Granddaughter recalls life of slain Ferriday cobbler
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, March 7th, 2007 @ 2:31 pm
Rosa Ann Morris Williams says she is glad the story of her grandfather's murder in Ferriday 42 years ago is "being talked about."
"He didn't deserve what happened to him," she said. "I feel the children need to know about his death."
Frank Morris, who owned and operated Frank's Shoe Service in Ferriday, died Dec. 14, 1964, four days after his store was doused with gasoline by two men and set afire as Morris' grandson and an employee slept in a small back room adjoining the store. The men who killed Morris were described as white, in their early to mid-30s, and dressed in khakis.
The case is one of dozens the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI never solved but may resurrect. Morris' shoe shop was located on 4th Street (now E.E. Wallace Blvd.), and the cobbler was a well liked man in Ferriday who kept many white and black families dressed in shoes. He ran a weekly ad in 1964 in The Concordia Sentinel promoting his shop, where he resoled shoes, attached rubber heels to shoes, replaced zippers, sharpened scissors, pressed suits and converted dress shoes into golf shoes.
Morris was 51 when he died in the Concordia Parish Hospital, now Riverland Medical Center, four days after the fire.
His death came during the height of the Civil Rights era when some blacks in Ferriday were boycotting white-owned stores, an effort in which Morris did not participate. He and Will Haney were among the two most prominent black businessmen in Ferriday.
But by 1964 the glory years of Haney's Big House, located on the other side of the highway from Morris' shop, were fading. Once the club rocked the town, drawing up to 300 patrons on a weekend night when bluesmen like B.B. King were performing. A young Jerry Lee Lewis loved the place.
Two years after the fire that claimed Morris' life, Will Haney's club burned to the ground as did other businesses on the block, including a dry cleaners and a grocery store. No connection to the fire at Morris' establishment was ever alleged, and no one was injured in the 1966 blaze.
Rosa Ann Morris Williams -- Morris' granddaughter -- was 12-years-old the night of the arson on Dec. 10, 1964. This week she vividly recalled the morning after the fatal fire in an interview with The Sentinel via telephone from her home in Las Vegas, NV, where she has lived since leaving Ferriday when she was 24 years old.
"I was staying with my auntie," said Williams, now 55. Williams said her grandmother told her aunt during the night that she heard a loud sound and wondered aloud what the noise was.
The morning after the fire, Williams said "everybody was up and about. One of my friends told us that my grandfather was killed. He was seen running down the street and asking people to put out the fire. He ran to the Billups Station."
At that station an employee poured water on Morris to douse the flames. Two Ferriday police officers, who told the FBI they were in search of a light green 1961 Chevrolet at the time of the fire, said they put Morris in the back seat of their patrol car and transported him to the hospital.
Morris told FBI agents during three interviews before his death that on the night of the fire he heard a sound of a window glass breaking and went to investigate. He said he ran outside and witnessed one man, the younger of the two, pouring gasoline, and another held a single barrel shotgun. This man forced him back into the store.
When the fire was started, it spread quickly. Morris ran through his shop, his bedroom and to the rear of the building to escape, but the blaze spread so quickly he assumed that gasoline was spread on the inside, too, as he was quickly engulfed in flame.
Morris told FBI agents, who interviewed him three times as he lay dying in his hospital room, that a car, apparently used by his killers, was parked in an alley by the store. That alley is now known as the Blue Light Alley.
Morris said he thought the men may have been in his shop before, that they may have lived in Ferriday and may have worked in Natchez. However, he was unable to identify either by name.
Williams said her brother, Nathaniel Morris, 11-years-old at the time (10 according to the FBI report) and her father's employee, Snoot Griffing, were asleep in the back room adjoining the store when the fire started. Griffing told the FBI that nothing unusual happened at the store prior to the fire.
Williams said Griffing fled the store with her brother where they found safe refuge in a nearby home.
She doesn't know who killed her grandfather, but she has her suspicions. One business owner in town at the time, whom she identified, is a person she thinks may have known something about the fire.
"To be frank and honest, black people at that time were very afraid of white people," she said. "They didn't talk about a lot of things. But my grandfather was a businessman and he knew a lot of white people who shopped with him."
She said she doesn't necessarily believe the Ku Klux Klan is responsible for Morris' death, but said she doesn't know.
"There were people who knew things but were afraid to say," she said. One black man, she said, used to "walk the streets of Ferriday" during those days and told her later that he knew what happened.
"But he and his family moved to Monroe," she said. "He might have been pressured, I don't know."
She says her grandfather was well-liked, and was "an outgoing person. He loved to joke all the time."
When Williams was baptized, she said Morris and Williams' aunt -- Helen "Polly" Branch -- attended the service.
"My auntie was blind," she said. "When I got baptized, my grandfather said -- 'You all stand back so Polly can see.' He always had me laughing." She said he was born on Halloween.
Williams had the job of cleaning Morris' shoe shop "to earn my money." She remembers him as "a lovable person," who was tall and slender.
"He loved to travel and he was a member of the Mercy Seat Baptist Church," said Williams.
Former Mayor Glen McGlothin, like many white people in Ferriday old enough to remember Morris, said the shoe shop owner was a "nice man. He used to give me a Coke when I was delivering newspapers. I always thought everybody liked Mr. Frank."
While Morris' case may never be solved, his granddaughter says she's glad that it's being talked about again. All people in Ferriday, she said, both black and white, should remember Frank Morris.
"He was a good man," she said.