Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison

by Carol Ruth Silver

Oprah Excerpt

Book Excerpt

Freedom Rider Diary

. . . We called up and asked what the matter was, and they yelled back that one of them was having an asthma attack, and that they could not get the jailer to respond.

So we started calling too, on the theory that we were closer to the jail office. We yelled and screamed and banged on the cement floor with our contraband food pan-ashtrays. Finally Mr. Hutto [the jailor] came to see what the racket was about. We told him that one of our boys was sick and needed attention.

He said “Your boys? Your boys is all over in the city jail. They ain’t nothing but niggers upstairs.”
Ignoring this bit of pleasantry,
Claire, our nurse, threatened him that the boy could die if he did not get immediate medical attention. She insisted that Hutto take up to him Judy’s atomizer of respiratory stimulant, a standard emergency remedy for asthmatics. With a great deal of bad grace, he did take the medicine, and went out. We shouted to the boys about what we had done, but it was almost a half hour later before they stopped shouting “Jailer! Doctor!”

At about six in the evening, our jailer and some strange man came by and asked us how many there were in our [four-person] cell. We told him twenty and he, the stranger, said, “Get your stuff together, y’all are being moved.”

A tremendous uproar and clamor of “Where? Where?”
“To Parchman!”

Friday, June 23, 1961, continued

The night ride in the paddy wagon between Jackson and Parchman took about four hours, and was more frightening than any previous part of this whole jail experience. Twenty-three girls, about half and half white and Negro together, were crowded into one old army-transport-type truck. It was completely lacking in springs, and bounced us along toward an unknown future. Many of us had black-and-blue marks when we arrived, because the drivers delighted in stopping and starting suddenly, which threw us against each other and the sharp corners of the seats. We sang, of course, to keep our courage up.

The most terrifying part of the ride was the three occasions when the driver suddenly jolted off to the side of the highway – and stopped. We imagined every possible horror from a waiting ambush of the Ku Klux Klan to mined roads. I suppose that they may have been waiting for some kind of escort, of state police or FBI, to catch up with us, or something equally innocent, but until we were moving again, none of us breathed an easy breath.

When we finally arrived, we could not see anything through the tiny grilled windows of the truck but a huge, modern-looking barred gate. We had been singing steadily (to the great annoyance of our driver-guards) and continued while we waited for something to happen. Then, to our unspeakable joy, we suddenly heard an answer – men’s voices, singing “We Shall Overcome” . . .