Will Haney

 

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was no place more famous in Ferriday than a boogie-woogie nightclub on the 500 block of Fourth Street (now E.E. Wallace Blvd.) known as Haney's Big House.

Bluesmen like B.B. King of the Mississippi Delta and others came to town and honed their craft before they became internationally famous, while hundreds would come from miles around to listen, drink, eat, dance and have a good time.

Jerry Lee Lewis use to visit the nightclub during his youth to watch some of the top black musicians in the region stroke the piano. Just one block down from the joint owned by Will Haney on the opposite side of the street sat another thriving black-owned establishment, a shoe shop owned by Frank Morris, who kept everyone in town in shoes.

Haney and Morris were friends and following the murder of Morris in December 1964, Haney was one of several people the FBI interviewed about the shoe shop owner. Morris' shop was set on fire on December 10, 1964, by two white men while he was still inside. Four days later, on December 14, Morris died from the severe burns which covered every inch of his body except for the bottom of his feet.

The FBI investigated the arson of Morris' shop and his death for three years. It is believed that up to 10 FBI agents worked the case at one time or another. The Morris' case file in the FBI archives is said to number close to 1,000 pages indicating that it was one of the most extensive Civil Rights-era murder probes conducted by the bureau.

But despite the effort, the case has never been solved. No arrests have ever been made. Now, 43 years later, the FBI is reassessing this cold case.

Will Haney, like others interviewed by the FBI, said he had no idea who killed his friend. Less than three years later, Haney's Big House also burned to the ground in a massive fire that took out much of the block. The cause was never officially determined.

Haney's story is similar to that of his friend Frank Morris. Each overcame great obtacles to succeed in business in a world where few blacks even considered such things. And each earned the respect of the white community at a time when bad cops, the Ku Klux Klan and a criminal element in Concordia made life hell for many folks, black and white.

But despite the burdens of life in Ferriday during that era, the best black musicians in the South made the journey to Haney's Big House where they found big crowds of black music lovers from throughout the region waiting to listen and dance. Sometimes the audience included a handful of white people, even young men like Jerry Lee Lewis, who knew they were witnessing something special.

As a young boy, James Watkins began cutting hair at his grandfather's barber shop. George Jackson operated Jackson's Barber Shop and young James used to cut Will Haney's hair.

"When I first knew him, Mr. Haney was an insurance salesman," Watkins, 79, remembers. "He used to walk the streets in those days selling insurance."

Haney started selling insurance not long after returning to Ferriday after World War I. He served in the Army and was sent to France, where he earned the rank of first sergeant.

He represented People's Life Insurance of New Orleans, selling life and accident policies. Haney was so good in the business that he was able to deal with top company officials only, never supervisors.

Watkins said during the floods of 1930s and 1940s, many of Haney's policy holders were unable to work. Haney traveled to New Orleans and told the company that he would not allow his customers' policies to lapse due to the flood.

The company honored Haney's demand. As Haney went on to other things, he turned the insurance business over to a relative.

In time, Haney opened a barbecue joint which featured a dirt floor and paneled walls which ran halfway up the building. Above the wall to the ceiling was a screen.

"He had a good barbecue business there," remembers Watkins. "He always had a pot of coffee made and you could get a real good hamburger there. Later on, he went to making money."

By the late 1930s, Haney, who Watkins described as a good businessman, built a barroom at the same location, called the place Haney's, and created what would become a legend -- Haney's Big House.

"It was a nice size place, and when he started making money on it, he enlarged it, and that's when it got the name Haney's Big House. Before that it was Haney's Night Club," remembers Watkins.

The business featured "good home cooking," says Watkins. "He always had two or three cooks on duty and he stayed opened 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. He closed twice that I remember -- once when his mother died and when his brother died."

After enlarging the business, the bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta and the jazzmen of New Orleans began making trips to Ferriday to play at Haney's. The big bands would come, too, and the dances would draw hundreds.

"The dance would start at 10 o'clock and after a while they'd take an intermission for 15 or 20 minutes and then play again until 2 in the morning," Watkins said. "That's when the dance was over."

But the party would continue all night, Watkins said.

There were times when the place would be so crowded "that you could hardly walk by on the street."

Plus, there were other bars lining the street, says Watkins -- Sam Brocato had a joint he ran with his mother and father, Winder Houston had a place and John Smith, among others, had a club.

But Haney's Big House stood out.

Haney's had two entrances, both facing Fourth Street. When entering the door on the south side of the building there was a bar to the left. The open kitchen was in the middle of the building towards the front, surrounded by a square bar where patrons could sit on one of the 20 or so stools and dine.

The building had heat in the winter, and was cooled in the summer by two large fans placed in the walls. In later years, the place was air conditioned.

Past the kitchen was the entertainment area. When there were no dances scheduled, pool tables were located near the kitchen. The tables could be moved out of the building when entertainment was booked.

About 50 tables with four chairs each were stationed in the entertainment area. The band stand was against the back wall. When musicians were performing, patrons would book a table in advance. Watkins said all of the tables were usually sold out two days before the event.

Slot machines, at one time legal, were also in the building. And in the back area, petitioned off, was a table for various games of poker. When there was a game on, the big spenders would come from every direction.

"When they had a card game people would come from Texas and as far as West Memphis, AR," said Watkins. "The players had money and sported diamonds and had bodyguards. They'd sit around the table with a couple of thousand dollars in front of them."

There were no arguments. If a player went to the bathroom, not a soul would touch his money because although not always identified, the bodyguards were everywhere and ready to pounce on anyone who would mess with the bosses' cash.

It took thousands of dollars to get into these games, which would begin at 10 in the morning. Players would take a break at 2 p.m., return at 4 to 6 p.m. and play into the night, but rarely all night. The games would always draw spectators.

Sometimes Haney would join a game.

Gambling of all forms, legal or not, was part of the era.

"Everything was wide open then," said Watkins.

And with all this commerce going on in the place, Haney, always the entrepreneur, sold tickets for the Trailsways bus line. Haney's Big House was the bus stop.

As a man, Haney stood about 5-11 and weighed around 200 pounds. He was not an imposing figure, but he was usually in a serious frame of mind.

"He was a real gentlemen," Watkins said. "A real nice guy."

But he was a businessman, and business came first. If there was work to be done, Haney was doing it or seeing to it that it was getting done. In later years, Watkins said Haney would work from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon and had other people operate the bar when he wasn't there.

"He paid himself first on payday," said Watkins.

At its heyday, Haney's employed as many as 15 people on busy nights. Haney needed cooks, bartenders, waitresses, waiters and bouncers.

A man named Roosevelt and another named Harry Tatum were two bartenders Watkins remembers. Haney's brother, Victor, worked part-time at the club. His main job was at The Concordia Sentinel.

"Victor was the bouncer," remembers Watkins. "He walked around the club with brass knuckles and he knew how to use them. But his job at the Sentinel with Mr. Percy Rountree was his main job."

Bertha Patterson worked for Haney, and Mary Metcalf managed a washateria owned by Haney and sometimes worked at the club, says Watkins.

With the success of Haney's Big House, Haney in later years built a two-story motel, Haney's Motel, behind the club. When the big bands came, they, and other black musicians, would stay there.

Roy Brown, a jazzman from New Orleans, would play at the club at night and then stay over in the motel so he could go fishing the next day.

When the club was really hopping, Watkins estimated that 300 to 400 people would be inside and spilling out onto the streets.

Haney lived on Fifth Street in a brick house which still stands. He operated the laundromat across the street and owned rental property in town.

He was born in Vidalia, and was in his 50s by the time Haney's Big House was rocking.

"He didn't have too much time for fun," remembers Watkins. "He was all business just about all of the time. But sometimes he would sit down and have a drink. He didn't drink often, but when he did with some of his friends, he could tie one on."

People who knew Haney well called him by his nickname: "House," born through the popularity of his club -- Haney's Big House.

Haney's wife name was Lillie. He had only one daughter, Willie, who went to college in North Carolina.

"He sent her to an all-girls school," says Watkins. "For some reason he didn't want her to go to a coed school."

Willie married and has lived in Missouri most of her adult life. Haney's home on Fifth Street was left to his granddaughter, Willie's child.

As for Watkins, who was obviously born with a keen memory, he left Ferriday for the Army in San Francisco and returned home to Ferriday in October of 1972. In the 1960s, Watkins father operated a dry cleaners and grocery store on the same block as Haney's.

"I forget the year Mrs. Haney died, but their daughter came for the funeral," said Watkins. "That's the last time I saw her."

Willie and Watkins graduated together in 1945.

The glory years of Haney's Big House spanned about two decades before a fire destroyed the entire block in 1966. Haney's property burned to the ground as did the dry cleaners and grocery store belonging to Watkins' father.

Haney never rebuilt the place and as each year passed the fun times at Haney's Big House became faded memories for many, but remain vivid in the mind of James Watkins.

Some say the death of his friend Frank Morris was a real blow to Haney. During the late '60s, Haney's health began to fail him, old age began to wear on him and he died.

As a black man during a different era, Haney, like Morris, made a mark for himself in Ferriday that can only be equaled, probably never surpassed. As a businessman, he was successful, operating a night club, a motel, a washateria, rental properties and he managed other business interests.

Ferriday, thanks to Haney's Big House, was part of a music scene which continues to dominate the culture today. Blues, jazz, big band, rock-n-roll, boogie-woogie all breathed and lived inside the confines of an establishment built by a man who once walked the streets of Ferriday selling insurance door-to-door.

But Will Haney has long been dead. As has Frank Morris.

Fire signaled the death of both men. But while it's known what killed Haney, the death of Frank Morris remains unclear and unsolved more than four decades later.

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