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Finding Emily

Researching local history can be one of the most vexing and rewarding experiences in a historian’s work life, yet the ins and outs of doing local history are often missing from our formal training. Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this kind of research is that one must develop personal relationships with members of the community. This includes librarians, archivists, and local historians as well as individuals whose memories, experiences, and general knowledge of the area can reinforce traditional research discoveries or lead to important new ones. When researching and writing my new book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), I learned this firsthand.

In 2012, I set out to research the story of a Depression-era crime set in Natchez, Mississippi. The murder of 68-year-old Jennie Merrill during a botched robbery in her home in August 1932 garnered nationwide attention. She was a direct descendant of the planter aristocracy and her father had been U.S. Ambassador to Belgium. While those details alone might have been enough to earn a few headlines, media attention was focused on the eccentric personalities of the neighbors with whom she had been feuding for years. Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, in fact, were the first to be arrested for Merrill’s murder. They were also in their 60s and descended from Southern elites, yet lived in a crumbling antebellum mansion with a menagerie of animals including, in particular, a herd of goats. Journalists were quick to draw parallels with the fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner.

While the Southern gothic narrative of a moribund Old South enlivened by grotesque characters riveted the nation, what was lost in all the media coverage—and in the subsequent retelling of the crime—was the racial injustice embedded in the outcome of the case. Dana and Dockery were involved in the robbery, but so were two African Americans, George Pearls and Emily Burns. Pearls, likely the trigger man, was shot and killed in an unrelated incident before the Merrill murder was solved. This left Emily Burns, a 37-year old domestic, who was subsequently the only person to be punished for the crime. She had gone for an evening walk with Pearls and once she realized he intended to rob Jennie Merrill, she sought to return home. He threatened to kill her if she left. She was forced to act as a lookout, but she never entered Merrill’s home, nor was she a willing participant. Regardless, she was convicted four months later as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life in prison at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman.

Even in the contemporary newspaper coverage, Emily Burns’s experience and her fate at the unforgiving hands of Jim Crow justice warranted little attention. While the personal stories of Dana and Dockery were given intense coverage, local reporters treated Burns’s story as routine. They referred to her as a “negress” who ran a boarding house, and she was swiftly convicted and sent to the state penitentiary, as community memory of her slipped away.

For those who followed the case in the press, this is where Emily Burns’s story ended. But I had a book to write and I wanted to know who Emily Burns was, what her life had been like before and during her incarceration, and what became of her after her sentence was suspended in 1940. She was an ordinary person who had experienced an extraordinary tragedy. I could not possibly recreate the historical details of what is still known in Natchez as the “Goat Castle murder” without one of its principals, especially the only person incarcerated for the crime. And yet several writers before me had done just that. They focused on the Southern gothic tale of the pathetic couple that lived in Goat Castle, and as they did, they erased the memory of Emily Burns.

Today, if you were to ask white Natchezeans about Goat Castle, their responses might include the story of Jennie Merrill’s murder, but would mostly focus on her eccentric neighbors, Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery. You would likely never hear about Emily Burns. Black Natchezeans, except for Burns’s family and those who attended church with her, are also unlikely to recall her name.

A name, an occupation, a conviction, and a suspended sentence—these were the only bits of information I had about Emily Burns when I began my research. Recovering her experience was no easy task, since she had essentially been expunged from the retelling of what was arguably Natchez’s “crime of the century.”

With these barest of facts, I set out on what became a five-year journey to discover who Emily Burns was and to restore her experience to the Goat Castle narrative. I had to help readers understand who she was as a human being, what precipitated her involvement in the case, how she was treated by the justice system, and what happened to her following the trial. In order to do that, I had to spend time in Natchez getting to know members of the community, since those relationships were key to understanding what happened to Emily. I also invested time in researching Emily’s genealogy, examined maps and city directories, and, finally, visited her church.

Newspaper coverage provided some basic details—the street where she lived, her mother’s name (Nellie Black), and the specifics of her arrest and trial. But Emily Burns was more than her arrest and incarceration. I recreated her genealogy from census records and city directories, going back as far as her slave ancestors who were brought from Maryland and Virginia to Mississippi and Louisiana as part of the domestic slave trade. Later, my research at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History led me to the governors’ pardon and suspension papers which are supposed to hold letters and petitions asking that individuals be released from prison. While there had been such a petition for Emily Burns’s release, all that remained in the file was one piece of paper, signed by Governor Paul B. Johnson, that her sentence had been suspended and she was free to leave Parchman. Where had she gone?

Fortunately, Mimi Miller, my contact with the Historic Natchez Foundation, introduced me to an African American octogenarian named Duncan Morgan. A respected member of the community, he had grown up in Natchez and knew its history because he had soaked it up as he traveled around town with his father. Mimi told me that Duncan’s memory had never let her down. On my first serious research trip to Natchez, I found out she was right.

Duncan and I first met at the foundation where we sat down and began a conversation about Goat Castle. At some point, I asked, “Whatever happened to Emily Burns?” Without hesitation, he replied “Oh, Miss Burns. She lived across the street from me. She married Mr. Lee Randolph.” And more. He recalled knowing her when he was a young teenager in the 1950s.

I made a beeline to the local library. I began with a city directory from the mid-1950s. And there she was: Emily Randolph, married to Lee Randolph and living on Concord Avenue, right where Duncan said she lived. I went back in time and forward in time, collecting all of the information that a city directory can offer: race, occupation, address, and marital status. I went back to 1941, the year after Emily left prison, and there she was again—by the name I knew, Emily Burns. It surprised me that she had returned to the small rental house that she once shared with her mother and from which she had been arrested years earlier. Even more fascinating was her occupation. Before her incarceration, the census had listed her as a laundress, but in 1941, she was listed as a seamstress and, later, a dressmaker. As it turned out, she acquired these new vocational skills during her incarceration at Parchman.

Duncan Morgan would prove to be valuable to my research again, even if his information was sometimes a little more cryptic. During a subsequent research trip, I found a message he had left for me at the foundation. His note contained the names of two women, Daisy Green and Doris Maynard, along with a phone number. He told Mimi Miller that these two women knew Emily Burns.

I was nervous about calling. Not only was I an outsider in Natchez, I was a white outsider. My call was going to come out of the blue, and yet I had to follow through on any leads that might help me tell Emily’s story. The number I dialed reached Doris Maynard’s cell phone. She was running errands for her mother, Daisy Green. I now knew their connection. I explained who I was and that Duncan Morgan had provided their names and a phone number. I also said I was looking for information about Emily Burns. Yes, they knew her. She had once been a member of their church, Antioch Baptist. I asked if I might stop by and talk with them. Doris kindly obliged and gave me their address and a time to meet: late afternoon around 5:00 p.m.

Summers in the Deep South can erupt with some unbelievable thunderstorms, and that’s exactly what hit about the time I was headed to meet the two women. As I arrived, the bottom fell out of the sky. I got out of the car, fumbled with the fence gate, and then hurried up the steps. Doris welcomed me and offered me a chair and some paper towels to dry off with as I caught my breath.

At the time Doris Maynard was 65 and Daisy Green, 89, and we had more of a conversation than an interview. Ms. Green knew Emily Burns and knew of her incarceration, while her daughter remembered attending Emily’s funeral at the church. I learned that Emily became a “mother of the church,” a position of respectability, for sure, but when I asked what it meant, Ms. Green piped up, “She old.” Doris was far kinder, saying that Emily was like a mentor to the younger people at the church. Doris also invited me to visit Antioch. “We’re a very friendly church,” she said. I did not attend on that visit, but I would do so eventually.

During that brief chat, as the thunder rolled above us and the rain poured, I learned something very personal about Emily. She did not go by her Christian name, but by her nickname “Sister.” Doris called her “Sister,” not because Emily had siblings, but because this is how the local black community and her church knew her. “Sister” personalized her and it was important to her life story.

When I returned home to North Carolina, I wrote thank-you notes to Duncan, Doris, and Ms. Green. This is not just about good manners, but a sign of respect we historians should show to the people who assist us with our research. The truth is, I could not have written my book without them.

Then the day came when I attended services at Antioch Baptist Church. Sunday, October 11, 2015. I don’t normally wear dresses, but I wore one out of respect for where I was and those I’d meet. I arrived near the end of the Sunday school class, just before the regular church service. I sat on the back row, not knowing what was going to happen or if Emily’s family would be there. Then the preacher sent a young man to the back with a microphone for me to introduce myself. I thought, “This may be my only chance.” So I stood up and told them why I was there. Members of Emily’s family—sisters Birdia Green, Phyliss Morris, and Linda Griffin who were her second cousins—came forward, and I sat with them during the service. I gave an offering, as one does in church. Afterward, I exchanged contact information with one of the sisters, Birdia.

I had given myself an extra day to stay in town in the event I might meet family. That Monday evening, Birdia invited me to Phyliss’s house. I got there a little early and was nervous. I felt the weight of the racial history of Natchez in that moment, even though I was made welcome. As a white person, I felt I needed to demonstrate goodwill. What had I come for?

All I wanted in that moment was to know more about Emily Burns. What was their relationship to her? When did she die? What do they remember of her? And, lastly, were there any photos of her because I had never seen one. Throughout, I shared all that I had learned of the woman they called “Cousin Sister.” Much of it was new to them, because they were young girls when she died in September 1969, a date documented in the family Bible. Perhaps through sharing my own discoveries, I had gained trust, because Phyliss got up from the table and returned with a photograph. A very large family portrait from 1913, not a mug shot. And there I saw Emily Burns for the first time. The photo included her mother, her uncles, her cousins, and her grandmother who had been born into slavery. It was everything. It gave her life context.

Smith Family, ca. 1913. Emily Burns is seated to the far left, wearing a shirtwaist and tie. Her
mother stands behind her. To the far right is her grandmother, Agnes Bell, who was
born into slavery. Courtesy of Birdia Green and Phyliss Morris.

I asked for permission to take the photo to the foundation and have it scanned, because I wanted it to be in the book. Then, as we wrapped up our conversation, I made the mistake of offering a handshake. Phyliss and Linda said, “We hug necks.” That was music to my ears, because I hug necks, too. It’s a Southern thing. Then we all hugged necks. Me and Phyliss, me and Linda, Birdia and me. I was so happy and excited in that moment. After scanning the photo, Mimi made additional copies on photo paper so that all the sisters could have their own. Once again, when I returned home, I sent thank-you notes. I sent Christmas cards too, and Birdia and I have stayed in touch through email and occasionally a phone call.

As a historian of the American South, I recognize the importance of personal relationships to my work, especially in a small town. This isn’t particular to the South, but ranks high on the list. And, when done with respect for the people who assist you, it pays dividends. In my case, those efforts were rewarded so that the complete story of what happened in Natchez in the fall of 1932 could be told. And hopefully, in some small way, there can be justice for Emily “Sister” Burns.

Karen L. Cox is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she teaches courses in American history with a focus on Southern history and culture. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.