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Reflections: The Southern Lady from Mississippi

Enjoy our “Reflections” post — one of many vignettes and stories featuring memories of days gone by. This installment is from Brent Coleman of Hamilton, Mississippi, as seen in “The Oxford So & So.”
If you would like to contribute your own Reflections story, send it, along with photos, to hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

1920s Mississippi Streets. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

After having left the state of Mississippi many years ago, her birthplace and the place she loved, the Southern Lady returned. She came back to the small community known as Gattman, Mississippi where she had lived throughout her childhood. She went to and graduated from Sulligent High School in Sulligent, Alabama, and later going on to Mississippi State University for a BA Degree, University of Mississippi for a Master’s and back to Mississippi State University for a Doctorate Degree. But it was there in Gattman where the story began.

Each summer, after age seven, she would go to Prairie, Mississippi to spend some time with her Uncle John Oldham and his wife Nettie, who both lived and worked on a plantation. Here is where this writer enters the story of the Souther Lady from Mississippi. To my surprise I received an email from a Mr. Saverio Gaudiano after my name had caught his attention from the website I had started on the Gulf Ordnance Plant in Prairie. Mr. Gaudiano asked if I would assist Dr. Jo Miller if she came to the Aberdeen/Prairie part of Mississippi. Of course I sent an email stating that I would. He further stated that Dr. Jo Miller was doing some research on her aunt and uncle who had raised an African American child during the 1920s, which was during the latter part of the days of the plantations. Mr. Guadiano had worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Houston, Texas. His resume was beyond impressive. Being a lawman I could identify with the word “Space” as in Program, because that was all I sometimes had between me and the “wrongdoer.”
Last May I received an email pertaining to the time and place Jo Miller would be arriving in Aberdeen. Jo was accompanied by a friend, Jeanie Pullen, also a retired employee of NASA, in Houston. Jo had come with one thing in mind … to search for information on Ezell Jefferson, the main character of her book. She knew little about her main character’s life up to now, except that on a cold, winter morning sometime in the 1920s her uncle found a newborn baby. This had happened when her Uncle John was out making his rounds of the plantation, as he did every day.
“A faint noise was coming from a tenant house and sounded little like a baby crying,” Uncle John said. “That’s an odd sound,” he thought, “I never heard a baby sound quite like that before; it sounds like something is drastically wrong. I’d better look into this.”
So uncle John decided to go check on that sound. He got off Big Bend, his horse, and went over to the house and knocked on the door. He knocked two or three times and still there was no answer. Then Uncle John threw his weight against the wooden door and it gave. Pushing the door open, he walked in. To his surprise, there was a very small baby with a thin blanket over it, the mother’s coat, sweater, and the rest of her closes stuffed around it. The baby was crying as loudly as it could, but hardly making a noise because it was so weak, cold and hungry.
The mother had died sometime during the weekend and the baby was left alone during the dark, cold days and nights with little to keep him warm and, of course after the mother died, no more milk to drink. However, he survived. Uncle John said he almost lost his breakfast when he finally allowed himself to look at the mother; she had put every last semblance of anything she had that contained any warmth over the baby, and there she lay, looking like a human block of ice. “Oh my God!” he thought, “How she must have loved that baby. Please Lord, let her know her baby lived.”
With misty tears in his eyes, John reached down to pick up the little baby, a little boy baby. Shivering as he made his way to the door, he paused for a second to wonder just how much this event would affect the small one’s psych. Would his little mid “register” any of this, or would it be reflected somehow in his emotions and/or behavior. “I don’t think he’ll remember anything about this, but I don’t see how it could keep from having some effect on him at sometime during his life,” John thought. He took this little baby to his home, to his wife, hoping that she would accept this child and love him as he had already started to do. Unknown to John, he and his wife, Nettie, would be the ones to bring up this child. They would take the responsibility of raising this little baby into a man, as if he were their own.
Jo had done her homework well and had arrived with names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people to contact and of places to go for additional research. She was a lady who had arrived with one thing in mind as her paramount goal, and that was to gather new, relevant information on the life and times of Ezell Jefferson. She was on a journey with a mission not to be denied. In her quest nothing was by chance, no obstacle, large or small was allowed to stand in the way of her search. Although she brought with her files of various degrees of significance about the major events in Ezell’s life, she still wanted information from here, from Jefferson Ezell’s hometown and from his relatives and his friends.
The information from around this area – around Prairie and Aberdeen – Jo stated, would be different from what she had already gathered. Here, it would be from the people who really knew Ezell. This was his “stomping ground,” his home, his people, his joys and his hardships. It was the place where he grew up, where he played and toiled, married and fathered children, where he lived and where he died. According to Jo, having this additional information from Ezell’s hometown would allow her to contrast, compare and analyze and therefore do a better job of allowing the real Ezell to be presented in her book. This was vitally important to Jo because the book might be fiction, but the characters in the book were not.
Another thing of vital importance to Jo was to find the place where Ezell was buried. The obituary she had didn’t specify the place but did mention the newspaper in Columbus. Jo and her friend Jeanie spent the next day searching for Ezell’s obituary in the “Columbus Dispatch” and archives of the library in Columbus where the newspaper was then housed. She found it, and just as she thought it might, it had an obituary that clearly stated where the burial site was.
Ezell was buried in Artesia, Mississippi in a little church cemetery. When Jo and Jeanie arrived at the church the following day they saw numerous graves in the church yard, but quite a few of them were unreadable because of their age, erosion, and perhaps other factors. However, they read all of the names on all that were readable and took note of the location of the rest, finally coming to the conclusion that Ezell was in an unmarked grave. Through the efforts of Lowndes County Sheriff Mark Miley, family members, and the Reverend Nathaniel Best, the Saint Matthew Church Pastor, the gravesite was located and pointed out to me by Rev. Best. Now there is a nice new headstone there with a message from Earth on it.
Now Jo Miller, originally of Gattman, Mississippi, is the author of the forthcoming book about her friend Ezell. The title of the book is “Unlikely Brothers, a Somewhat True Story.” I anxiously await the publication of this book written by this Southern Lady From Mississippi who is 85 years of age. She is determined this little black baby boy, saved by the Grace of God with the hands and heart of a white man, be known, honored and remembered as a fellow Mississippian.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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