The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)


Alvin London dropped out of the McGee case after the Mississippi Supreme Court granted its stay of execution on June 3, 1949. But in 1952, when he talked to Spivak, he still had unfinished business on his mind: The CRC hadn’t paid him for the hurry-up work he and Poole did after the U.S. Supreme Court turned them down.

“[T]hey called up and said, ‘Just do anything. Just do whatever you can,’” he said. “And we worked around here right up until ten or eleven o’clock that night, and finally got a stay. We did just about everything and almost the impossible…and they refused to pay.” London said that, without them, the story would have ended that night. The investigator shrugged. He sympathized, but he had nothing to do with the CRC.

Poole stayed involved, and though it was a while before he did any more McGee work, he had McGee-related business to attend to that year. The libel suit he’d started against the Jackson Daily News was still a going concern, though London dropped out of it. Poole had filed it in April 1948, at first trying to have it heard in Delaware, where the Jackson Daily News was incorporated. Frederick Sullens, owner and chief firebrand of the Jackson Daily News, successfully countersued to have that attempt blocked, so the case wound up at the federal court in Jackson. Things got under way in the spring of 1949, when the opposing sides started taking depositions and filing briefs.

Poole was entering dangerous territory. Sullens was the kind of man who fought back, so it was no surprise that his defense lawyers paved the way for a counterattack. Poole was questioned in Jackson by local attorneys Thomas Watkins and H. V. Watkins, who tried to establish that he knew perfectly well that the CRC was a group with Communist ties. Poole hunkered down, acting as if he were being grilled by HUAC itself, clamming up or claiming ignorance about most of what they wanted to know.

“What kind of organization is the Congress of Civil Rights?” he was asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know where their principal offices are?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you know whether or not they maintain an office or representative in the State of Mississippi?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you know the purpose of the organization?”

“No, I don’t.”

His memory lapse was almost total: Poole said he only recalled the last name of the out-of-state attorney who hired him (“Abzug”), that he didn’t know where she lived, and that he’d conferred with her only once.

He was also pressed about the issue of Mrs. Hawkins’s consent to the rape. Poole had been clear on that, but the Watkinses, like the Mississippi Supreme Court, seemed to think he had something darker in mind. Tom Watkins may have heard rumors about the affair story when he worked with Dixon Pyles before the second trial, because he indicated a general awareness that an unacceptable theory was floating around.

“Did you or not,” Poole was asked, “on one or more occasions prior to, during, and after said trial make the statement that you had proof of the fact that the prosecutrix had had previous relations with Willie McGee?”

“No,” Poole said. “I never would have made a statement to the effect I had absolute proof to that effect. But I did, in reviewing the woman’s testimony…argue the same question that Forrest Jackson argued and that Dixon Pyles and Dan Breland argued, that because of some of the woman’s own testimony it would indicate that there might not have been a lack of consent.”

Neither of these attacks had staying power. Poole wasn’t a Communist and he hadn’t defamed Mrs. Hawkins. But Sullens’s lawyers revealed another strategy, one that was easy to overlook but would ultimately prove fruitful: They started asking detailed questions about Poole’s dealings with small-fry clients, for whom he had handled routine matters like divorces and injury claims. Several years would pass before it became clear what that was all about.

When I set out to start answering basic questions about Rosalee McGee—who she was, where she came from, where she went—I discovered that it wasn’t going to be easy, and that the methods I used to find the Hawkins and McGee families wouldn’t work in her case.

I wrote another letter to the People’s World, but this time there was no magic call from someone with the answer. Over time, I tracked down sons and daughters of people affiliated with the defense—including Bella Abzug’s youngest daughter, Liz, a lawyer based in New York; Dr. MaryLouise Patterson, a pediatrician also living there; and Margaret A. Burnham, a lawyer and professor based at Northeastern University in Boston. None of them knew what became of Rosalee.

The trickiest part was that the name Rosalee McGee was, most likely, an alias. I doubted that she and McGee were ever legally married, since his divorce from Eliza Jane Payton didn’t happen until he was already in jail. For a while, Rosalee was a prominent person—her name appeared in scores of newspaper articles between 1949 and 1951—but once the case was over, she dropped out of sight. Judging by a couple of old newspaper stories I had, it looked as if she’d stayed involved with the CRC. In a 1955 New York Times story, she turned up, alongside William Patterson, at a federal hearing on whether the CRC should be required to register as a Communist-front organization under the Internal Security Act. She refused to answer a question from a Justice Department attorney on the grounds that it would “intimidate me.” Patterson stepped in to say she meant “incriminate.”

Still, the material I had offered small hints here and there. A Jackson Daily News story from June 7, 1950, referred to Rosalee as “Rosie Lee Gilmore McGee,” which made me wonder if Gilmore was her maiden name. And Jessica Mitford’s papers on the McGee case, which are kept at Ohio State, contained an old newspaper profile about Rosalee that yielded another useful clue. It was datelined Detroit, and it featured biographical information I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

“She is a Negro woman,” the story said. “Her name is Rosalee McGee. She is 28 years old. She was married when she was 13. She is the daughter of Henry and Nancy Safford. They were poor farmers in Lexington, Miss. They had 10 children who worked, with their parents, on the tiny farm, from dawn till dark to keep body and soul together.”

I sent the names to a friend from Vanderbilt, E. Thomas Wood, a journalist who does genealogical research as a hobby. He guessed that the name was really Saffold, which he said was more common in that part of Mississippi than Safford. He sent me a page from the 1930 Census that looked as if it might be about the right family. Just below the names Henry and Nancy Saffold was the name Rosetta. The record said she was eleven years old in 1930, which meant she was born around 1919. That sounded right, but it wasn’t an exact match: Rosetta isn’t the same as Rosalee. Was it really the same woman?

While I looked for Rosalee leads, I tried to get somewhere with that other great mystery: the connection between Bertha Mae Crowell and the Hawkins family. The picture Dorothy Hawkins had shown me in September 2006 was definitely a shot of the person I’d interviewed—I’d taken a digital snapshot of Bertha Mae, and the resemblance between her younger and older selves was easy to see. A few months later, I proposed the next logical step to Sandra, Dorothy, and Bertha Mae: that we all get together, compare notes, and see what we could figure out. Everybody agreed.

By then, Bertha Mae had temporarily moved to Mesquite, Texas, where she was staying with her daughter and son-in-law for an extended period. It was up to us to do the traveling, so, one weekend in December, Sandra, Dorothy, and I all got ourselves to Mesquite. On Saturday morning, we met in the lobby of my hotel, climbed into the car, and took off to pay our visit. Sandra brought one of her sons, who was curious to see what happened but asked that I not use his name.

When we got to the right address—a nice house on a typical suburban street—I knocked on the front door. There was no answer, and I had a queasy feeling that Bertha Mae had either forgotten the appointment or decided she didn’t want to go through with it.

In fact, she was in there by herself doing a jigsaw puzzle—her daughter was off at her church, and her son-in-law was out also—so it took her a minute to walk to the door. Dressed in a bathrobe, she flashed her big smile and took us into a living room, where we sat around on chairs and couches and began our rather strange conversation.

After the opening pleasantries, Dorothy pulled out her photo album and opened it to the old picture of Bertha Mae, Ann, and Sandra. Nobody was sure where it had been taken, but it was dated as being from 1942. Dorothy thought it might have been taken at her aunt’s house in Laurel. Bertha Mae had no idea.

“How old do you think you are in that picture?” Sandra said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I must be in my twenties, don’t you think? Probably my twenties, because I’m eighty-eight now. How old are these children?”

“I think I was five,” Sandra said.

“Well, I’m eighty-eight now.”

“I’m going to be seventy in March. I’m sixty-nine. So that—”

“So I’m eighteen years older than you.”

“That’s pretty much what I figured.”

If the picture was taken in 1942, Bertha Mae would have been twenty-three or twenty-four. As she’d told me previously, her mother worked for Willette’s sister, LaVera Hooks, who lived with her husband at thirteenth Street in Laurel before they moved to Hattiesburg. Bertha Mae said she used to hang around with her mother while she worked. As the Hawkins sisters were aware, she had also told me that she was sometimes at their house on South Magnolia.

“Do you mean hanging around Aunt LaVera’s house on Thirteenth, or our house on South Magnolia?” Dorothy asked.

“I go to Billie house too,” she said. “I used to go to Billie house all the time on South Magnolia. I knew everybody on that street.” She named a couple of South Magnolia residents she’d known; they matched names of neighbors whom the Hawkins sisters remembered.

We were going in circles about houses and neighbors and dates when Bertha Mae changed the subject in her sudden way. “But you know what, I don’t…I don’t believe Billie was raped,” she said. “I never would believe she was raped, because the night they say that boy raped her, he gambled all night long with my brother.”

I’d told Sandra and Dorothy about Bertha Mae’s “nightmare theory” a while ago—I didn’t want to set them up for a shock. They weren’t shocked because they didn’t believe it. Their view was that Mrs. Hawkins’s mental problems were triggered by the rape, and that before then she was perfectly normal. I was curious to see if either of these different takes on reality, aired at the same time in the same room, would change anybody’s mind.

Nothing changed on either side. Bertha Mae was sure she had it right, and the daughters were sure they had it right. I didn’t know who was right—I still don’t, though my gut feeling is that it’s very hard to believe the whole case happened simply because of a bad dream that persisted as a giant misunderstanding.

I was just as interested to see how the women related to each other because they were emblematic of a divide about the case that I encountered every time I went to Laurel. Black people, whether they had their facts straight or not, tended to think McGee was innocent, that he was yet another victim of a pattern of injustice and cruelty that was a shared part of their histories. McGee had lost his life, like so many others, so it was only natural for them to gravitate toward explanations that put him in the most favorable light. White people did something similar. Their understanding of the case was usually a mix of fact and myth too, and though they didn’t deny that Jim Crow courts were often unjust, they wanted to believe that, in this instance, McGee had gotten a fair trial and the system had worked.

It was an irreconcilable difference influenced by race and background. What impressed me about Bertha Mae, Sandra, and Dorothy was that they managed to talk about the case, disagree completely, and still enjoy getting a chance to see each other again. There was a lot of mutual affection and laughter in that room, along with inconclusive memories, head-shaking, and puzzled frowns.

“Do you remember telling me that you saw Mrs. Hawkins inside her house, waking up from a nightmare?” I asked Bertha Mae at one point.

“Yeah, she would wake up from nightmares.”

“Tell me about it. What did you see?”

“I can’t remember all that. I just remember Billie had nightmares, just like me.”

“I thought you actually observed her one day, waking up terrified.”

“Yeah, I been to her house when she woke up and have a nightmare. Like she’s dreaming, and then she tell me her dream.”

Before long, she repeated her theory about the rape. “I believe she dreamed,” she said firmly. “I don’t believe it happened.”

“I have a question,” Sandra cut in. “If you don’t think it really happened, why do you think our lights and telephone would have been not working?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I really don’t believe the lady…you couldn’t make me believe it.”

Sandra said she clearly remembered that “we had no lights. And what mother did was, she ran out screaming. And of course that woke all of us up and we all—”

“Did you see him?” Bertha Mae asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“All right. Anybody can run out screaming. I can jump up in the air with a nightmare and run out screaming. I really don’t believe he raped her.”

During the rest of the conversation, we went back and forth between small talk and talk of the crime. Bertha Mae didn’t budge: She knew what she knew. When challenged on this, her fallback position was that, unless somebody saw Willie McGee running away from the scene with their own eyes, she would never believe it.

The Hawkins sisters didn’t budge either. After we left, we went to lunch at a local chain and talked about the interview. Sandra’s son was impressed that Bertha Mae remembered so much. He didn’t say what he thought about her nightmare notions.

Sandra did, rejecting them without any apparent feelings of doubt. Referring to her mother, she said, “Bertha Mae has confused the time element. Mother did, she would wake up in the night screaming and running…. But I really think Bertha Mae has confused the time.”

On the Rosalee front, a breakthrough came when I went to the Library of Congress in early 2007 and finally got a look at the archived materials of the CRC, which weren’t available in New Mexico. That’s when I found out that the papers contained dozens of letters written by Willie, Bessie, and Rosalee—something that wasn’t mentioned in any of the books or clips I had at that point. Among other things, the letters confirmed that Rosalee’s maiden name was Saffold.

She wrote at least three dozen times between mid-1949 and 1953. In mid-1949, she announced her existence to the CRC twice—first on May 20 and again on June 18—perhaps because she was on the move and didn’t want to risk missing their reply. The first letter was sent from 102 West Church Street in Jackson. The second letter’s return address said only “Laurel, Miss.” The wording was slightly different in each but the gist was the same: Rosalee was letting the CRC know that she existed, that she was McGee’s legal wife, and that she, Willie, and their four children desperately needed help.

“To The Civil Rights Congress,” the first one said. “I am the wife of Willie McGee who have been behind iron bars since Nov. 1945. We have four children and no one to help me with them and I have been very quite until he get this last sentence in April. I am a poor colored woman and I need my husband with these four kids to help me haveing to send two away to Neb. and I wont to no will he go to the chair on June 3. Please save him for me.”

Like most of Rosalee’s letters, this one had a lot of accurate information in it, showing that she knew what was going on. The “last sentence in April” was the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision to uphold McGee’s guilty verdict. June 3, 1949, was the new execution date. In this and the second letter, which she mailed to Patterson, she also displayed an awareness of the Laurel rape case involving Laverne Yarbrough and the five-year-old black girl.

“There are many other crimes did and their life wasnt taken even in this same county of Jones I live in,” she told Patterson. “Some one but not my race did crime on a 5 year old colored child his life was not taken.”

Despite what Rosalee said, the “four kids” weren’t with her—they were out west with Eliza Jane Payton. Nor had she ever been a permanent resident of Laurel. But it seemed likely that one or two children were under her wing. She mentioned the possibility of sending two kids off to Nebraska, and she offered to send pictures of McGee, herself, and “our oldest child.”

For Rosalee, the pressing issue was money. “Please help my husband to get some other sentence if you can,” she wrote. “I don’t have any money. I will work to help him save his life…. Please let me hear from you all at once.”

The letters were written in several different hands—other people must have taken down her words for her, at least sometimes—and she signed her name in many different ways, including Rosalee McGee, Rosalie McGee, Rosie Lee McGee, Rosalee Etta Safford, Rosalie Etta Safford, Rosalie Etta Saffolds, and Rosalee Safford. Over the years, she used three different addresses in Jackson, one in Laurel, and one each in the towns of Durant and Lexington, where she had originally come from.

Once Rosalee got started, she was a diligent correspondent, writing frequently that summer and fall. On July 19, 1949, after McGee’s June 3 execution was delayed, she wrote to tell the CRC that McGee was sick and that he was being harassed in jail.

“What I wanted to tell you is the jailer got angery because you wrote him about Willie,” she said. “[H]e blew up at Willie and wonted to know how did you all know about it…. i told him i didn’t know no more about C.R.C. than what was wrote up in the paper.”

On September 2, after the first U.S. Supreme Court appeal had been filed, Rosalee sent a letter indicating that neither she nor McGee was quite up to speed on developments. McGee, for example, wanted to know if “Lawyer Poole” was still representing him.

But they definitely understood what it meant when the Court said no in October. “Willie is almost crazy,” Rosalee wrote. “[H]e wont to hear from you…he did all right until Monday after he read the paper and the U.S. turn him down. Lawyer Poole say he happen heard from you all in some time in fack he told me he was not McGee lawyer any more and there wasn’t any more to be done.”

Patterson wrote Rosalee and Willie separately, saying, in his stately way, that the fight was still on. “The United States Supreme Court has ruled against Willie, but you must not despair….

“We are not giving up. You must not. The fight for Willie’s life will yet be won.”

Before long, the CRC realized that Rosalee’s letters had value as a tool for generating support and funds, and it started telling her story in press releases. “Ever since the frame-up began in November 1945, Rosalee McGee has been writing in an effort to save her innocent husband’s life,” said a release from October 31. That wasn’t true, and unless CRC officials had forgotten what was in their own files, they should have known McGee wasn’t living with a loyal wife when he was arrested. Louis Burnham’s report from December 1945 specifically said he was separated.

If Willie and Rosalee didn’t meet in 1945, then when did it happen?

The letters didn’t say, but there was a clue in statements Rosalee made a few months later, when she told Willie’s life story for a series of articles that ran in a left-wing newspaper called the New York Compass. Rosalee spun an elaborate tale, saying she was thirteen when they married, and that McGee had rescued her from parents who couldn’t do anything to improve her life.

She also mentioned that, when she went to see McGee in the Hinds County jail, she visited a cousin of hers named Marvin Murray, who was on death row for the alleged murder of a jailer in Wiggins, a tiny town an hour south of Laurel. The way Rosalee described it in the Compass, she was prevented from visiting McGee at first—only Bessie and his lawyers were allowed in—but because she was able to visit Murray, she caught glimpses. “They let me in to see him and sometimes I can see Willie off in the distance,” she said, “and I bring him some clothes with my cousin’s clothes, but I can’t talk to Willie.”

Various appeals to save Murray failed, and he was electrocuted on June 29, 1948. Rosalee said the visitation ban was lifted after Murray’s death, though the jailers were sadistic about it, telling her that Willie was next and even sitting her down in the electric chair, with a hood on her head, so she could “see how it felt.”

That sounds doubtful—the chair wasn’t stored at the Hinds County Courthouse—and I also wonder if Rosalee didn’t reverse the chain of events. That is, she may have gone to the jail, at first, for the purpose of visiting her cousin, and that’s how she initially met McGee.

My contact with McGee’s descendants kept up sporadically after I met them in Las Vegas that first time in 2005. Sometimes I’d talk on the phone with Bridgette or Tracey, or I’d e-mail them when I came across information I knew they’d want to hear. I told them about finding Evelyn Smith McDowell—who died in 2006—and Donna Poole Mills. I also sent them transcripts of the first and third trials, sent Bridgette copies of Eliza Jane Payton’s marriage license and divorce papers, and told them what I knew about Rosalee McGee’s real name.

I hoped we would travel to Mississippi together at some point—all three McGees, Donna, Liz Abzug, and me—but that wasn’t looking likely as the months went by. Everybody had jobs, so coordinating a trip like that wasn’t going to be easy, especially if Della decided to go.

Halfway through 2007, I had a different idea, which was to invite people to Santa Fe for a sort of reunion and informational swap meet. By that point, there were still a few people on the defense side I hadn’t found yet, but the final roster of invitees was pretty complete: Liz, Bridgette, Della, Tracey, Donna, and Todd Pyles. Everybody showed up except Todd, who said yes but then decided he wasn’t up for traveling.

They all came out on a weekend in July, arriving at different times. In a conference room of the building where I worked, I’d piled up things from my now-huge collection of McGee case material—five file drawers of clips, press releases, court documents, FBI files, correspondence, taped interviews, and photographs.

There was no plan except to let people meet one another, look at whatever they wanted, and ask questions. All of us had our areas of expertise. Liz has been deeply involved in watching over her mother’s legacy and papers (which, unfortunately, contain almost nothing about McGee). Bridgette, Tracey, and Donna were researching books they wanted to write—and they knew the most about their own families. By then I knew a lot about the trials, appeals, and the bigger picture: the political context of civil rights and anti-Communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and how that inevitably helped shape the outcome of the case.

Bridgette and Della left Las Vegas by car early on Saturday morning, with Bridgette’s husband, Harold, at the wheel. Liz was already in town but wasn’t coming in until midday. For a while on Saturday, Donna, Tracey, and I were there by ourselves, pawing through papers and talking. Donna, a kind-hearted brunette, didn’t know about the Rosalee-as-imposter angle yet, so that was a surprise to her. Tracey and I were talking about Rosalee when Donna said, “So Rosalee came in the picture—”

“We don’t know,” said Tracey, who spoke in a measured way and had a wise-looking face that sat under a big cascade of hair. “We don’t know who she is.”

“Oh, really? But she seems to, like, take over claim of the family.”

“Pretty much. That’s why we want to know who she is.”

I told Donna about Rosetta Saffold and the letters, pointing to a file folder full of them and saying, “She just sort of announced herself to the Civil Rights Congress and said, ‘Greetings! I am the wife of Willie McGee—’”

“Yes,” Tracey said, “her first letter was to Patterson in 1949.”

“I’ve been trying to figure out if the Civil Rights Congress was aware of the discrepancy,” I said, “and I think they probably were, because—”

“I think it’s very difficult for them not to be,” Tracey said.

As we looked at pictures of Rosalee—a striking woman who seemed right at home in the suits and hats she wore while making public appearances up north—Donna asked why the CRC would go along with such an elaborate deception. Tracey gave what I assumed was the right answer: They were creating a better public image for McGee, a man who had enough problems already.

“They wanted a prettier picture, probably, of Willie,” she said.

“You know, a married man with children, something to pull for…sympathy. That’s what I think happened.”

Later, though, Tracey made a point I didn’t agree with, something that Bridgette brought up when she arrived that afternoon. They both found it hard to believe that a “country girl” like Rosetta could have been plucked out of obscurity, taken north, and repackaged to become a viable public figure.

I didn’t find that odd at all. It happened frequently during those old cases, when wives or mothers of imprisoned black men were brought north to testify about life under Jim Crow. It didn’t matter if the refugees were rough around the edges; that was part of their authenticity. The CRC had brought Bessie McGee up north, and the same tactic was used during the Scottsboro and Martinsville Seven cases. After Scottsboro Boy Haywood Patterson escaped from Alabama in 1948, he was arrested by FBI agents two years later in Detroit. The CRC mounted a successful attempt to prevent his extradition back to Alabama, after which it deployed him as a public speaker.

Tracey saw it differently. Later, while I was telling Donna about the CRC’s efforts to publicize the case and turn McGee into a cause, Tracey said she was grateful they’d done all that, but it made her uneasy. “On the other side of it,” she said, “I can’t get rid of the feeling that they also manipulated it.”

How so? “Well, I’m curious as to what connection there is with Rosalee. And how that came about.”

Just before this, the rest of the McGees had called from the road: They’d had car trouble, and for a while it looked like they might not make it. In the interim, Liz showed up with her partner, a woman named Erica Foman, coming into the room on a wave of Abzugian energy. I’d sent her the third-trial transcript. She’d never seen it before, and soon after she settled in, I asked for her assessment.

“It was ridiculous!” she said in a New York accent that brought her mother to mind, laughing and waving it off. “Today, they would throw it out at the first hearing.”

We talked for a bit, and then I took everybody to a different room, where we watched videotapes of interviews with Dixon Pyles and a black woman from Laurel named Rose McGee. They’d both been interviewed on camera in the 1970s by a British crew that was making a documentary about Jessica Mitford. Copies turned up in Mitford’s papers at Ohio State.

As we watched, it was interesting to see how people reacted to Pyles, who, to me, was a familiar Southern type: a smart, loud, old-fashioned lawyer who liked to tell stories and jokes. But he gave Tracey and Liz the creeps, and to them, it seemed evident—as it had to historian Gerald Horne—that Pyles’s defense of McGee must have been half-hearted. I found that strange, because I didn’t hear Pyles say anything they should have objected to. He even reiterated his opinion that McGee was innocent, saying, “I never believed that he was guilty of rape.”

The point isn’t that they were wrong or I was right: It’s that we had such different reactions to the same information. To me, this pattern was starting to seem like a hidden code that might explain some of the McGee case’s persistent mysteries.

By now I had a mountain of facts, but I still didn’t know what really happened. Most likely, I never would, and I was beginning to suspect that a similar uncertainty had probably been a burden for almost everybody involved in the case. I didn’t think any of the lawyers or judges really knew the truth—much less anyone who read about McGee in newspapers and magazines at the time. But then, as now, people on both the left and right arrived at their passionate opinions based on a mix of information, misinformation, prejudices, and wishful thinking.

The problem with the evidence I had was that you could take any piece of it, hold it up to the light, and interpret it in a way that fit whatever you wanted to believe. Everybody did this, on both sides. Bertha Mae knew McGee was innocent, and there was no telling her otherwise. Mrs. Hawkins’s daughters knew he wasn’t, and their minds didn’t seem open to the possibility that she might have been emotionally imbalanced even before the alleged attack.

The McGees, for their part, were sure Willie was blameless, even though they knew he was a man who had lived on the wild side. Tracey told me once over the phone, “The picture we’re getting as we talk to relatives is that Willie was a dog. He was a dog on two legs.” But somehow it never occurred to the McGees that he might actually have gotten drunk one night, and, in an act of lust, desperation, or rage, crawled through a window to get his hands on something that white society said he could never possess.

For all I knew, I was doing the same thing, and I thought about this when we watched the Rose McGee interview. Rose, a friendly old woman from Laurel, wasn’t related to Willie McGee, but she did have an indirect connection to the case. She was a sister of Hettie Johnson, the woman John Poole had wanted to call at the third trial. She said she’d worked as a maid at various times for Mrs. Hawkins’s other sister, Thelma Floyd, for Mrs. Hawkins’s mother and aunt, and for Mrs. Hawkins herself. She said Willie’s mother had worked for Willette’s parents, and that Willette grew up knowing McGee. According to her, their forbidden affair started with this childhood acquaintance. “Billie and Willie,” she said, “they began to be friends, and they grew up to be lovers.”

Of course, she also said that McGee ran away to Chicago, not Nevada or California, and that his mother’s name was Rose. To me, it sounded like another Laurel rumor, and I had trouble believing that Willie and Willette had been sandbox sweethearts. Liz and Tracey found it more convincing, but I had to wonder if they didn’t know enough about the case to be adequately confused.

Della, Bridgette, and Harold made it to Santa Fe in the early afternoon, but they called and said they were having trouble finding their way into town. I told them to park it where they were—a McDonald’s way out on Santa Fe’s main commercial drag—and I’d come get them. When I got there, Della was standing outside the vehicle, on blazing blacktop, scowling over the glow of a peppermint blouse. Her mood didn’t improve much for the rest of the day.

Part of the problem was simple: She felt bad. Della was old, they’d had a tough drive, and she’d gone from 2,000 feet to 7,000 feet in a few hours, which would give anybody a headache. But she was generally cranky that day, and once we got her situated around the table, she wouldn’t talk about much of anything except her irritation with Rosalee McGee.

“OK, there was this lady from Mississippi, had four kids, gave our name, and she was trying to get Social Security for her kids in Mississippi,” she explained to Liz and Donna as she looked at a picture of Rosalee that I’d pulled out. “A gentleman that helped us out was a schoolteacher and that’s how we got Social Security, through this teacher. That’s why I say this woman here is not my mama, and I wished I knowed where she’s at because…she probably dead now.”

Bridgette was less talkative than the first time we’d met, but, like Tracey, she said she didn’t think Rosalee was a real country person. “She went on after that to still work for the CRC, right? So I’m thinking this lady was already in politics, and somebody hired her.” She didn’t believe Bessie McGee wrote the letters attributed to her either. “Somebody wrote those letters for her,” she said.

That day, it started to feel as if the McGees and I were heading down separate paths. It seemed obvious that Della, for one, would never be able to believe that I was trustworthy enough to tell her family’s story. She also felt, I think, that I was stealing something that belonged to her. Liz mentioned that afternoon that I was working on a book, news that Della took in with a display of suspicious surprise, as if I’d been sneaky about it.

I hadn’t been sneaky—I had fact-checked my proposal with Bridgette and notified her promptly when I got a contract, so the book was no secret. But I didn’t say anything, trying to imagine how this weekend might look to Della. I’d laid out all these documents, thinking I was being helpful, but to her it probably seemed like a show of force. (I know more about this now. Let me handle it.) The McGees weren’t financially comfortable in the way the Hawkinses were, and, no doubt, Della hadn’t been handed many gifts by life.

Meanwhile, the Willie McGee story seemed to have value, but other people were extracting it. Never mind that the story was so confusing and fragmented and error-filled that it didn’t have any real substance until you invested a few thousand hours in it. People had been taking things from Della her entire life. I imagine she saw me as the latest in a long line of plunderers.

Rosalee had a busy spring and summer in 1950, marked by stress, fear, and the start of an exciting new chapter in her life. During this period, she exchanged several letters with Lottie Gordon, a woman in the New York office who ran the CRC’s Prisoners Relief Committee. Gordon arranged for Willie to receive Bible tracts and newspapers and for Rosalee to get $5 checks and boxes of clothing. “Please let us know how many children you have, what their ages are, what size clothes they wear, if they have any special interests,” Gordon wrote in late February. “We cannot promise much, except that we will do whatever is possible.” Rosalee wrote back with the ages and sizes.

in your letter you as me how meny children i have. it is four of them ages 12, 11, 9, 8, three girls 1 boy.


Oldest Girl Wear Dress

14. shoes 6 1/2

next girl [size] 12

shoes 5 1/2

son wear shirts size

10 or 12 shoes 5

Fourth wear 10 or 11

shoes 4 1/2

Why did she bother to pretend? To help McGee, and to survive. For all practical purposes, Willie and Rosalee were a couple by then—they even sent out a Christmas card one year—and they needed to present a unified front as a family under siege. Willie must have worried that the CRC would drop him if they knew he’d abandoned his wife and children in 1942. Meanwhile, Rosalee needed subsistence money, and her association with McGee wasn’t helping her job prospects. In early April she wrote:

i work so hard and i be so tied when I get home. you see i had a hard time getting a job in town so i am working in country. i had a good Job i mean what you call good here. soon as the Lady found out i was willie wife she didn’t wont me to get of to go see him. she did lots of talk about him i didn’t thank was right so i quit and every where i would go seem like she would beat me there. i stop telling my real name. I love my Husband altho some time i don’t feel like going but i will have to until he is free again to help me with kids. he cryied sunday when i tol him i had to walk almost two miles to get to my job…i told he not to worry i get by. Easter is just another day with me. as long as he is alive and i can see him i pray every nits to my father in heaven to please let him come back to me just one more time.

That summer produced more evidence that Rosalee had two children in her custody. In June and July 1950, Gordon made arrangements with the directors of a summer camp in New York State, called Kinderland, to send “the McGee children” north sometime during July and August. Kinderland was one of several camps from that era that served the children of leftists and Communists. The letters that passed between Lottie and Rosalee leave no doubt: Somebody was heading north. “I hope that by the time you get this, you also received a large package of clothes which I sent you last week,” Gordon wrote on July 10. “This package has a lot of stuff that the children will be able to use in camp…we will be able to take care of [them] at the camp for one month.”

Another factor in Rosalee’s deception may have been ordinary opportunism: Her exposure to the CRC gave her a glimpse of a different world outside of Mississippi, and she wanted to see more of it. In May 1950, the CRC paid for her first trip to New York, where she debuted as a public figure at a CRC event called the “100 Cases” dinner, which publicized government attacks on various Communist and left-wing leaders. On hand were people like William Patterson, Paul Robeson, and Vito Marcantonio. In a photograph from that night, Rosalee is standing next to Robeson, staring up and beaming as if she were looking at Zeus.

The Daily Worker profiled Rosalee on June 18, telling the inspirational but false story of her life as Mrs. Willie McGee. “Before Mrs. McGee could come north, she had to place her four children…where they would be safe,” the story said. “Two…are being cared for by a sister in Ohio; the other two are with their grandmother…. Until she came north a few weeks ago, Rosalee McGee was working in the little Mississippi town where she lived with her husband and children before the KKK state administration of Mississippi reached out against her family.”

On July 11, she spoke in front of 9,000 people at Madison Square Garden; on the 22nd, she appeared at a mass meeting in Harlem. By the 25th, she was in Washington, D.C., with Patterson and others on a failed mission to gain an audience with President Truman. She was back in Jackson in time for the dramatic events that occurred there on July 25 and 26.

During all these comings and goings, did the CRC realize Rosalee wasn’t the person it advertised? It should have. By 1950, even Mississippi newspapermen were aware that there were two women in McGee’s life. Commenting on Rosalee’s New York trip, a Leader-Call editorial said, “We have not heard whether Willie’s wife and mother are back in Laurel yet. Neither have we heard which wife of Willie the speaker…was. Willie has two wives and four children, we understand. One is of long standing and one of war-time date. Whoever she is, we’d say she was getting into bad company.”

Late in 2007, I finally made it to Rosalee’s part of Mississippi—Holmes County, which contains the towns of Lexington and Durant—armed with my one piece of information: Her name was Rosetta Saffold, and she’d lived there once. That was still all I had.

At times during and after the McGee case, Rosalee left Jackson and went home to stay with her parents, writing letters that featured two different Holmes County return addresses, but these were old and imprecise: mailbox numbers on Rural Route 3 in Lexington and Route 2 in Durant. Before coming to Mississippi, I’d sent letters and photocopies of her picture to a couple dozen people named Saffold, then I’d followed up with a call. Nobody had heard of her, and nobody could suggest anybody who might know.

So, groping, I called a few small-town libraries, asking for the name of anybody who was known to be an African-American genealogy buff. At the library in Kosciusko—the seat of the next county to the east, Attala—a woman gave me a name and number for Katharine Carr Esters, a seventy-nine-year-old who lived in the country north of town. I called her. She was friendly and said I should come see her whenever I was in town. She knew of an elderly white couple who she thought might know about “the Durant Saffolds.” When my trip shaped up, I called again, and we set a time.

I drove up from Jackson on a Thursday—about seventy miles—and found my way to Esters’s house, but nobody answered when I knocked. She’d told me on the phone that she was a dialysis patient, so I began to imagine the worst—that she’d dropped dead in there and nobody knew it yet. I walked around, ringing the front doorbell, looking for a big picture window to look through, checking the back. There was a private fishing lake out there, complete with a bait-and-tackle shack and a sign that read “Heritage House Mini-Lakes. Entrance fee: $1.50. Catfish & bass: $1.50 pound.” Unfortunately, it was closed, so I knew Esters wasn’t in there selling bait.

Calling 911 seemed like overkill: For all I knew, she’d simply forgotten and left, and I didn’t see anything in the driveway or garage that looked like the family car. I took off and drove to the library, where a woman gave me a number for Esters’s niece. I left her a message, telling her about my concerns, and then aimed my car west toward Lexington. The only thing left to do was go to the courthouse and see if I could find anything in the old county records.

About halfway there, my phone rang. It was the niece, telling me that Esters was all right. I’d guessed wrong, but not by much: She’d developed a blood clot in her left arm the day before and had to be driven to Jackson for emergency treatment. She was heading home now and would still be glad to see me if I could come by that night.

When I got to Lexington, I was told at the courthouse that the records I wanted were stored off-site, at a repurposed commercial building down the street. I got set up in there for the familiar marriage-record hunt, but I wasn’t optimistic as I started pulling out the old ledgers. I figured I might find a record for Rosalee’s parents, Henry and Nancy, but I had no reason to feel sure that Rosetta Saffold had ever been married in Lexington. That was just a hunch. Now that I knew her maiden name was Saffold, not Gilmore, I wondered about the old Jackson Daily News story that called her “Rosie Lee Gilmore McGee.” Maybe Gilmore was a married name.

I found her parents soon enough: Henry and Nancy were married on January 23, 1916. But as I went through page after page of names, I didn’t see Rosetta Saffold or any close variation. And then, in the last ledger, almost at the end of the S names, there it was: Rosetta Saffold, spelled “Rossetta” in this instance. On December 13, 1941, she’d married a Lexington man named George Gilmore Jr. He was twenty-five, she was twenty-two. The only other information was a preacher’s name (L. B. Benson) and her father’s name, Henry. It was definitely her.

That night, at the home of Katharine Carr Esters, we sat in her den while she wearily described her health adventures. Her blood clot required a surgical procedure, which she had after her grandson zoomed her down to Jackson. “I have a Lincoln Town Car,” she said matter-of-factly, reclining her long, large body on an adjustable bed while she talked. “It’s just as comfortable as the ambulance ride to me.”

I didn’t understand what the procedure involved—she described it as “a reaming, when they cut your skin open and go up in to there.” Sadly, she wasn’t the only family member with health problems: Her niece’s husband, who had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy, had just lost all his teeth. “He had a tooth the size of an orange because of an infection, and they had to pull every tooth in his head,” she said.

Stating the obvious, Esters said that, with all this reaming and pulling going on, she hadn’t had time to check on the people she’d told me about, but she would. I told her about the Gilmore-Saffold marriage license, and she said she would most certainly ask around about any Durant-and Lexington-area Gilmores too.

She didn’t do any of that—that week or ever—but I didn’t mind. As usual, it was more than enough to get a chance to talk to a Mississippi old-timer. Esters had had an amazing life, which she wrote about a few years ago in a self-published memoir called Jay Bird Creek and My Recollections. (She sold me a hardcover copy on the spot; it was a bargain at $20.) Once I absorbed enough details about her past, I couldn’t help but notice a few similarities between her struggles and those of Rosalee McGee.

Esters was born in 1928 in rural Attala County, in a three-room log cabin that was typical of the houses that country blacks lived in back then. “Rural dwellings for black folk were mostly just rustic huts,” she recalled in her book. “…Ordinarily just two rooms were heated: the kitchen and the bedroom where parents slept. That room, with an open wood-burning fireplace, doubled as a living room.”

Her great-grandfather was a white Civil War veteran named Alfred Carr who’d had a black mistress, Ceeley Johnson, from whom Esters was descended. Her father was a black World War I combat veteran who’d lost a hand in a sawmill accident in 1927. Pushed into share-cropping by the Depression, he refused to work in that dead-end system, so the family lived off a disability pension he received. Esters’s mother had arthritis and was bedridden for days at a time, and two of her brothers, including her twin, had died young. As a child, she hauled a lot of water around the house and farm, tended animals, and picked cotton while extracting whatever education she could from second-rate country schools.

She’d learned her alphabet at home, writing on the backs of can and flour sack labels. Later, starting in 1938, she got some of her education at a Presbyterian-affiliated boarding school near West Point, Mississippi. But she didn’t graduate: Family financial problems forced her to move north to New Jersey before she finished her senior year. She lived with relatives and earned paychecks that helped with the money crisis back home.

Esters got married there in 1947 to Sam Sanford, a soldier who turned out to be a womanizer. They had two kids together, whom she took care of by herself when he was sent off to Guam. She lived for a few months with his family in Tennessee, in a dilapidated house that she tried to improve with money she earned as a cotton-picker. Her in-laws looked down on that—picking cotton was low-class work—but they changed their minds when she started bringing a lot of money home. “I was able to pull from 400 to 550 pounds a day where most women only pulled from 100 to 150,” she wrote. “I was proud of myself and in the end they were all very pleased, too.”

Her marriage to Sam ended in the early 1950s, and she settled in Milwaukee, remarrying there and finding jobs with the Urban League and a Veteran’s Administration hospital. Because of her precarious financial situation, she placed the two children with her Tennessee in-laws, sending them money for upkeep, and they weren’t reunited for several years. In the 1960s, Esters got involved in civil rights politics in Milwaukee. She moved back to Mississippi in 1972, where her experience in community organizing led to appointments on the state mental health and probation and parole boards.

In short, she’d become a local big shot, a status that was compounded by the fact that she was a second cousin of Kosciusko’s most famous former citizen, Oprah Winfrey. In 2006, Winfrey presented Kosciusko with a major civic gift, a $5.5-million Boys & Girls Club. Standing next to her at the ribbon-cutting ceremony was none other than Katharine Carr Esters, who had helped organize early meetings between Winfrey and town officials.

In the context of the McGee case, what interested me about Katharine’s story was how it related to Rosalee. A major theme of Jay Bird Creek is the importance of education, faith, and a work ethic to a person trying to overcome disadvantaged circumstances. But, no doubt, that path didn’t work for everybody in Jim Crow Mississippi. If I was reading Rosetta Saffold right, she’d had it very hard herself. Judging by the content and literacy level of her letters, there was no way she’d ever had the chance to go off to a boarding school.

But Rosalee was smart and capable in her own way. With two kids, no skills, and a place at the bottom of the socioeconomic pecking order, she did what she had to do: She hustled.