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Unspoken heroes tell of achievements in black history

JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez resident Jessie Bernard Wlliams reflects Thursday afternoon upon her role, and the actions of other locals, as the Civil Rights movement swept through Natchez during the 1960s.

In a city that is rich with history, especially black history, many of the names of those who have made some of the greatest contributions to Natchez still remain relatively unknown.

A revered educator born more than a century ago; a famed opera singer who went from Natchez to Buckingham Palace; two local Civil Rights activists whose voices were not silenced by the resistance to change; and the first black police officer in Natchez and the state have — over many years — helped to make Natchez what it is.

Their stories may not be etched on the walls of black history monuments around the country, but that does not make their stories any less important, says Darrell White, director of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum.

“Many of those who have made the greatest contributions were the unspoken heroes,” White said. “They worked behind the scenes to make things happen. And it’s important for the community to know that if we can all dedicate ourselves to making something happen, in the end we will triumph over all the obstacles in our way.”

George Washington Brumfield

George Washington Brumfield’s story may not be known to everyone in Natchez, but many likely know the building on St. Catherine Street that bears his name today.

Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said Brumfield was born in Yazoo County in 1866 and taught school in there before moving to Natchez in the 1890s.

Brumfield married Fannie Fisher, daughter of Joseph Fisher, a carpenter who worked for George and Ethel Kelly at Melrose. He was principal of the Union School, which was built in 1871 and was the first public school built for African Americans it Natchez. It stood on property at the northeast corner of North Union and Monroe streets. The school was demolished in the early 1950s.

Brumfield served for more than 25 years as the principal of the black public schools in Natchez.

Brumfield was superintendent of Sunday school at Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and lived on St. Catherine Street, where Brumfield School, which is named for him, is located.

According to Brumfield’s 1927 obituary, he developed the “colored public schools of this city to a point of efficiency that measures up to the highest stands.” The chairman of the school board eulogized Brumfield by noting that it was largely due to his efforts and the esteem in which he was held that the new Brumfield School was built in 1925, Miller said.

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, born a slave in the early 1800s in Natchez, went on to become the first African-American singer to acquire recognition for her talent in both the U.S. and Europe.

Darrell White said that Greenfield was born at a house on High and Wall streets and taken to Philadelphia, Pa., by a Quaker who had freed her slaves.

White said Opera Exposures in New York City has featured concerts focusing on Greenfield to bring attention to her fame, even when slavery was prevalent.

According to Opera Exposures’ website, Greenfield, dubbed “The Black Swan,” debuted at Metropolitan Hall in 1853 to a crowd of 4,000 white patrons.

White said Greenfield introduced herself to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was instrumental in Greenfield’s royal performance before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1854.

“Imagine that, from High Street in Natchez all the way to Queen Victoria,” White said.

According to Opera Exposures, during the Civil War, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield appeared at the side of speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Francis E.W. Harper. Her death in Philadelphia on March 31, 1876, was noted in an obituary published in the New York Times on April 2, 1876.

The Rev. James Stokes

With racial tensions running high, widespread boycotts after failed attempts to implement the Civil Rights Act, and little help being given from local law enforcement, blacks in 1960s Natchez began arming themselves for protection.

Jay Sowers / The Natchez Democrat — Natchez resident Rev. James Stokes was a founding member of the Deacons for Defense, a group that aimed to protect minorities from the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.

The August 1965 car bombing of George Metcalfe and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Natchezian Ben Chester White by the Ku Klux Klan served as catalysts to organized resistance and the armed enforcers who would protect that resistance.

The armed protection formed into the paramilitary organization Deacons for Defense and Justice, whose first chapter was started in Louisiana in 1964.

The Rev. James Stokes became spokesman for the Natchez Deacons, whose primary purpose was to provide visible protection to NAACP workers, those on the picket lines and enforce the boycotts.

Stokes, an army veteran who worked at Diamond International paper mill and a tobacco company during that time, said the Deacons formed as a sportsmen-hunting club with a charter that allowed them to carry guns.

“After we didn’t have any protection, the people who were participating in the movement, I guess we decided to take the law into our own hands,” Stokes said.

The Natchez Deacons presented a list of demands drafted by the NAACP to the City of Natchez in 1965. The demands were first denied but eventually met after the black community’s boycotts hurt local businesses.

“Our strongest weapon was boycotting,” Stokes said. “We boycotted every business in Natchez. We dared other blacks to go in there, and if we found out that they were, we would tear up their groceries.

“You were either with us or without us, and that’s the way it was.”

But the Natchez Deacons did not stop with just Natchez and Adams County, they moved into surrounding counties and other parts of the state.

“We got started in a small group, and it escalated to so many in each county,” Stokes said.

Stokes said he spoke in California to raise money for the efforts of the Deacons. The fundraising tour was organized by Natchez native and Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-Clifford M. Boxley.

“I did not speak to them about violence; I spoke to them about the people that needed protection,” Stokes said.

Although an armed resistance presents the threat of violence, Stokes said it was the threat of violence rather than actual violence that made the Deacons effective. The Deacons even had a few white members, Stokes said.

Stokes was fired from his job at Diamond International, thrown in jail several times, and his wife, Roxanne, and teenage daughter, Deloris, were even hauled off to Parchman with hundreds of other blacks after a demonstration at Beulah church.

“They made them take milk of magnesia and hosed them down and turned the fans on them,” he said.

But that did not deter Stokes from his duty as a Deacon.

“Sure, we were scared, but you didn’t let anybody know it,” Stokes said. “Back then we were prepared for anything, even murder.”

Despite racial tensions, Stokes said he had a good relationship with some local law enforcement, especially Natchez Chief J.T. Robinson.

“They never harassed us,” Stokes said. “I had a good relationship with (Robinson) up until his death.”

When the movement died down and the Deacons no longer had to protect people, Stokes went on to be the first black car salesman in Natchez until he retired in the 1980s.

Stokes, now 84 and a reverend at Zion Hill, says he will never forget his days as Deacon. He said he speaks to young people about those days because it is important they know where they come from and what it took to get here.

“I tell them that it hasn’t always been this way,” he said. “I tell them that fighting and killing didn’t solve the problem, and if you keep you faith in God, you’re protected, and you’re going to win.”

Jessie Bernard Williams

Jessie Bernard Williams was a 20-year-old student at Alcorn State University in the 1960s when she realized she needed to join the Civil Rights movement.

Williams said she was awoken in the middle of the night during a student protest.

“The football team came busting in the girls’ dormitory and told us to get to the football field,” Williams said. “I think they were protesting the food or something like that.”

But when the highway patrol showed up to the protest, Williams was put on a bus and sent back to Natchez.

“I was in my pajamas,” she said. “It wasn’t even a racial thing. But they put us on that bus and sent us home without letting us get our clothes or anything. I just felt my rights had been violated.”

Williams briefly returned to Alcorn but ultimately decided to stay in Natchez before starting school again at Jackson State.

“It was a blessing for me that they put me on that bus that night because I was about to become an educated fool,” she said.

Prior to that night, Williams said she had heard about segregating and voter intimidation when blacks would go to the polls, but she said she never considered that her own rights were being denied.

“I didn’t know anything about what was going on,” she said. “I thought I was free, nobody ever bothered me. That changed the way I felt about my freedom.”

One of the most vivid memories Williams has of the movement in Natchez, she said, is the day demonstrators went to Duncan Park to integrate it.

“They were lined up waiting for us with bats in their hands,” she said. “It was such a dangerous situation. We just drove through and came back out. I can still see the bats in their hands. There are people who I see now who still live here and work here, and I can still see the bats in their hands.”

The NAACP’s efforts were important in Natchez because they helped African-Americans not only get their rightful freedoms, but they also saved lives, Williams said.

“Initially it became important because innocent people were dying,” she said.

Williams was on the front lines of communication for the NAACP. She and others manned the phones at the NAACP office, organized meetings, worked to get people on the picket lines and arranged for bonds when demonstrators were arrested.

“It started through word of mouth and meetings, involvement of ministers,” she said. “Truth be told, it wasn’t just blacks, it was a mix, it was multi-cultural.”

Williams said she has vivid memories of black people in Natchez being loaded on buses and carted off to Parchman.

“Horrible things happened there,” she said. “My brother was taken there. For the longest time he couldn’t even talk about it.”

Williams also remembers local black men being drafted into the military and sent to fight in Vietnam.

“Can you imagine that? They were sent to fight for freedoms they couldn’t have here,” she said.

Williams finished her degree in elementary education and still stayed involved in politics and the NAACP.

Williams, now 69, went on to be an educator and taught 16 years at McLaurin and Sadie V. Thompson schools. She also became the first black woman named to the national committee of women for the Democratic party.

Williams still teaches young children, but now she speaks to them about the story of the struggle she and other blacks endured during the Civil Rights movement.

“It’s important for them to know the story and understand there are ways to resolve fighting rather than fighting,” she said.

Walter J. Squalls

Walter J. Squalls became a trailblazer in Mississippi when he became the state’s first black commissioned police officer when he was hired at the Natchez Police Department in 1965 at the age of 22.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Former Natchez police officer Walter J. Squalls shows some of the old photos he has kept since he became the state’s first commissioned black police officer in 1965.

But the road was not easy and a few fires had to be put out along the way.

“The Klan burned crosses in my momma’s yard when they found out I was trying to join the police force,” said Squalls, now 77. “That was supposed to have scared me into not joining, but I joined anyway.”

Squalls said he met resistance from both the white and black community, as well as the police department, when he decided to become a police officer. But that did not change his mind, he said.

Before he was an officer, Squalls said, he shined shoes on the corner of St. Catherine Street and what used to be Pine Street.

“I saw white officers grab (black) men and just beat them down with batons,” he said. “I saw some who weren’t even doing anything just get clubbed.

“Something told me, ‘You need to get out there.’”

On his first day as a police officer, Squalls said, a white police officer, Charles Flowers, who became a dear friend, took Squalls under his wing. Squalls said Flowers went around the department and pointed out everyone who said they were going to quit if he was hired.

“He pointed them out to me right to their faces,” Squalls said. “They didn’t say a word to me, not a word.”

And the Ku Klux Klan did not give Squalls much trouble after he was hired either.

“They pretty well left me alone, I guess because I was a police officer,” he said.

Being a Natchez police officer in the 1960s was not an easy job, Squalls said, especially when so many members of the black community were being loaded onto buses and sent to Parchman.

Squalls recalls the night at Beulah church when Trailways buses were being filled with protesters.

“I just didn’t understand, I didn’t understand why they were being taken to Parchman,” he said. “It was rough.”

But Squalls stood his ground as a police officer.

“I believed I could do some good,” he said.

And Squalls did do much good during his 21 years as a police officer.

Squalls — who earned the rank of lieutenant in 1972 and captain in 1979 — earned several training certifications and law enforcement awards.

He faced problems with discrimination, and in the 1970s, he joined a group of defendants who filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding civil service examinations and promotion practices.

But Squalls said he did not let that deter his police work.

In the 1970s, he organized the first Bicycle Rodeo for young people and the first Neighborhood Watch program.

A flash of light still beams from Squalls’ face as he flips through a tattered scrapbook with yellowed newspaper articles documenting his career milestones up until his retirement in the 1980s.

“I was always just trying to make sure people were doing the right thing,” he said. “I had a great time.”