Della Smith

Published: Jun. 2, 2012 at 8:01 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 5, 2012 at 9:29 AM CDT
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Frank Morris (second from left in front row wearing visor) stands in front of his Ferriday shoe...
Frank Morris (second from left in front row wearing visor) stands in front of his Ferriday shoe repair business in Ferriday, La. (Credit: Concordia Sentinel)
The late Frank DeLaughter, Concordia Parish deputy sheriff, a Klan sympathizer and possible...
The late Frank DeLaughter, Concordia Parish deputy sheriff, a Klan sympathizer and possible instigator of arson of a Ferriday, La., business in 1964 that killed a successful African-American businessman. (Credit: Concordia Sentinel)

By Xerxes A. Wilson | LSU Student

In the months following the horrific burning and eventual death of Ferriday, La., businessman Frank Morris by members of the Ku Klux Klan in December 1964, the Federal Bureau of Investigation doggedly hunted for the killers and a motive for whomever murdered, or had killed, the affable black business owner.

Rumors swirled in the cauldron of racial angst that was Concordia Parish in the 1960s, but one man's name rose to the top of the furor: Frank (Big Frank) DeLaughter, the corrupt, racist chief deputy sheriff of Concordia Parish.

DeLaughter's legendary reputation for equal-opportunity brutality was as tall as his 6-foot-4 inch stature in the black and white communities alike. The paralyzing fear of "Frank DeLaw" carried infinitely more weight than his 250-pound frame -- until he was convicted in federal court in 1971 for racketeering and was sent to prison. The conviction was appealed and upheld.

Upon his release from federal prison, he professed to be a new person and died a few years later.

Morris, who ran a successful shoe repair shop in Ferriday, had a different reputation. He was well liked by white and blacks alike. That is until his shop, where he sometimes slept, was set ablaze with explosive liquids in the middle of a Dec. 4 night by at least two men who confronted Morris shortly after midnight.

Morris suffered horrific burns on 95 percent of his body and died four days later. In two interviews with the FBI and local lawmen and in conversations with family, friends and his physician, he reportedly implicated no one.

Others had strong notions that DeLaughter was the catalyst behind Morris' murder. But a precise motive remained unclear. Some mentioned DeLaughter's deep-seated racism and Klan sympathies, if not actual membership, and that he was upset because Morris stopped repairing DeLaughter and family's footwear for free.

There was one motive investigated by FBI agents at the time that was a little more personal, according to 45-year-old bureau files obtained recently by the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication's unsolved Civil Rights-era murders project student team under the Federal Open Records Act (FOIA).

DeLaughter's wife, Lulu, had in some way been flirting with or been insulted by Morris at his shoe shop, according to a witness who said Morris told her that as he lay dying in the Concordia Parish Hospital. Any relationship between a white woman and a black man in those days was an invitation to bodily harm by the KKK.

Della Mae Smith, a maid at the hospital and a longtime friend of Morris, claims he relayed to her exactly what happened that fatal night and the reason. The story, however, was discounted quickly by several community leaders because they thought Smith to be a drinker and unreliable.

A number of local and federal law enforcement officials, along with Morris parents and clergy, talked with Morris in the two days he was lucid following the fire, but they said he would not or could not identify anyone by name, according to FBI documents obtained earlier.

Smith at first declined to speak to the FBI, in her third – and heretofore unknown -- interview with investigators, obtained by the LSU team in April, she provided details of an alleged Morris account of the crime before he died.

He heard glass break, so he got up from his bed and went to the front of his shop, Morris told an FBI agent in a hospital-room interview the day after the fire. There he found two men – one with a shotgun, the other with a five-gallon gas can. But he said he didn't recognize them or know why anyone would want to burn his shop or him.

But Smith's account of her conversation with Morris while she cleaned the room provided another version. She said he related that one man held a shotgun to him and the other, holding the can, poured flammable liquid onto him and said: "I want you to see yourself die." One of them then lit up Morris with a match before fleeing into the darkness.

"I went on fire," Morris allegedly told Smith. "I ran to the Billups (gas) station (which was across the street from the shop) and the service man sprayed water on me. If he had not done this, I would have been burnt up."

But who, and why? Smith asked.

Smith claims Morris revealed the name of two men who caused the fatal fire. "They were friends of Big Frank."

Smith indicated that one of the assailants was a policeman and related to Delaughter. The FBI files describing Smith's testimony have redacted those names and no charges were ever brought.

Smith told investigators Morris told her that he was wary about revealing the true nature and motivation behind his attack. Even though his doctor had told him his injuries were mortal, he believed would survive and didn't want to risk additional harm to himself, his family or friends, agents quoted Smith as saying.

Smith added that Morris said the attack was conducted at the order of DeLaughter as payback for interactions with Lulu DeLaughter, who later divorced the deputy.

'I thought they were my friends, but they weren't," Smith quoted Morris as saying. "They were friends of Big Frank."

Smith also told agents of a related conversation she had with Morris before his shop was burned.

About three years before the December 1964 attack, she relayed, Morris told her that Lulu DeLaughter was conducting business in Morris' shop as she had done countless times before. As she was paying, Morris allegedly told her, DeLaughter tickled Morris' hand with her finger and indicated she wanted sex with him.

Smith said Morris told Lulu DeLaughter he wanted no trouble and would call her later, but never did. Smith said Morris recalled that DeLaughter later came to his shop claiming his wife received an obscene phone call from him. Morris denied it. They argued for a time before DeLaughter left, said Smith.

Investigators had heard many stories of DeLaughter disliking Morris for various reasons, including that he had flirted with white women, but Smith claims Morris said it was specifically because of interaction and lies tied to DeLaughter's wife.

The Rev. August Thompson of St. Charles Church in Ferriday advised the FBI of the same scenario. He told investigators that Morris told Lulu Delaughter he would call her but never did. This, Fr. Thompson said, angered Lulu DeLaughter. She went to her husband and told him that Morris had made a pass at her.

As for veracity of Smith's story about the conversation in the hospital room, Fr. Thompson, himself African-American, told FBI the woman was a drinker and unreliable.

Today, Thompson, who is retired and living near Alexandria, claims no memory of Smith or his testimony to investigators 45 years ago.

Smith told investigators she wouldn't testify about this information because she feared violent reprisals to her family, though she did spread the rumor around to various members of the community, according to FBI documents.

DeLaughter's wife denied any relationship other than business with Morris and said her husband claimed a good relationship with Morris and the rest of the black community in Ferriday. Members of the black community in Concordia Parish who remember the time do not have the same recollection of the relationship.