Book Review: “Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret” by Molly Walling
Reviewed by Mary Ickes
Ms. Walling naturally expected her brother to return from their uncle’s funeral (2006) with family news, not a horrific family secret. On his death bed, their Uncle Tom Fields revealed to his son that he and his brothers, Jay (Ms. Walling’s father) and Bill, on December 12, 1946, confronted a black farm worker, for stealing a company car, in the Pan Am bar in Anguilla, Mississippi. When the employee pulled a gun, rather than keys, from his pocket, Jay Fields killed him in self-defense.
Expecting full cooperation, Ms. Walling consulted women of her father’s generation, beginning with his sister, Aunt Sis. Defensive and irate that her family’s secret had been revealed, she curtly explained the circumstances.
Their mother, expecting a house full of company, sent the brothers to find Jo, a family cook who regularly disappeared for drinking binges. As they entered the Pan Am, the lights went out and Jay shot in self-defense. He spent two nights in jail, his mother paid $5,000 bail, and a grand jury, the following February found him innocent.
Ms. Walling’ s mother: a black man flirted with Sis when Bill met her at the train station. Liquor exacerbating their anger, the brothers sought retribution at the Pan Am where Jay killed in self defense. Aunt Lib (Bill’s widow):
“My suggestion to you would be that you don’t stir up this thing about your daddy. Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Her family hardly a reliable source, Ms. Walling called the Delta Democrat Times newspaper in Greenville, South Carolina, who sent her to the library who suggested that she hire a researcher. Likewise, the Rolling Fork and Anguilla police, sheriff, and county court offices shuffled her from one office to another because the code of silence was fully in place.
The researcher discovered an article headlined: Anguilla Tragedy Not Racial Clash. Subhead: Clean-up was the Editor’s Aim. (Ms. Walling’s father owned the Deer Creek Pilot newspaper in Rolling Fork, about five miles from Anguilla.) Mr. Fields and his brothers, the article claimed, intended to convince the white owner of the Pan Am to close because their farm hands were … spending too much time in the tavern in town drinking themselves senseless. Instead, David Jones and Simon Toombs … had been killed in a shooting affray, during an altercation and struggle with the Negroes. …
With two men dead, Ms. Walling seriously doubted that her father acted in self-defense, but she could only solve the mystery by interviewing people and analyzing records in Mississippi. Her first of five trips, between May 2006 and June 2008, yielded little beyond a curious lack of official records, but she gained an ally in the Sharkey County Circuit Courthouse Pat Thrasher, a diligent county clerk. At her suggestion, Ms. Walling called Anguilla’s mayor who referred her to King Evans, a ninety-three-year-old black witness.
During her second trip, to meet Mr. Evans in Yazoo, Mississippi, Ms. Walling’s research and intentions assumed unexpected dimensions. As a white woman alone in a motel in a mostly black town she writes: I was only just beginning to reckon with my own internalized racial fear and the effects of white privilege. … I was about to enter, for the first time in my life, the home of a black family. From the moment his daughter Carolyn introduced her family, Ms. Walling felt welcomed and at ease. Mr. Evans concurred that the brothers intended to shut down the Pan Am that night, with a shocking twist about the shooting. Much of her book’s allure is details so divergent that, along with Ms. Walling, readers begin to wonder if they are referring to the same shooting.
After Pat, via the county attorney, revealed an entirely different and jolting reason for the murders, she asked Ms. Walling to call Emma Harris whose mother Rose and Aunt Inez were Simon Toombs’ nieces. For the second time that day, gracious kindness welcomed Ms. Walling into a black home. Rose and Inez, ten and twelve in 1946, remembered well the night’s horror and their family’s grief, especially their grandmother. Four witnesses told their father that David and Simon were shot because, on behalf of all of the bar’s patrons, they defied the brothers’ orders to leave. Rose and Inez also recalled that the black community, fearing retribution, barely spoke among themselves about the murders.
Ashamed for not considering, before speaking with Emma, Rose, and Inez the repercussions, to three families, she writes, … I had to do something to make things right, and at that moment all I could think of to do was wrestle this story down.
And wrestle she does! She never picks up a definite paper trail (not even death certificates), and elderly blacks of that generation shun her: “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout your people.” A retired white historian, famous for his vast knowledge of local history, refused to address the murders because he attended the same church as Aunt Lib. In the end, though, Ms. Walling, after thoroughly researching the era, pieces together a plausible explanation.
Ms. Walling’s story, Reading Friends, is neither sentimental nor banal because she bravely places her clan, her family, and herself on a literary microscope slide to interpret the era’s changing racial, political, and social mores. Black soldiers, including David Jones and Simon Toombs, returned from World War II with a new-found pride and identity as the Civil Rights movement emerged and the NAACP, founded in 1909, slowly but resolutely spread across the South. Her father’s generation, the fifth to depend on black labor to operate their plantation, equated the overthrowing of Jim Crow laws with financial ruin and the demise of white supremacy.
About her own family, Ms. Walling writes … it was becoming clear to me that this secret had subverted any semblance of normalcy in my family. Realizing, after returning from World War II, that he was better suited to words and ideas than farming, her father successfully owned and operated the Deer Creek Pilot newspaper and was a family man whom Ms. Walling adored. After moving to Knoxville, Tennessee (1949), where he worked for the Knoxville New Sentinel, his nightly cocktails accelerated into alcoholism that destroyed their family. Like many children, Ms. Walling believed herself responsible for her family’s dysfunction. With this new insight into her father’s background, she began to hope that Maybe it had nothing to do with me.
Though never overtly racist, crucial to Ms. Walling’s story is her candid examination and modification of ingrained racial standards. After meeting Mr. Evans, Emma, Rose, and Inez, she realized that If I kept this story to myself, I would be joining in the conspiracy of my family and the deceit of many white Americans. Publishing her book cost Ms. Walling dearly, but she writes in her blog … though I am bruised and battered, I’m still here and I still believe in my book.
Molly Walling is a university writing instructor, having spent years as a classroom teacher working with both young children and college students on subjects spanning English literature, the language arts, composition and creative writing. She holds an M.A. in English from East Tennessee State University and and MFA in creative non-fiction from Goucher College. Her essays and articles have appeared in regional arts publications in Virginia and North Carolina. Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret is her first book.
In addition to her career as a teacher, she spent five years as the owner of a small, independent bookstore in Bristol, Virginia, and, since 2000, has become deeply engaged in the study of meditation and yoga, leading workshops in both subjects. She is the mother of two daughters, Whitney and Kate, and three grandchildren; provider for Toby and Robber, dog and cat, respectively; and steward of a magical world of riverbank inhabitants behind her house in Asheville.
Contact: mollywalling.com (includes an interview with her publisher the University Press of Mississippi)
View from My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
I’m too exhausted to write much this month because into my presence arrived Tooley, a nine-week-old, fuzzy gray kitten with enough energy to bottle and sell. Mary assured me that I was just as cute and energetic as a kitten. If you ask me, Mary has been sniffing too much catnip.