Morris was in critical condition at the Concordia Parish Hospital.
A day or two after the fire, two FBI agents knocked on the door of Jake's home. The boys didn't tell the agents about the three men in the store just hours prior to the fire. In fact, for the first time ever, Jake Davis is revealing this week what he saw and heard 43 years ago.
"It's time," he said.
He and Jimmy, who now lives in California, followed their mother's instructions and only told the agents, according to an FBI document, "that Morris acted different that night and looked to them like something was going to happen." They didn't tell the agents about the three men barging into the store.
So great was the fear in those days that few -- white or black people -- wanted to go on record with the FBI and none were willing to testify in court.
The Rev. Robert Lee Jr., 94, was a leading member of the NAACP in 1964.
"We would meet in church," he said. When someone asked what they would do if the Klan burned down the church, Lee recalled, "We said we'd just build another church."
But not even the local NAACP officials would talk to the FBI four decades ago.
"The state NAACP office in New Orleans called us and told us to remain silent about Frank's death," said Lee. "It was very dangerous locally."
At the hospital, Morris, who was heavily sedated and near death, told FBI agents that the men who set his shop on fire had been in the store before but he did not identify them.
Morris said he was asleep in the back of the shop around 1 to 2 a.m. when he heard glass breaking in the front of the building which fronted Hwy. 84. The report noted that Morris went to the front door "when he saw a man with a (single-barrel) shotgun." This man was bigger and taller than Morris, he said. As Morris moved toward the front door, the man told him to "get back in there nigger."
Morris described the other man as "kind of small, and the younger of the two..." Morris said this man was pouring gasoline.
He said both men may have been from 30 to 35 years old, but he wasn't sure. At some point, the man with the gasoline threw a match and the building exploded in flames.
Although he saw only these two men, Morris said he thought there was a third man "who was the driver of the car," which was parked in the alley beside the shop. A Billups station attendant nearby saw a dark sedan pull out of the alley and turn toward Vidalia just as Morris ran to the station in flames. By the time the shoe shop owner reached Billups, he was naked with the exception of the waist band of his underwear and neckband of his t-shirt, which were smoldering.
Before Morris died on December 14, Jake Davis went to visit Morris in Room 101 at the Concordia Parish Hospital.
"I wanted to see him and talk to him," said Jake. "I walked in by myself and I saw him in the bed. I was the only one there. I saw how bad he was (burned). I was scared. I couldn't say anything. It was terrible. I ran out the door."
Almost certain that the three men he saw must have been the ones who later set the shoe shop on fire, Jake Davis grew into adulthood with a distrust for authority and embittered toward white people. But after some problems with the law and three years in prison, he began to rebuild his life.
"When I was young, I began to steal from white people," said Jake. "I felt like I was getting back for what happened to Frank Morris. I couldn't understand how such a bad thing could happen to such a good man. But my heart changed. I found God. Much of my help in jail and later years came from white people as well as black people. I realized that color doesn't matter."
He said his brother Jimmy has also had problems in his adult life.
Even Morris' grandson, Nathan "Poncho" Morris, who Frank Morris raised as his own son, has dealt with demons relating to what happened in Ferriday 43 years ago. Today, Poncho is in state prison in Nevada.
The last time Poncho saw his grandfather was the night of the fire as Morris emerged from the back of the shoe shop in flames. Poncho was 10-years-old.
"I use to play with Poncho," said Jake.
The lives of all three men -- just boys in 1964 -- were forever changed by the events of that December night.
Today, Jake Davis, now 56 and still a resident of Ferriday, said he is stepping forward because he wants to see justice for a man who gave he and his brother a job and who looked out for them and other young black men.
"Mr. Frank knew that something bad was going to happen that night and he sent us on out of the way," said Jake.
Today, 43 years after Morris' death, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington is beginning a full review of the case.
Now Jake Davis is doing all he can to help find justice for the man who kept many of Ferriday residents dressed in shoes.
He hopes others will do the same.