A father's grief: Who killed Sullivan Morris' son in 1964?
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 @ 12:34 pm
The scent of leather had long been familiar to Frank Morris, the son of a cobbler who became one himself.
Born 97 years ago on Oct. 3, 1914, one of Morris' earliest memories was of his father's shoe shop in Natchez.
A half century after Frank Morris' birth, Sullivan Morris looked upon his son's face for the last time. What he saw was horrific. Frank Morris was scarred from head to toe by third degree burns. He died at 7:30 p.m. on December 14, 1964, four physically and emotionally agonizing days after his Ferriday shoe shop was torched.
Frank Morris' granddaughter, Rosa Williams of Las Vegas, recalls seeing a grief-stricken Sullivan Morris at the funeral. She was 12 then: "He walked up to the casket, which was closed. He was crying."
Morris' business had been a busy place until his shop was reduced to rubble 47 years ago by arsonists believed connected to both the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement.
The arson/murder was intensely investigated by the FBI in the 1960s, closed and then re-opened in 2007. One of the 110-plus Civil Rights-era cold cases reviewed by the FBI beginning four years ago, Morris' murder has since received much media attention nationally.
A parish Grand Jury was convened in February to look into the murder and continues its probe today, while the FBI actively investigates. Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, described Morris' murder as "an unspeakable act."
The image in 1964 of his dying son's condition haunted Sullivan Morris until he passed away six years later at the age of 78. A short man who in his senior years wore reading glasses that rested on the tip of his nose, he told the FBI in 1965 that he couldn't imagine why anyone would commit such a heinous act against his son.
Minutes after the arson, Frank Morris arrived at Ferriday's hospital in the back seat of a town police car. Two officers told the FBI they pulled over at the flaming shop about the time Morris was emerging from the back. They said he was naked and that skin peeled from his body and floated to the ground. Others saw Morris' bloody footprints at the crime scene and at the hospital.
While the Sentinel has published scores of stories about the arson, a four-year investigation has also painted a picture of the personal and professional life of the longtime Ferriday businessman. His mother, Charlotte James of Vidalia, died a year after his birth. She and Sullivan Morris were not married, according to court documents. Although Charlotte's mother reared Morris, he and his father, Sullivan, maintained a close relationship.
In 1915, the year Charlotte died, Sullivan married Ethel Bacon of Natchez. While Sullivan operated his shoe shop on Pine Street in Natchez, Ethel operated a restaurant called Ethel's Cafe.
"They were considered entrepreneurs in the black community," according to Paul Bacon of Natchez, a relative. Frank Morris observed the couple's success.
Morris attended Broomfield School in Natchez and worked in his father's shop, learning everything about the business and the value of hard work, according to family members. By the late 1930s, Morris was operating his own shoe shop in Ferriday.
Morris hustled business from both the black and white communities and was known for his quality work and good service. By the 1950s the shop was thriving and he advertised regularly in the Concordia Sentinel.
"Open Every Day and Half the Night," his ads proclaimed in 1960. Morris sold a wide variety of products: oil field boots, shirts, hats and horse tack. He dyed purses "any color," sold tap shoes and had a selection of inexpensive jewelry.
But his mainstay was shoe repair in a day when most families could afford only one pair of shoes each for father, mother and child. Morris considered himself a "shoe builder," and he owned several pieces of equipment necessary to a cobbler's trade.
Friends and acquaintances often described Morris as "jolly," an outgoing man who liked to laugh and joke around.
When his granddaughter, Rosa Williams, was baptized at the age of 10 at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Morris was in attendance as was Williams' aunt, Polly, who was blind. Williams recalled recently: "When I was about to be baptized by the pastor all of the sudden Papa Frank said: 'Everybody stand back so Polly can see!'" She said laughter filled the sanctuary.
Years earlier, in 1935, Morris' only child was born, a daughter, Clementine, whose mother was Rosie Hewing. Morris and Hewing were not married, according to court documents.
Clementine's two children -- Morris' grandchildren -- Rosa Williams and Nathaniel "Poncho" Williams, live in Nevada today. Clementine is deceased. Morris was rearing Poncho at the time of the 1964 arson.
Morris was married only once in his life, to the late Edna Brown, a Ferriday seamstress. The couple divorced in 1947, according to court documents. Edna's son, William "Billy" Brown Jr. of New Orleans, born in Ferriday in 1952, said Morris and his mother remained close after the divorce.
Brown worked in the shoe shop like many other boys in the African-American community and found the experience rewarding. He told the Sentinel in 2007 that Morris "was a disciplinarian...if you worked for Frank, you didn't stand around. But he treated us all well and he looked out for us. And he taught us all how to treat people well."
Court records reveal that Morris had little debt and that his assets at the time of his death totaled $33,933. He was a property owner and had more than $1,800 in three accounts with two banks in Ferriday.
Morris was a regular customer at Western Auto in Ferriday, where Howard Williams worked for 25 years before retiring in 1979.
"Frank Morris was honest and he paid his bills," Howard Williams told the Sentinel. "He was a courteous man and I never heard anything bad about him or of him doing anything to hurt anybody."
Before his death, the late James Watkins told the Sentinel in 2007 that Morris was a patriotic man who bought bonds during World War II to support the troops.
As the civil rights movement spread across the South and the Klan grew in opposition, Morris remained dedicated to his business and his love of Christian music. He hosted a Sunday morning gospel radio show on KFNV in Ferriday that aired from 6-7:30 a.m., featuring religious records and a guest preacher.
The Rev. Robert Lee Jr., 98, of Clayton, whose wife, Lavinia, had been a classmate of Morris' at Broomfield in Natchez, says his family was a regular listener.
In the days before the arson, the Lees' son Willis was serving in Vietnam. Every week Morris played the popular song written by Sullivan Pugh and recorded by his group, the Consolers -- "Waiting for My Child to Come Home" -- dedicating it to Lavinia Lee in hopes of giving her spiritual strength as she prayed for Willis' safe return. Morris called Lavinia "my school mate."
"We listened every Sunday to hear that song," Rev. Lee told the Sentinel.
Yet that gospel-filled Sunday morning show, according to FBI documents, was considered scandalous by some Klan members, who thought Morris was stepping over the racial line by also occasionally dedicating Christian songs to white women. The Klan rumor mill began to churn, documents show, spreading stories about Morris, accusing him of affairs with white women and of making his shop the rendezvous point for interracial liaisons. Some Klansmen took Morris' banter with white female customers at the curbside of his business as being sexual in nature.
According to the February 1965 issue of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, Morris was a member of the organization. The Klan despised the NAACP and didn't like the fact that Morris operated a successful business that catered to an interracial clientele in a day when the protection of segregation was the Klan's rallying cry.
Another rumor surfaced during the FBI investigation in the 1960s -- that Morris was bootlegging whiskey and selling narcotics. Fire department officials told the FBI they found a suitcase -- only "slightly scorched" -- filled with 14 half pints of bourbon in the rubble of Morris' shop. They told the bureau they suspected Morris was bootlegging whiskey but couldn't prove it.
Morris' friends and employees questioned by the FBI about the suitcase said they had never seen it before.
In fact, retired FBI agent John Pfeifer, who arrived in Concordia in 1966 and spent more than a decade working cases here, heard the bootlegging rumor, too. He told the Sentinel earlier this year that it "seemed as if most of those rumors started with Frank DeLaughter. That's what really alerted me that he was probably involved" in Morris' murder.
DeLaughter, who had served as a jailer, fireman and police officer in Ferriday, was a deputy with the sheriff's office in 1964. He was a suspect in the Morris murder and other crimes and there were rumors that DeLaughter's wife had been insulted by Morris, an allegation termed absurd by friends and acquaintances, black and white, who knew him.
Two FBI informants –- both Klansmen -- told the bureau that DeLaughter, himself a Klansman, had been stiffing Morris for his shoe repair work and that when the cobbler refused to repair a pair of cowboy boots for the deputy shortly before the arson that DeLaughter was enraged. He had a notorious reputation as a violent man and was convicted of police brutality in 1970. DeLaughter died in 1996.
Infiltrating every possible motive for Morris' murder was the poison of racial hatred.
Not long after the fire was extinguished in 1964, Deputy State Fire Marshal C.W. Pharis found a five-gallon gasoline can inside the west window of the shop, according to FBI documents. Pharis thought the can was used to spread gasoline before the shop was torched.
Morris told authorities before his death that he saw two men -- one pointed a shotgun at him and prevented his escape out the front door. The other held a gas can and was spreading liquid in front of the shop.
FBI records also show Morris never identified his attackers before he died.
What the Grand Jury seeks to answer is what Sullivan Morris died without knowing: Who were his son's murderers and why did they do it?