Yankee writers and the South [the Van Dorn "massacre" revisited]

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Mon Dec 16 09:52:46 MST 2002

Note by Hunterbear:

There are plenty of social justice reasons to criticize the American
South -- and much of everywhere else.  And I mean everywhere.

But -- the South and some other places are frequently treated with great

In  Spring, 2001, the Left journal, In These Times, began to put out massive
advance publicity on a forthcoming and very extensive story which
subsequently appeared:  charging a massacre of 1,000 or more Black GIs --
and subsequent coverup -- at Camp Van Dorn in South Mississippi in 1943.

As far as I know, I was the only individual to systematically and publicly
attack that blatantly spurious claim.  And I did so in three very widely
sent posts [now on our website] which are herewith attached.  And so,
reasonably enough, did the U.S. Army move to refute this bizarre contention.
Others agreed privately with me, many waffled, many were silent.

In time, the Van Dorn massacre story died forever and a projected movie
about it never took shape.  But In These Times never admitted it had
blundered badly.

This came to mind this morning when I saw the Salon article with its
interview of Richard Barrett, the transplanted-into-Mississippi New Jersey
Nazi and leader of the tiny Nationalist Movement -- who claims to be a
confidant of Trent Lott who he claims is still a seg,  While Lott may very
well indeed still be a seg,  Barrett is no friend of Lott's or vice-versa. I
posted a short refutation of this latest of Barrett's well-known wild claims
on several of our lists -- and this is what I in part said: "There's
certainly enough solidly valid stuff on which to "get" Trent Lott -- without
using and feeding Richard Barrett's fantasies."

This is recent stuff -- and I'm sure others have and will refute Barrett.

Barrett, by the way, has attacked me on various occasions.

False claims certainly threaten the validity of our Cause.

I don't claim to be a Southerner -- I am from the Real Southwest --  but I
spent 1961-67 in the hard-core South, two of my children were born there, I
have a half-Mississippi Choctaw grandson, and my favorite uncle on my Anglo
mother's side was an important figure in Birmingham.  I also get back to the
South periodically, certainly keep up with many people who are either there
or from there -- and I am [and have been for almost a quarter century] a
Life Member of the Mississippi Historical Society, at whose rather Anglican
meetings old foes often fall asleep in their chairs.  In the end, most of my
adult life has been very much enmeshed in Dixie to this very moment.

New York  ethnocentrism -- and not all New Yorkers are in that canoe -- is a
galling thing to much of the rest of the country.  But Dixie has always been
considered fair game by the Yankee writers generally -- something about
which anything can always be said because, whether it actually did or not,
"it could have happened down there."  And right behind the Cotton Country as
Target is my own Real Southwest and the Real West generally -- which either
become over-romanticized, or downright trashed.

And Native Americans have certainly had these experiences with all sorts of
non-Indian writers -- often far worse.

In fact, I said all of this relating to Dixie, the Southwest, West, and
Native Americans early in 1981, when the major newspaper complex of
Mississippi -- Sunday edition of The Clarion Ledger/Jackson Daily News --
did a very long interview with me.

The reporters, all Mississippians, were extremely intrigued.

Here's the Van Dorn "massacre" situation -- about which In These Times could
never admit it was totally wrong.





A Mississippi story -- strange, even for the very sanguinary Magnolia
State, is presently making the rounds. Appearing in the June 11, 2001 issue
of In These Times, its essence -- the ostensible 1943 massacre of 1,000
Black GIs in a South Mississippi military base [near Centreville, Wilkinson
County] -- is showing up (cautiously) on some Lists. I have now seen, via
the link provided by the lists involved, the full story on the Net. And
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that very strong, healthy skepticism
is certainly called for on this one. [The fact that
the Pentagon has discounted this is not, believe me, my basic reason.]

Mississippi, like some other places [Idaho!] , is murky, mysterious. Like
other of the old-hard core Southern settings, Mississippi is full of
bloody stories -- and many are indeed hideous. If the swamps and the rivers
could only talk! Most, not all, of the victims have been Black. And there
are still sections of the State which, when I visit, I do quietly take along
a protective firearm. There are long memories and current challenges.

I have a pretty good feel for Mississippi. As many know, I and my wife,
Eldri, went there in the Summer of '61, became deeply involved in the
Civil Rights Movement
in Jackson and elsewhere in the state, and in other Deep South settings.
Although we left the South in the Summer of '67, I have maintained close
contact with some of the old war arenas -- and this very much includes
Mississippi in which I've been deeply involved, now, for forty years.

Even today, with considerable population growth since the really "turbulent
years," there are really few secrets in Mississippi. Forty years and more
ago -- certainly in 1943 -- there were very few indeed. Many of these
things never did -- and still don't -- get into the news media. But they
were and certainly are very well known . A standard joke in Mississippi has
always been that you could whisper anything at Hernando [northwest corner]
or Moss Point [southeast] or Woodville [southwest] or Corinth [northeast] --
and it would take it only three days to cover the entire state.

This story, the swift massacre of a thousand Black GIs and bodies buried in
mass graves and shipped north in boxcars, simply doesn't fit, despite --
according to ITT -- the relatively recent appearance of
witnesses. Aside from the general lack of secrecy about anything in
Mississippi, other reasons that I have problems with this are:

The return of vets from World War II had a major impact on the country.
This was especially true in situations where minority vets returned to
racist/segregated home areas: Blacks in the South; Chicanos and Native
Americans in the Southwest -- and there are, of course, many other ethnic
and geographical examples. I knew Medgar Evers -- the courageous martyred
NAACP field secretary, extremely well. He, like many of the civil rights
activists in Mississippi [e.g., the also martyred Clyde Kennard,
Hattiesburg] of the 1950s and 1960s, was a WW2 veteran. He was also
extremely interested in veterans' affairs. He was a member of AMVETs --
one of the better vet groups which was quite opposed to segregation [unlike
the American
Legion and VFW]. He came up with the solid idea, around April, 1963, that
he and I [a more recent vet, early '50s] should form an AMVETS chapter in
Jackson and
do everything we could to start it on a racially integrated basis. I was all
for it. Medgar wrote the national AMVETS office in early May and I signed
the letter with him. Two days after he was shot to death from ambush --
June 11 -- I (and Medgar's family] each received a long letter from the
national commander of AMVETS, which, written of course before Medgar's
murder and addressed jointly to Medgar and myself, enthusiastically approved
the idea of an integrated unit at Jackson. The idea died in the great
turbulence that followed his death: we immediately launched massive
demonstrations which were bloodily suppressed. [ My AMVETS letter is my
collected papers in Mississippi Dept of Archives and History and a copy is
in my comparable collection at State Historical Society of Wisconsin -- and
I maintain an AMVETs membership out of loyalty to my old comrade.]

But never did I hear Medgar -- who knew everything in Mississippi --
mention this presumed 1943 situation. Nor did any of the other men, very
much attuned to the problems of Black vets, such as another old friend, the
late Sam Bailey, ever indicate anything of this sort. Nor did any of my
Tougaloo students from that area ever bring anything like this up in their
myriad of genuine accounts of hideous nature.

In the Spring of 1962, a Maryland-based Black MP corporal, Roman
Duckworth, Jr., on his way to Taylorville, Mississippi where his wife was
giving birth to their sixth child, was taken from an interstate Trailways
bus by a White Taylorville constable and murdered in front of at least
thirty witnesses. His crime? He had refused to sit in the back of the bus.
We rallied as fast and as much as we could on that one -- and, much to the
fore, were Black vets in Mississippi. The Army, by the way, sent an
integrated color guard to Taylorville for his funeral and the US Justice
Department did nothing at all.

But, again, if there had been a whisper of this presumed 1943 atrocity,
Medgar Evers would certainly have known it. There were many Black cooks
and other Black workers on and around a base of that sort. And they always
knew much -- always. A major civil rights intelligence force in places like
Mississippi were Black maids in the homes of prominent White segs and Black
janitors working in the headquarters of places like the White Citizens
Council. [In an Eastern North Carolina situation, the very large local
and very violent KKK
unit, the Klavern, always sent its robes to a White dry-cleaning
establishment -- where all of the workers were Black. Thus we always had an
up-to-date roster of that section of the Enemy's forces!] White racism put
many-faceted, helpful blinders on our foes!

What happened to the hundreds of bodies ostensibly shipped North in
box-cars, presumably on the Illinois Central? In Mississippi and adjoining
areas, regardless of the season of the year, this would certainly not have
been unnoticed enroute -- much of the route going through Illinois.

Other factors greatly inhibiting my acceptance of this story are, simply,
the family members of the GIs involved -- plus the fact that Centreville is
far from New Orleans. That fascinating old city, while never any bed of
racially, featured, even in the World War II period, militant Labor
[longshoremen et al.], many many Left radicals of all colours, and
relatively strong civil rights organizations. The grapevine from South
certainly has always reached down there!

Even an atrocity involving a much smaller number of victims would, I'm
certain, have been broadly noted. A very statistically "small"
situation -- e.g., a few victims -- might well be obscured -- especially
if they were not from Mississippi. But this story speaks of a

The horrors of Mississippi -- and many other settings in the United
States -- are certainly legion. But I do have serious problems with this
account and,
if it turns out to be false, I shall be wondering why it was written and
published. If false, it does the Cause no good. If, by some remote chance,
it is true, it raises the most profound questions at all levels and in all

In Solidarity,

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] Idaho

Hunter Gray



In late May, 2001, In These Times began to widely publicize its forthcoming
lead story in its June 11 issue -- the alleged 1943 massacre of a thousand
Black GIs at Camp Van Dorn in South Mississippi. I sharply challenged this
in a substantial response -- calling for "sensible skepticism" -- which I
posted widely. Nothing has yet come to me which lends a whit of credence to
this presumed account -- a story of which I am now completely skeptical --
and one which I believe does the Cause no good whatsoever. In the e-mail
context, only one person has directly challenged my skepticism and that
person offered no evidential counterpoints. A couple of other people felt
the tragedy could have occurred -- and indicated a wish for more
information. About a dozen other people joined me in my skepticism --
including several quite knowledgeable regarding the bloody Magnolia State.
And then there was an interesting telephone call -- which I shall discuss in
a moment. Anyway, here is my update postscript:

I have now, of course, read the ITT story itself, do not find it at all
convincing in any sense -- among all of the other factors, writer
O'Connell's gaps seem to me considerably greater than those of the Army
investigation [and I'm certainly not known for being an apologist for the
military services!]

But then, on Sunday, May 27, I received an e-mail from a Mr Rusty Denman
of Asheville, North Carolina -- who had seen my e-mail post on the
"massacre" -- asking that I get in touch with him by telephone on the Van
Dorn matter. I did, but not before I determined via search engine, that he
had assisted in the publication of the Case book, The Slaughter, which
launched this controversy. Mr. Denman, an Anglo, who is from McComb,
[one of many Mississippi settings I know quite well], talked extensively for
the better part of an hour in an effort to convince me of the validity of
the alleged tragedy at Van Dorn. In my opinion, he offered absolutely
nothing that was at all tangible [I don't believe at any point that he said
he had played a major role in The Slaughter's publication] and, though our
talk was cordial in the casual Southern sense, my skepticism climbed to ever
higher peaks and remains in that stratosphere.

I made it clear to Mr. Denman that:

1] I certainly believe anything like the alleged massacre can happen --
especially to minority and working people -- anywhere in the world. [And it
certainly could occur in a place like Mississippi!] I am, after all, a
Native person who is historically aware of such atrocities as Sand Creek and
Wounded Knee and much, much more -- to say nothing of sanguinary episodes
such as the slaughter of striking coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado in 1914.

2] I am sure that, when something massacre-wise does occur, efforts are
generally made to cover it up completely.

3] Wilkinson County, Mississippi, is not, however, an isolated and remote
and sparsely settled land -- and I am quite certain that a coverup of a
statistically "large" mass killing could not be successfully effected and
maintained in any Mississippi setting.

I also told Mr. Denman several other things that supplement my initial
reasons for skepticism:

Ms. Anne Moody, the Black author of Coming of Age in Mississippi, is from
Centreville, Wilkinson County. She was a long-time student of mine at
Tougaloo College in the early '60s, sat next to me in the famous and bloody
and very much publicized three hour sit-in at the Woolworth store at Jackson
in May, 1963, and we have been in touch at many points in the ensuing
decades. At no point, as a Tougaloo student, in her fine book, or at any
time since has Anne Moody ever indicated this atrocity to me. She has told
me of many other hideous episodes.

I continue to be very deeply involved in Mississippi and know many people
across all sorts of racial and political lines. And, for whatever it may be
worth, I am a Life member of the august Mississippi Historical Society. Not
even the remotest thread of a Van Dorn massacre ever surfaced in all of
these decades and their countless conversations on Mississippi racial

Our conversation turned to extremely insular Neshoba County, Mississippi
and its very sanguinary history, and a very less than convincing effort by
author Case to somehow link that pervasively tragic Northwest Mississippi
setting to the earlier Van Dorn situation in South Mississippi. At that
point, I did mention to Mr. Denman that my 19 year old one-half Mississippi
[Neshoba Co.] Choctaw grandson lives, with his mother [my daughter] and his
sister right here with us in Idaho and that, in any case, we know Neshoba
very well, too.

Mr. Rusty Denman and I ended things at that point. Some material he was
going to send me following our May 27 conversation has not yet come -- as of
June 14.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear] [formerly John Salter, Jr.] Micmac/St. Francis
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk



I  continue to hear with relative frequency from people regarding the
alleged 1943 massacre of a thousand Black GIs at Camp Van Dorn in South
Mississippi -- an account apparently initiated by the Carroll Case book, The
Slaughter [1998], and given considerable recent publicity as the major front
cover feature in In These Times [June 11 2001.]

My initial post strongly advising sensible skepticism on this matter was
put forth by me on May 22, 2001. At this point, June 20, apropos of my
recently updated postscript on the matter [posted at several points in early
June], there is still only one person from whom I've heard via e-mail who
has directly challenged my very basic skepticism on this alleged atrocity
[and that person offered absolutely nothing contrary of an evidential
nature]; and there are still only two people who -- recognizing that such a
tragedy could have occurred -- sought more evidence. Everyone else -- about
two dozen at this point, old friends and new, including a number of Southern
Black people and well-established academic civil rights scholars -- has
joined me in my very, very profound skepticism. Breaking its policy of not
reposting something they have previously posted, H-RADHIST [Radical History
discussion arena] has reposted my postscript -- asking a now much posed
query: Why did this massacre story appear? I have a thought or two of my own
on this which I'll give in a moment.

Two of my points disputing the Van Dorn massacre have struck many notes of
positive resonance:[1] The fact that the very knowledgeable and extremely
capable martyred NAACP field secretary, Medgar W. Evers, himself a WW2 vet
active in veterans' affairs, with whom I was privileged to work very closely
from the Summer of 1961 until the night of his death on June 11 1963, never
mentioned even a thread of a Van Dorn massacre -- nor did any other very
involved Black veterans who were civil rights activists in the Mississippi
setting and with whom I worked closely; and,

[2] The fact that Camp Van Dorn would have had, within it in 1943, a very
large number of local, employed Black civilians . A US Army base in 1943 --
especially anywhere in the 'States -- was still Old Army enough to use a
great deal of civilian "help"and, in Mississippi, these would be primarily
local Blacks: cooks, maids for officer BOQs and family residences, janitors,
lawn maintenance, and much more.

In dialoguing with various e-mail correspondents, I've made a few other
additional points: I, myself, was eight and nine in 1943 and living in a
semi-rural Western backwoods setting. Telephones abounded, radios were
prevalent, there were
cars everywhere and even "flying machines," people were swapping things for
gas ration cards, there were railroads, post-offices were functioning at
high gear, and Western Union existed.

Less than a decade after the alleged 1943 massacre, I was a GI myself --
listening to very long-time Southern Black career non-com cadre
bitching justifiably about the fact the Army was swimming in paperwork. It
all began, I was told many times -- and the Real Army went to Hell -- right
after Pearl Harbor -- just as soon as we entered WW2. [Of course, they very
much approved of Truman's quick and determined and effective
integration of the Armed Services -- but that's about the only change they

Whatever 1943, the Army, and Wilkinson Co were, they weren't a Gobi in the
days of Jenghiz Khan.

In my initial post on this, I pointed out that Wilkinson County,
Mississippi, is really quite close to New Orleans -- which has had for many
generations an extremely active civil rights community, a vigorous labor
movement, and a wide range of constructively engaged Left radicals. People
from Wilkinson County have always gone down to New Orleans -- and many
Blacks have gone there for employment. From the late 1930s onward, New
Orleans was a bastion of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare [later
the Southern Conference Educational Fund -- for which I, in the early and
mid '60s, was Field Organizer] and New Orleans was also a major focal point
for the very active and effective CPUSA-led Civil Rights Congress. It's
very hard to see any of these sharp-eyed human rights eagles missing even a
shadowy whisper of a "Van Dorn Massacre!"

And as I mentioned in my previous postscript on all of this, I was contacted
on May 27, 2001 by Mr. Rusty Denman, originally of McComb, Mississippi [the
home of author Carroll Case] and now of Asheville, North Carolina -- who
spent almost an hour endeavouring to convince me of the reality of the Van
Dorn tragedy. [Mr. Denman, I learned independently, had substantially
assisted in the publication of The Slaughter.] As I pointed out in my
postscript, Mr. Denman offered nothing evidential. Material that I gathered
he was going to send me has never come.

So what do I think got this all started?

Those of us who've soldiered in the trenches of Old Mississippi and the Old
South generally -- and who've kept up with these settings in the seemingly
endless flow of "New Souths" -- are aware that the Magnolia State and its
regional kin are a major headwaters of Conspiracy Stuff. And there have
been -- and I'm sure there currently are -- many, many bona fide
conspiracies in Dixie -- most, in my opinion, relatively small ones but not
always! But, frankly, a very great many Dixie conspiracies are, of course,
just pure fantasy.

I think author Carroll Case, an Anglo savings-and-loan exec at McComb, heard
some typical Mississippi bull-shooting and eventually fell prey -- in not
uncommon Mississippi fashion -- to yet another ungrounded conspiracy tale.

What Mr. Rusty Denman's interest in all of this is, I know not -- but I did
not pick up any altruism in my almost hour-long phone conversation with him.

Why In These Times would run this sort of story -- obviously tilting heavily
toward its presumed "reality" and giving it full-dress front cover status --
should be very disturbing to all social justice activists. The fact that
ITT, has been, according to many reports, floundering fiscally and is now
under the patron wing of a wealthy Silicon Valley angel,
may have something to do with the journal's apparent journey off in a
gambling new direction. If this is the case, ITT could be in danger of
eroding its reputation for generally accurate and careful journalism.

And, finally, to all of those countless martyrs who've shed blood and often
given their lives in the human rights struggles of Mississippi and the South
generally -- and elsewhere -- this "account" of the alleged Van Dorn
"massacre" certainly does a great disservice.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]   formerly John Salter, Jr    Micmac/St Francis
Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk

Hunter Gray  [Hunterbear]
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