Wire service stories on the arson of Frank Morris' shoe shop in Ferriday, and his death four days later as a result of the fire, were printed by several newspapers across the country and reported on local television newscasts.

James Watkins, 79, a retired businessman in Ferriday, said he was in the military living in Shreveport when he got a phone call one night and was told to turn on the television.

The date was December 10, 1964.

"I was stationed at Barksdale but living in town," said Watkins. "I turned on the TV and heard the report about Frank's shop."

Watkins had known Morris for many years and recalled that during the 1945 flood, when most of Concordia was under water, Morris went to Natchez to work in his father's shoe shop. That's where Frank Morris learned the business.

Morris' father, Sullivan, and Sullivan's wife, Ethel, lived at 36 Woodlawn Avenue. The shoe shop was located at 309 North Pine.

"I met Frank's father once," said Watkins. Sullivan Morris "was a short man who wore eyeglasses that rested on the tip of his nose. Frank went over to Natchez in 1945 during the high water to help his father fix shoes."

Morris, said Watkins, was an expert in his trade.

"Frank called himself a 'shoe builder,'" said Watkins, because like a true cobbler, Morris could take the raw materials and turn out a finished product that looked as if it came from a department store.

Watkins recalled that Morris was "very patriotic. During World War II he bought U.S. Savings Bonds."

"I'm buying some hats for the boys," Morris would say when he bought bonds as he remembered the American soldiers abroad needed be clothed, fed and supported.

"He was always concerned about the soldiers," said Watkins.

Two decades later as Watkins sat at his residence in Shreveport and watched a news report on the arson of Frank's Shoe Shop in Ferriday, the Associated Press and United Press International were sending out wire reports to newspapers and television stations across the country.

In addition to the front page New York Times' story on Morris written by John Herbers, who visited Ferriday in late December 1964, wire service stories also appeared in the Florence Morning News in South Carolina; Victoria Advocate, Abilene Reporter News and San Antonio Light, all in Texas; Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut; Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa; Anderson Herald, Indiana; Charleston Gazette, West Virginia; Waterloo Courier, Iowa; Chicago Daily Defender, Illinois; and Cumberland News, Maryland. This archive material was uncovered recently by law students at Syracuse University who have volunteered their time to help investigate Morris' unsolved murder, one of many that is being reviewed by the FBI at this time.

One Associated Press story datelined "Ferriday" was printed in several newspapers. The Victoria Advocate ran this headline above the story: "FBI Reportedly Probing Louisiana Burning Death."

The story follows:

"FBI agents reportedly are investigating a fire here in which a Negro man active in civil rights and religious work was burned fatally.

"Both federal and local authorities declined Wednesday to discuss the case.

"Frank Morris, 51, died at a hospital here Monday night. He had suffered burns over 90% of his body following an explosion and fire last Thursday at his small shoe repair shop.

"A source close to the investigation said two men walked into Morris' shop and started spilling gasoline over the place. Morris, who lived in the rear, walked in and was chased out by the two men, the source said.

"Moments later there was 'a burst of flames and a big pop,' the source said, and Morris ran out of the flaming building with his clothing on fire.

"The Negro man ran to a nearby service station, where the flames were put out. He was taken immediately to the hospital. The fire occurred between 1 and 2 a.m.

"George Wilson, manager of radio station KFNV, said Morris conducted a gospel program on KFNV each Sunday morning. The program was aimed primarily at Negro audiences, he said.

"Morris was said to be an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Five FBI agents reportedly were sent here to investigate. The FBI declined to discuss the case.

"H.G. Maynor, agent-in-charge of the FBI office at New Orleans, said last Thursday that the FBI offered local authorities the use of the FBI laboratory facilities.

"Police and fire departments here refused to talk about the fire.

"A man at the Concordia Parish sheriff's office in nearby Vidalia said he knew nothing about the case. The man said Sheriff Noah W. Cross was 'out in the woods hunting' and not available.

"Ferriday is a small town in northeast Louisiana, about 12 miles northwest of Natchez, MS."

While all of the stories at the time of Morris' death indicated he was active in civil rights, local residents say they don't recall such activity.

"I never knew of it," said Watkins.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.