In a story that goes more than forty-five years back in time, you’re dealing with a lot of older people, so the trail led to nursing homes, people on respirators, others in various stages of Alzheimer’s. A couple of times it led to the door of people who had died just before I arrived. And it led to cemeteries. There was a particular gravesite I was looking for, and that pursuit led me into an area of reporting that was new and fascinating to me.
Joseph Edwards was a popular black employee at the Shamrock Motel in Vidalia. He did a little of everything. The Shamrock, naturally a white establishment, was where the Silver Dollar Group was started. There was a seedy element there, including a lot of white men running in and out of rooms occupied by single white women. Information in FBI records suggests one of Edwards’s responsibilities was to help procure men for the women, and he may himself have been with women there. One of the women lived at the Shamrock with her three-year old son. One day in June 1964, apparently when she was with a man in her room, she lost track of her son.

Looking for the boy, Edwards found him in the motel swimming pool, drowned or drowning, and jumped in to try to save him. Edwards himself then nearly drowned and was rescued by the boy’s mother. Two weeks later, Joseph Edwards disappeared, and hasn’t been found since. Edwards’s disappearance is still a sorrowful and mystifying loss for his family, especially his sister.

So I’ve been looking for the mother of the drowned boy to see if she knows anything about what happened to Edwards. I tried to find where her son was buried. An intern from the University of North Carolina, Tori Stilwell, spent a lot of time with me trying to find old cemetery registries. We found one and, sure enough, it led us to the boy’s gravesite and tombstone.

We found out that the woman, the mother, also had a daughter. Tori located the daughter and we called her. She was estranged from her mother, didn’t want to talk about her, and wasn’t interested in helping us find her.

Then we mentioned that we knew where her little brother was buried. There was a long pause on the phone. She had never known where he was buried, but had always wondered. She agreed to meet us at the cemetery. I felt like if I did that, she would open up. So we met there and just talked. After awhile, I showed her a picture of Joseph Edwards, then I showed her a picture of Joseph Edwards’s sister.

“Joseph Edwards tried to save your brother’s life,” I told her, “and may have been killed in some degree because he may have been around your mother at the time.” I told her that Joseph Edwards had a sister and that his sister had gone forty-six years not knowing what happened to Joe Ed. I think the parallels in their lives—two sisters trying to find some evidence of their brothers—was pretty amazing.

Well, she started crying. She had finally found the burial ground of her own brother and now she was in a position to help Joe Ed’s sister maybe learn something about what happened to her own brother.

So she told us where her mother was, and we have found her. We’ll have more on that later.

Who I Am

Working with the Civil Rights Cold Case Project has been a great help. They’re using all the current technological techniques to convey our stories—video, audio, Facebook, and other social media. That’s all pretty new to me. I know the value of video for a documentary, but having a camera rolling when I am going about my interviews can be a distraction, so I’ve had to draw the line.

Last year, all my calls to former law enforcement people about the Frank Morris murder finally yielded a man who said he knew something about the case. He said his former brother-in-law, a trucker from Rayville, Louisiana, had told him years ago that he participated in the arson that killed Frank Morris.

Hank Klibanoff is the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which he co-authored with Gene Roberts.