Shining the light: Locals remember horrors of the Parchman roundup 50 years later

Published 1:15 am Sunday, October 4, 2015

During the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago, Ronald Coleman was a 17-year-old senior at Sadie V. Thompson High School.

He and his family had a small participation in the movement in Natchez prior to the bombing of local NAACP leader George Metcalfe’s car on Aug. 27, 1965.

“We had done some small things, went to some meetings and such,” he said. “Never did I think what happened after the bombing would happen the way it did.”

Ronald Coleman’s eyes well up while talking about his experiences during the Parchman Ordeal to a group at Holy Family Catholic Church. Coleman was sent to Parchman were he was abused by the guards in a variety of ways along with many other inmates. (Sam Gause/The Natchez Democrat)

Ronald Coleman’s eyes well up while talking about his experiences during the Parchman Ordeal to a group at Holy Family Catholic Church. Coleman was sent to Parchman were he was abused by the guards in a variety of ways along with many other inmates. (Sam Gause/The Natchez Democrat)

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Igniting the movement

Work in Natchez for the Civil Rights Movement was under way when a bomb ripped through Metcalfe’s car, severely injuring him and causing uproar in the black community. Metcalfe was an employee at Armstrong Rubber Company and had been promoted, making him a target for local white supremacists.

What sought to silence a generation of voices speaking out against the violence and injustice inflicted upon blacks only ignited a fire within the Natchez black community.

On Aug. 28, the day after Metcalfe’s car was bombed, local black leaders presented a list of demands to Natchez Mayor John Nosser and the board of aldermen.

Among those demands, the leaders called for the city to denounce the Ku Klux Klan; desegregate public facilities and schools; ensure black men and women were addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” rather than uncle, auntie, boy or girl; appoint qualified black leaders to the school board; enact an adequate housing code to eliminate slums; and other calls for action.

The demands were initially rejected by the city but eventually accepted after boycotts hurt local businesses, even causing a few white-owned shops to close.

With racial tensions running high, widespread boycotts after failed attempts to implement the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and little help being given from local law enforcement, blacks in 1960s Natchez began arming themselves for protection.

Metcalfe’s car bombing and the 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.

It was the security and protection provided by the Deacons that drove attendance of marches and meetings up, says said Darrell White, director of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Parchman Ordeal

After the bombing of Metcalfe’s car, Coleman joined others in the black community rallying their voices.

On Oct. 2, 1965, hundreds of black Natchez and Adams County residents gathered at Beulah Baptist Church on B Street to determine if they would march to protest the denial of their Constitutional right to register to vote.

Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, had taken the reins of the Natchez movement after his brother’s death in 1963.

Charles Evers spoke to those at the church, some of whom, White said, were on the fence about marching after the city had forbidden the march.

“In the pulpit of Beulah, he told them that his brother had given up his life for this movement, and they acted like they were afraid to step off the curb and walk down the street,” White said. “That sparked something in them.”

Police were waiting for the would-be marchers as they came out of the church and arrested them before they had a chance to march.

Coleman was one of the hundreds of activists — everyday folks who rose up to fight for their basic rights — that were placed on buses and shipped against their will to the state penitentiary in Parchman.

The arrests of approximately 700 protesters for parading without a permit took place over three days. Of those 700, approximately 200 were sent to Parchman without being officially charged with a crime or appearing before a magistrate.

On a 200-mile bus ride in the dark to Parchman, Coleman and his mother, Geneva, who had been arrested as well, had no idea where they were being taken.

As the bus approached Parchman, Coleman said he realized where he was.

“It hit me: ‘Wow I’m fixing to go to prison,’” he said.

Coleman was separated from his mother, and the group was divided into men and women.

The men were stripped of their clothes, subjected to rectal examinations and forced to drink laxatives. Dry sheep shears were used to shave some of the faces of the men who had beards, including a couple of white men who had been arrested, Coleman said.

“They done them like animals,” he said.

The men were put in cells — 10 to 12 to one cell — and guards tore off five squares of toilet paper for each man.

“It was a mess,” Coleman said. “It was humiliating. One toilet for all of us in the cell. The beds had no mattresses, and I just remember it being cold. The cold sticks with you.”

Meanwhile, Coleman’s thoughts were occupied with worry about his mother.

“You heard a lot about what happened to women in those kinds of situations, and I didn’t know what was happening to her,” he said.

Georgia Mae Sims was one of the women detained at Parchman.

Prior to being taken to Parchman, those arrested were kept in the City Auditorium.

It was the first time Georgia Mae Sims had set foot in the auditorium.

“Back then, we weren’t allowed in there,” she said.

Sims’ brothers had been arrested the day before she was arrested, but that did not stop her.

“We all knew it was time; it was just time to get the feet off our neck,” she said. “We were tired, and it was time we were given the same rights as everybody else and the same respect as everybody else.”

A new mother of her 2-month-old only son, Sims was carted to Parchman.

“I wasn’t completely healed up, as people say, from after having my baby,” she said. “I remember they tried to freeze us to death. I caught a cold, and it took me years to get over just having that phlegm feeling in me. It gradually went away.”

The women were allowed to keep their clothes but were also given a laxative and one roll of toilet paper for the 10 to 12 women in a cell that had one toilet.

“I remember at one point there were two of us sitting on the toilet, just because we had no other choice,” she said.

Those arrested ranged in age, with the majority being teenagers.

Several children were detained, the youngest being 7-year-old James T. Harris Jr.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said James, who now lives in New Orleans.

James and his mother, Mary Ann Nichols were arrested after they had joined a gathering of protesters at China Grove church on St. Catherine Street in preparation for a march.

James was allowed to go home with family, but Mary Ann Nichols was sent to Parchman.

“When I first got there, I was kind of scared, but then I wasn’t afraid anymore,” she said. “I knew whatever was going to be was going to be. I just wondered the whole time I was there how they could treat us that bad for just wanting our rights and why we had to go through all that just because we wanted to be treated like everybody else.”

Healing the past

The trauma of what happened to him in Parchman has stuck with Coleman for the past 50 years.

“Was it post-traumatic stress?” he said. “I don’t know. I know I see veterans who come back from war and you hear them talking about waterboarding and that stuff, I know I feel what they’re talking about.

“But they had some after care. We didn’t. They just took us back here and put us back on the streets, and we were supposed to heal ourselves,” he said. “But nobody was talking about it. Nobody was acknowledging it. I guess my mother and I, my family, we tried to heal each other.

“I know I hurt when I talk about it,” Coleman said. “It’s an emptiness that has haunted me my entire life.”

Nichols said no acknowledgement or apology by the City of Natchez has meant the light has not been fully shown on degradation and mistreatment of those who went to Parchman.

“We never got an apology in all these years,” Nichols said.

The City of Natchez presented a resolution Friday publicly apologizing for its role in the atrocities endured by those who went to Parchman. City officials say they hope it’s a first step in healing.

When former county supervisor Thomas “Boo” Campbell speaks about his mistreatment at Parchman, he recalls the same memories as many of the others: being stripped, the laxative, the cold, cramped cells.

But it is with some peace that Campbell shares his story.

In 50 years, Campbell has come to realize acceptance was a key in healing the past.

It can’t undo the deep wounds that were made or the lasting scars that have stayed with many.

“But it happened; it happened to a lot of people,” Campbell said. “I don’t hold grudges. I can’t hold onto the animosity. I can’t sit around and hate all white people because of what was done to me.”

It’s not without some bitterness, but Coleman said after 50 years, he has realized he, too, must accept what happened to him at Parchman in order to move on. He moved away from Natchez and lived in St. Louis for many years, avoiding memories of Parchman.

“Through Christ, I know I have to accept (it) for what it is,” he said.

Coleman’s story and the stories of others are being documented in a Parchman Ordeal film project led by White, author Mark LaFrancis and others.

“Fifty years later to come to the table and get some recognition that we were part of the movement,” Coleman said as his words trail off, and he pauses to wipe tears from his eyes. “I can pass that part of my life onto my family, onto my children.”

The sacrifices and contributions of those who marched in the face of fear, violence and amid the widespread arrests were ignored for many years, White said.

Members of the black community did not even know what had happened. Some of them still don’t know, Charles Evers said.

“They take advantage of our freedom and don’t understand because they don’t know where we’ve come from,” he said.

For that understanding to come, Nichols said, people need to be educated about what happened to those who stood up for the rights they have now.

“I think it’s important to teach the younger people who were not born and did not know anything was going on how we got where we are and what we did to get there.”