1965 Concordia lounge arsons linked to KKK / Silver Dollar Group
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, April 15th, 2010 @ 8:51 am
A fisherman stands in front of The Blue Heaven, a cafe/lounge operated by Reef Freeman on Horseshoe Lake at Monterey which was destroyed by in electrical fire one afternoon in 1963. A new building was soon constructed in its place where Freeman reopened his lounge under the name "Reef's Place". In February 1964, "Reef's Place" -- about 4,800 sq. ft. -- was destroyed in an arson which the FBI linked to the Monterey Klan and the notorious Silver Dollar Group. (Photo courtesy Bill Atkins.)
In early December 1964, the Ku Klux Klan spread pamphlets throughout the Monterey/Black River area of Concordia Parish with a warning to lounge owners: Anyone who sold alcohol to minors or operated prostitution had better "clean up or get out."
Jack Aswell found a copy at the doorstep of Jack's Place at the Black River Cut-off.
Reef Freeman picked up a copy outside his lounge on Horseshoe Lake.
In the months before the pamphlets were distributed, FBI records show, a unit of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (OKKKK) had been organized in the Monterey/Black River area "to take care of complaints of white people." Many of these Klansmen, some church deacons, were anti-alcohol, anti-gambling, anti-prostitution and anti-desegregation.
In early January 1965, about a month after the Klan circulars were distributed, someone attempted to burn Freeman's lounge. According to a friend of Freeman's who asked not be named in this article, Freeman discovered that a gallon jug had been thrown through a large window spilling gasoline or some type of accelerant inside. Outside, Freeman found a railroad flare which had apparently been thrown after the jug to ignite the fuel but had hit the edge of the window and bounced off. The flare had not burned out completely but had left a "burned spot" on the ground.
But it was a different story at Jack's Place on the Black River Cut-Off. Club owner Jack Aswell told FBI agents that his home was located next door to his "juke joint," the nearest neighbor two miles away. He said after closing the club at 1:30 a.m. he walked home and went to bed. He said he had just dozed off when awakened by the sound of "wood cracking." He looked out the window, saw flames shooting out of his nightclub and awoke his wife and his wife's sister. The three raced outside to see if there was anything they could do, but Aswell told agents that the fire was raging and they couldn't get close to the building.
He told agents when interviewed in 1967 that his uninsured losses totaled $4,500, and denied he was involved in selling illegal liquor, operating gambling devices or housing prostitutes. He said no one from the sheriff's office or the fire department came to investigate.
A month later, during the early morning hours of Feb. 8, 1965, FBI records show Reef Freeman closed his club on Horseshoe Lake and went to his home 300 yards away and went to sleep before being awakened by an explosion. Outside, he said he helplessly watched a fire consume his club, destroying everything inside including any physical evidence. No estimate of the property losses was given in FBI documents. Freeman admitted to the FBI that he sold hard liquor, which was illegal, and operated gambling devices but denied that he sold alcohol to minors or operated a house of prostitution. Asst. Dist. Atty. Roy Halcomb told the FBI that there was no prostitution at the lounge prior to the fire.
Soon after the arson, Freeman walked the area near his lounge and found "a pile of cigarette butts under the Cross Bayou Bridge," recalled the man who knew Freeman well but asked not to be identified. "He thought somebody had been there for awhile watching the place." Freeman died in 1981 at age 72.
In 1967, Concordia Parish sheriff's deputies Junior Harp and Bill Ogden told the FBI they investigated the Freeman fire in 1964. Harp said he was not convinced that arson had occurred. Ogden said he believed the fire was the result of Freeman and another man "beating up on two men and a woman" at the club. He said the alleged victims were from Meadville, Miss., and that their "connections in Louisiana" set the fire to even the score with Freeman. Ogden refused to provide the FBI with any names, records show.
After the February 1967, carbombing murder of Natchez NAACP treasurer Wharlest Jackson, the FBI began new probes of the December 1964 arson/murder of Ferriday shoe shop owner Frank Morris and opened investigations into the Horseshoe Lake/Black River arsons. The Frank Morris arson preceded the fire at Jack's Place by a month and Reef Freeman's lounge by two months.
The Jackson file -- known as WHARBOM -- was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by The Sentinel and the Syracuse College of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative. During the WHARBOM probe in 1967, 40-year-old Ferriday Klansman and FBI informant E.D. Morace, a mechanic and part-time bouncer at The Bonanza Club, identified the culprits in the Freeman fire as:
-- Raleigh Jackson "Red" Glover, Lee Avenue, Vidalia, a 45-year-old employee of Armstrong Tire in Natchez and a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II and later in Korea. Glover died at the age of 62 in 1984.
-- Kenneth Norman Head, Locust Drive, Vidalia, a 39-year-old mechanic who had worked as a millwright at International Paper Co. and in the oilfield. He was a Marine Corp. corporal who had served in China in the late 1940s. Head died in 2000 at the age of 75.
-- Tommie Lee Jones, Cloverdale Road, Natchez, a 31-year-old employee of International Paper Company. Jones died at age 71 in 2007.
-- Thore L. Torgersen, Westwood Road, Natchez, a welder at International Paper Co., a World War II Army veteran and Masonic Lodge member, who died in 2000 at age 77.
-- James "Red" Lee, a 32-year-old tire builder at Armstrong Tire who lived in the Mallory Subdivision in Natchez in 1967, but had lived four miles south of Wildsville on Hwy. 565 along Black River (near Lismore) in Concordia Parish in 1964. The son of a Baptist minister, Lee was an Army veteran.
Morace said Glover told him in September 1967 that Head drove the car, Glover and Lee rode shotgun, Jones "pitched the stuff on the nightclub," and Torgersen "lit it."
All five men, as well as Morace, who died in 1970 at the age of 43, were suspects in other crimes, including murders, and also identified by the bureau as members of the militant Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group (SDG), which was dedicated to the violent opposition of civil rights. FBI documents indicate the group was made up of Klansmen from three Klan groups and may have included 20 men who were believed responsible for much of the Klan-related violence in Concordia Parish and Adams and Franklin counties during the mid-1960s.
According to FBI documents, the Monterey/Black River Klan unit used both local men and outsiders to handle Klan projects. Several men from Monterey/Black River were questioned by the FBI about the lounge arsons. Documents also reveal that Glover, who the FBI identified as the head of the SDG, attended organizational meetings of the Monterey/Black River Klan and indoctrinated members on Klan operations.
Two of the suspects in the Freeman fire -- Jones and Torgersen -- had been affiliated with the Original Knights and the White Knights of Mississippi. Glover and Head were also implicated in the August 1965 attempted murder by carbombing of George Metcalfe of Natchez, who was president of the Natchez NAACP. The FBI also considered them suspects in the Wharlest Jackson bombing, records show.
Jones, Torgersen, Glover and Morace were among several suspects in the Morris arson, according to FBI documents, and Lee was considered a suspect in the arson of Jack's Place. The FBI believed, too, records show, that the carbombing of George Metcalfe was planned during a fish fry at Lee's residence near Lismore in the summer of 1965.
When questioned about the Freeman fire, Jones and Torgersen denied being involved but said the arson and others were "desirable" because of the prostitution and illegal gambling they believed were going on at the clubs.
Two weeks after the Freeman arson, the Concordia Sentinel ran a front page story in the February 18, 1965, edition with the headline: "Law and Order Urged by Parish Civic Clubs." In a joint resolution, four organizations -- the Ferriday Rotary Club, Ferriday Chamber, Vidalia Lions Club and Vidalia Chamber -- called on local and state law enforcement agencies to stop "these unlawful activities" and to "apprehend and punish those responsible."
While stating their support of segregation, the groups also noted: "We have seen private property burned in the night with the owners helpless to proceed against those responsible..." The resolution condemned the "irresponsible actions" of the unknown perpetrators "who commit these actions and (we) flatly state that such conduct will not be tolerated by a law abiding community such as ours."