Jones – People/Persons

Benson, John L.: Oral History

Mr. John L. Benson of Moselle tells the story of his family and his great-grandfather, Isom Benson, who donated land in Jones County for building Benson School for African-American children during Jim Crow segregation.

Click here for the video.

This oral history was conducted by April Grayson in Hattiesburg, MS.

Hubbard, Ed

Hubbard was born in 1867 and eventually became one of the founding members of the Saint Elmo Baptist Church in 1895. In 1902 at the age of 35 he served as the head sawyer at the Eastman-Gardiner Company’s “big mill”and was the founding pastor of the Second Baptist Church. In 1921, Hubbard became a missionary in Liberia, West Africa, where he founded the Hubbard Industrial Mission. In the mid-20s Hubbard returned to Laurel for speaking engagements where he spoke to a large white audience and was introduced by Judge Stone Deavours.

Sources:

Laurel Remembrances by Cleveland Payne published in 1996.

Price, Leontyne

Leontyne Price was the first successful black female opera singer and was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, and graduated from Oak Park High School (now only elementary, 1205 Queensburg Avenue Laurel, MS 39440) in 1944. She also sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Methodist Church (517 Jefferson St., 601-428-7613) in Laurel, Mississippi. Throughout her career she would return to this church to do an annual Christmas Concert. She was discovered by a wealthy white patron that her mother worked for. In High School she sang soprano with the Oak Park Choral Group and performed in numerous school concerts, at churches, in community programs, and in solo recitals, singing and playing the piano. Price enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts (Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio. At Central State, Price studied music education, hoping to become a music teacher if becoming a performer failed. Price won a four-year scholarship to the esteemed Juilliard School of Music in New York City and left for New York in 1949. She appeared in many of Julliard’s operatic productions. During one of her performances she was seen and heard by composer Virgil Thompson. This performance gave her the start to her career. Virgil Thompson asked her to sing the role of St. Cecelia in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which was her first appearance as a professional. From then on, Price began touring the United States and Europe as a professional singer.

Throughout the 1950’s, Leontyne Price broadened her career as an opera singer by starring in a number of works in recital halls, opera stages, and on television. In February 1955, with Samuel Barber on piano, she made her television debut as Floria Tosca in an NBC-TV Opera Company production of Puccini’s Tosca, and in 1956, she starred in NBC’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. The following year, Price made her opera house debut as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera House. On July 2, 1958, she debuted in London at Covent Garden, and two years later, she played Aida to a packed house at the venerable La Scala on May 21, 1960, becoming the first black singer to sing a major role at this citadel of opera.

Leontyne Price achieved one of the greatest artistic victories of her career on January 27, 1961, when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance ignited a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met’s history. Critic Harold Schonberg wrote: “Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top.”In 1961 Musical America voted her Musician of the Year with a poll of editors and critics all over the country. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. Price also was chosen to open the Met’s 1966-1967 season as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Over the years, Leontyne Price has won fifteen Grammy Awards for vocal recordings, and she has been on the cover of Time and twenty-seven other magazines. In addition, she was the only opera singer to be represented in the list of “Remarkable American Women: 1776-1976” in Life Magazine’s Bicentennial issue in 1976.

In 1999 Price was inducted into the Mississippi Musician’s Hall of Fame and in 2000 she was the recipient of the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

McGee, Willie

On December 3, 1945, Willie McGee, an African-American resident of Laurel, was indicted by an all-white Jones County grand jury for raping a married white woman. McGee, in his thirties, was a delivery man at a local grocery store. Although McGee’s appointed trial counsel could not confer with him prior to trial because of McGee’s distraught emotional state, McGee’s capital murder case was tried three days following the indictment on December 6, 1945. McGee was found guilty and sentenced to death by an all-white Jones County jury. However, McGee’s first death sentence was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court because the trial court failed to consider McGee’s motion for a change of venue.

McGee’s second trial, which took place in Forrest County, Mississippi, also resulted in a guilty conviction and death sentence. Again, McGee’s death sentence was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found the exclusion of African-American Jones County residents on its grand juries, who are responsible for returning indictments against the accused, violated the rights of equal protection under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
In November 1948, McGee was again indicted for the alleged rape. McGee’s third trial was held in Jones County. McGee was sentenced to death by an all-white Jones County jury. The Mississippi Supreme Court denied McGee’s subsequent appeals. The case involving Willie McGee received national and international attention. In fact, civil rights attorneys from out of state came forward to represent McGee during his appeals process. These attorneys included New York attorney Bella S. Abzug, Washington, D.C., attorney David Rein, and Florida attorney John Coe.

McGee’s advocates argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court that new evidence had emerged since the trial, including the fact that Willie McGee was a victim of mob violence during the trial and the jury had knowledge of this violence. Further, McGee’s advocates argued that McGee was subjected to beatings and threats by deputies once he was arrested for the alleged rape.

Mississippians such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wright reacted to the controversial case. In March 1951, Faulkner (the 1950 Nobel Prize Laureate) spoke to a group of northern and southern McGee supporters, arguing that McGee was framed and innocent of the charges against him. Wright raised $18,000 for McGee’s widow and children. Williams even included reference to the McGee case in his play Orpheus Descending through the character of Carol Catrere (Act 1, Scene 1):

“And when that Willie McGee thing came along, he was sent to the chair for having improper relations with a white whore. [Her voice is like a passionate cantation.] I made a fuss about it. I put on a potato sack and set out for the Capitol on foot. This was in winter. I walked barefoot in this burlap sack to deliver personal protest to the governor of the state. Oh, you know how far I got, six miles out of town. Hooted, jeered at, even spit on—every step of the way and then arrested.”

United States Supreme Court Justice Burton granted McGee a stay of execution on July 26, 1950. However, once McGee’s habeas corpus relief was denied, McGee was executed on May 8, 1951.

Sources:

Payne, Cleveland. Laurel: A History of the Black Community, 1882-1962.
McGee v. State, 26 So.2d 680 (Miss. 1946)
McGee v. State, 33 So.2d 843 (Miss. 1948)
McGee v. State, 40 So.2d 160 (Miss. 1949)
McGee v. State, 47 So.2d 155 (Miss. 1950)
McGee v. State, 51 So.2d 783 (Miss. 1951)

Marsh, Charles

Author of “The Last Days: a Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South.”

This book tells of Marsh’s childhood growing up in Laurel, Miss. (8 Highland Woods), and of his minister father. Marsh’s father, Bob Marsh, was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Laurel (607 West 5th Street Laurel, MS 39440, 601-649-5710) in the 1960s. He was the pastor of Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and several other prominent KKK members. In May, 1964, Bowers authorized “the elimination”of “Goatee,”the Klan’s name for Mickey Schwerner, the head of the CORE office in Meridian, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. The murder was intended to send a message to northern civil rights workers to stay out of Mississippi. The murder was called “Plan 4”. Sam Bowers was a Laurel businessman that owned Sambo Amusement Company (located 2 miles from First Baptist Church) and used it as the headquarters of the White Knights of the KKK of Mississippi, which turned out to be the most violent sector of the KKK. Jones County and the county seat of Laurel was the epicenter of the Klan’s violent reign. Sam lived in the backroom of the amusement company.

Bowers was also charged with ordering the 1966 murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer had earned the Klan’s enmity by allowing his store to be used by blacks to pay the $2 poll tax necessary to register to vote. Dahmer was killed on January 10, 1966, in a firebombing of his home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The actual hit-man turned out to be Clifford Wilson, who attended Marsh’s church and was awarded Laurel’s Man of the Year award in 1967 by Bob Marsh. Bob did not know at the time that Clifford was a member of the KKK. Marsh later stated that he felt like a complete fool and that he let his church down. Enrollment in the KKK began to shrink from 10,000 in the early ’60s to a few hundred in the late ’60s, and as a result of bad press Bowers ordered a bombing of the Laurel Leader-Call in the fall of 1967.