The Story of the Undercover Blues Tourist in Clarksdale
By Bill Steigerwald - 2009
Republished with additional photos
and captions by DeWayne Moore - 2018
In August 1948, the Post-Gazette published an explosive series by Ray Sprigle, "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" -- the reality report of a white man, passing for black, in the Deep South. Bill Steigerwald revisits the path that Sprigle and his courageous collaborator, John Wesley Dobbs, took to chronicle the indignities and deprivations that black Americans still faced at the time.
|The tomb erected by wealthy black Clarksdale dentist,|
Dr. P.W. Hill in honor his wife Marjorie
and his unborn daughter in 1939.
OUTSIDE CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- The two great men whose ghosts I was chasing were midway through their dangerous undercover mission when they stopped here in May of 1948.
Talkative, well-spoken and a little too curious, they stood out as strangers in this corner of the Mississippi Delta, where cotton was king, the blues were born and raised and local Jim Crow laws kept the races separate but unequal.
If anyone looked closely, the strangers had a "big city" and maybe even "big trouble" written all over them.
But they had no problem passing themselves off for a week as just a couple of relatively prosperous old black guys from Pittsburgh and Atlanta who were tooling around the Delta's dirt roads and small towns in their dusty new 1947 Mercury.
It's a good thing the white folks who owned, operated and policed the Delta like a feudal kingdom never found out who their subversive visitors really were.
Click HERE to read Ray Sprigle's 21-part series.
His original article about visiting the
cemetery is added to the bottom
His original article about visiting the
cemetery is added to the bottom
If they had known the strangers were working on a secret journalism project that would soon shock the North, enrage the South and spark one of the country's earliest national discussions about ending their beloved system of racial segregation, they might have lynched them on the spot.
Sixty-one years later, as part of a four-day, 1,600-mile research swing from Atlanta to the Delta and back, I was following the trail of those same two great men.
As I had done for a Post-Gazette Sunday feature story on Aug. 2, 1998, I was going to some of the same places they visited, on their 3,400-mile trip to see for myself what they looked like or how much they had changed.
In 1998, I found a 76-year-old man who told me about meeting the daring codgers when they stayed overnight at his father's farmhouse in northwest Georgia.
But in May of this year, as I searched a badly overgrown old cemetery for a heartbreaking tomb the two men had visited, I wasn't expecting to be so lucky.
One of the great men, the proud owner of the 1947 Mercury, was John Wesley Dobbs, 66, a prominent black Republican political and social leader from Atlanta.
A powerful public speaker, a Yeats-and-Milton quoting neighbor and friend of the young Martin Luther King Jr., the grand master of Georgia's black Prince Hall Masons, the son of a freed slave, the grandfather of Atlanta's future black mayor Maynard Jackson -- Dobbs was already headed for the history books as an important activist and civil rights pioneer.
The resume of his light-skinned companion from Pittsburgh was also impressive. However, he was not actually a Negro named James Crawford, despite what "Mr. Crawford" himself and the fake identification papers in his wallet claimed.
"Crawford" wasn't even black. He was Pittsburgh's own Ray Sprigle, 61 -- a nationally famous, and very white, star reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 1938 he had won a Pulitzer Prize for proving that Hugo Black, the U.S. senator from Alabama who FDR picked for the Supreme Court in 1937, had been a loyal member of the KKK.
Now, with great secrecy, careful planning and the encouragement of the national office of the NAACP, Sprigle was pulling off the most ambitious and riskiest story of his impressive career.
Traveling through the Jim Crow South disguised as a Negro, Sprigle was seeing firsthand how 9 million blacks lived under Dixieland's infamous public-private system of legal, social, economic and cultural apartheid.
Later that summer, in August 1948, he would report to the world what he saw and experienced during the 30 days he "ate, slept, traveled and lived black."
The controversial, highly charged, 21-part syndicated newspaper series would appear in about 15 papers -- all north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the Post-Gazette, the series was titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days." It was later repackaged as the 1949 book "In the Land of Jim Crow."
Making no pretense of objectivity or fairness or balance, Sprigle assailed the "iniquitous pattern of oppression and cruelty" that the South's mostly poor, rural and disenfranchised black population endured under a system he charged was patently immoral, inhuman and unconstitutional.
His withering first-person attack was widely read by the public and extensively commented upon by the chattering class of his day -- mainly radio commentators and newspaper columnists. It generated hundreds of letters -- 70 percent of them unfavorable.
It also quickly drew return fire from a lot of understandably defensive Southern newspaper editors, most of whom were quite fond of the "pattern of segregation" that used state and local Jim Crow laws to separate the races in public places like buses, bathrooms, ballparks and ocean beaches.
They did not appreciate "liberal" Yankees like Sprigle -- who in fact was a staunch conservative Republican -- parachuting into their turf and pointing out the oppression and cruelties of segregation that they countenanced, downplayed, excused or pretended didn't exist.
This film documents our visit to Shufordville Cemetery in 2017
(This film contains disturbing footage that may not sit well)
Passing as a black man was no small task for the lily-white German-American whose earlier front-page undercover stories for the Post-Gazette included pretending to be a coal miner and assuming the guise of a black market meat merchant for a month during World War II.
Thirteen years before John Howard Griffin published "Black Like Me," Sprigle tried but could not find chemicals to safely dye his skin. He ended up having to rely solely on a deep Florida suntan, but it worked.
With the respected and widely known Dobbs serving as guide and wheel-man, the pair put more than 3,400 hard, dusty, bigoted, pre-interstate, pre-Holiday Inn miles on Dobbs' 1947 Mercury. Dobbs -- whose identity was such a well-kept secret that his role was not made public until 1998 -- was crucial to the success of Sprigle's mission.
Using Dobbs' big house in Atlanta as their base of operations, and relying on Dobbs' deep knowledge of the South and his Masonic contacts in small towns, the team of subversive seniors raced over the dangerous back roads of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
When they arrived in the Delta in mid-May, they didn't hang out in the juke joints of Clarksdale listening to blues. They inspected the pitiful Negro schools that white people considered separate but equal. They sampled the opinions of local black leaders.
They observed the living conditions of the Delta's impoverished army of 500,000 black sharecroppers and day-workers, who, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War, lived mostly in shacks and slaved from dawn to dusk behind one-mule plows on the sprawling cotton plantations.
|Dr. P.W Hill was a member of the |
Imperial Quartette of Clarksdale, Miss.
The Press Register, July 28, 1927.
Sprigle and Dobbs also went to Lyon on the outskirts of Clarksdale to pay their respects to two tragic victims of the South's coldhearted race laws.
The victims -- a mother and her unborn child -- were interred in an expensive crypt in Shufordville Historical Cemetery, which today sits on a dirt road across from the Lyon town sewage lagoon.
As Sprigle explained in his series, and without bothering to hide his rage, the tomb had been erected by a wealthy black Clarksdale dentist, Dr. P.W. Hill, to honor his wife Marjorie.
Both she and their unborn baby had died in 1939 on an operating table in a black Memphis hospital 78 miles away after Dr. Hill had to send them north by ambulance in the middle of the night.
Dr. Hill knew his wife needed an emergency Caesarian section to save her life. But like most Southern blacks of his age, he never considered sending her to Clarksdale's white-only hospital because he knew blacks were not admitted under any circumstances.
In May 1948, Dr. Hill proudly showed Sprigle and Dobbs his newly erected memorial, which Sprigle described as a "magnificent tomb of white Alabama marble" on the edge of the cotton fields.
Sixty-one years later, I set out to see Dr. Hill's "gleaming" tomb for myself. Unfortunately, after being led by two of Lyon's 418 residents over the railroad tracks to Shufordville Historical Cemetery, there was not a single tomb in sight.
I soon realized the tidy fenced-in graveyard with the big sign and the well-tended headstones was only the white half of the cemetery, which is still segregated after 159 years.
The black half -- where Dr. Hill's tomb would be -- was buried under the wavy tall grass, dense bushes and clumps of trees on the other side of the dirt road.
With only a few Bic pens, an official reporter's notebook and a digital camera to protect me from mosquitoes and ghosts, I pushed deeper and deeper into the thick savannah in search of a tomb, any tomb.
Lyon's old cemetery wasn't the first stop on my research trip, or my last. The next day I would meet Dobbs' youngest daughter June Dobbs Butts and see Dobbs' old house, where Sprigle stayed on weekends during his trip.
I had already gone to the site of the infamous Andersonville Prison south of Atlanta, where almost 13,000 Union prisoners of war died and are buried.
As Sprigle wrote, one evening he and Dobbs had the luxury of drinking from the same spring-fed public water fountain as white people did; it was federal land, so Jim Crow rules did not apply. Today water still bubbles from Providence Spring, but is no longer potable.
I also had stopped at the southwest Georgia crossroads village of Bluffton, where Sprigle railed about the shocking inadequacies of a "dilapidated, sagging old shack" that served as the separate elementary school for Clay County's black kids.
|Dr. P.W. Hill's tomb in 2017|
All memories and traces of that "school" were long gone, erased by the march of time and higher civilization. Could Dr. Hill's magnificent marble monument be gone, too? I thought, almost stepping on another ancient gravestone hiding in the tall grass and smashing a mosquito on my sweaty arm.
Just as I was about to give up, Dr. Hill's tomb emerged from a clump of dense bushes like a Mayan ruin. Far from gleaming, its white Alabama marble was soiled and discolored by nature and human neglect.
Its heavy metal door was off and leaning against an inside wall. An overturned vase of weathered plastic flowers lay at its front step. Inside were five marble vaults, including one carved with "Margie Hill, Born October 30, 1904; Died October 10, 1939."
Sprigle wrote that Dr. Hill regarded his tomb "only as his tribute to the ones he loved." But Sprigle, who by that time had had as much of Jim Crow's unequal domain as he could stomach, was not so naive.
He declared Dr. Hill's tomb "a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins."
I have no idea what Dr. Hill's broken tomb would symbolize to Sprigle or Dobbs today, but they would be most dismayed at the lack of civility in public discourse as well as the societal abandonment of the goal of the beloved community. Sadly, a visit to the tomb of Dr. Hill suggests that we have come only a very short distance despite so much time and energy having been exhausted in hopes of realizing the dream of equality. The erection of a fence in the 1980s to divide the black and white sections of the graveyard continues to impede efforts of a more unified preservation vision.
A Marble Monument To Cruelty
By Ray Sprigle - 1948
In this little, straggling Negro cemetery, its graves weed-grown, its headstones leaning drunkenly, stands a magnificent sarcophagus of white Alabama marble. It is an astonishing thing to find here on the edge of this Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Quite likely there’s nothing like it all up and down the Delta in either white or Negro cemetery.
Within it lie the bodies of a dark woman and her baby, both dead in the hour of the baby’s birth. Proudly, Dr. P. W. Hill, wealthy Negro dentist, shows us through this gleaming mausoleum where his wife and baby lie and where someday he too will rest.
In all simplicity, he regards it only as his tribute to the ones he loved.
Monument to Cruelty
But this beautiful tomb out here on the edge of the cotton fields is a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins.
Marjorie Hill and her husband had planned to have their baby at home. Mrs. Hill was strong and active and in perfect health.
The competent Negro physicians in attendance foresaw no complications or difficulties. Her approach to motherhood was wholly normal until just a few hours before another little dark soul was due in this white world. Then something went tragically wrong. Only a Caesarian section could save his wife and baby, Dr. Hill was told by the doctors.
Clarksdale boasts of a small but adequate hospital. But it is sacred to white patients. Dr. Hill didn’t even seek admission for his wife and unborn baby. Just before midnight he put them into an ambulance and started a mad drive north to Memphis and its Negro hospital, 78 miles away, in a desperate race with death. Death won. Mother and new-born baby both died on the operating table just before dawn.
Has Learned Big Lesson
|The Clarksdale Press RegisterSep 5, 1972.|
Dr. Hill, small,. spare, scholarly, reserved, is not, embittered. He has learned his lesson well. He is a black man in a white world.
"But, Doctor," I insisted, "you didn’t even try. You didn’t even ask Clarksdale Hospital authorities to admit your wife."
Both Dr. Clark and my companion broke in before I had finished:
"In the South," they told me, "when you’re black you don’t try to fight the pattern. Hospitals are for white people. White people do not admit black folk to their hospitals. Black folk do not even ask for admission. They just die."
But I wasn’t satisfied. Back home, and a white man myself again, I decided that here was one barbarity charged to my race that I’d disprove.
I wired Miss Louise Francis, director of Clarksdale Hospital. Western Union reported back that the wire had been delivered to her personally.
"Clarksdale Negroes insist that no Negroes are admitted to Clarksdale Hospital even in an emergency such as auto accidents, Caesarians. Will you wire me collect if Negroes would be admitted under any circumstances?"
No Reply to Telegram
I have yet to receive a reply.
Twelve days later I sent Miss Francis a registered letter referring to my telegram:
"Would you then be good enough to let me know if under any circumstances such as an automobile accident in front of the hospital or an immediate Caesarian, would a Negro ever be admitted to your hospital?"
I hold a postal receipt for that registered letter but there has been no reply. Which seems to establish the record and prove that Dr. Hill made no mistake when he didn’t bother to seek admission for his wife even on the threshold of death.
The segregated black section of Shufordville Cemetery also contains the graves of blues fiddler Henry "Son" Simms, who recorded with Muddy Waters and Charley Patton. Moreover, local blues enthusiasts placed a marker for harmonicist One-Armed John Wrencher in the cemetery in 2014.