“I was six years old,” he replied. “But I remember people talking about it.” His name, he said, was Percy Gordon.
A half-mile away, at the Humphreys County Courthouse (erected 1921), I knocked on an old white wooden door. The words “Circuit Clerk” were flaking off its transom; they were, I’m guessing, painted on there well before 1955. The three women inside smiled at me. “Is this where people register to vote?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the one with the biggest smile. She was wearing a bright red Delta Sigma Theta sweater.
“Is this where they would have registered in the early ’50s?”
“Did it look like this then?”
“Just like this,” she said, sweeping an arm around the room.
When I told her I was interested in George Lee, her face lit up even more. “You’re welcome to look around. Feel free to check out the vault, too,” she said, gesturing to a chamber behind a thick black metal door. “Stay as long as you like.”
The vault is stacked, floor to ceiling, with enormous leather-bound volumes that stretch back to the establishment of the county a century ago: Criminal Docket; Civil Docket; Marriage Record; Marriage Record Colored; Registration. The clerk, Timaka James-Jones, told me I could examine whatever I liked; if I hadn’t had a return flight booked already, I would still be there perusing right now. The most fascinating were the ones stamped Poll Tax Receipts. It is said that Mrs. James-Jones’ predecessor, six decades back, tried to turn Reverend Lee away when he first went to pay his.
“Have you found his name in any of these?” I asked her.
“You know, when I started here, in 2003, the first thing I looked up was my marriage license. The second thing I looked for was his name,” she told me. “I’m still looking for it.”
Following the Freedom Trail and reading its markers can evoke, in a contemplative mind, two notions: That things have changed a great deal in this country over the past six or seven decades, and that they haven’t changed much at all. I say “and” instead of “or” because it’s possible to think both at once and not be wrong; but, as regards the latter, I will tell of just one more thing I saw in Belzoni, as I made my way to the Humphreys County Library, which shares a parking lot with the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department next door. There was only one space available, and it was marked “Authorized Vehicles Only.” Anxious — you don’t want to have to bail your rental out of a tow pound in Belzoni, Miss. — I looked around and spotted the sheriff escorting a handcuffed prisoner in an orange jumpsuit through the parking lot. They chatted amiably; the sheriff was black, the prisoner white.
“Can I park here?” I asked the lawman.
“Yes,” he said. “You can.”
Richard Rubin is the author of “The Last of the Doughboys” and “Back Over There,” as well as a book about Mississippi, “Confederacy of Silence.”