Mississippi seniors suspect this small lake outside the town of Drew is a graveyard for lynched Black women and girls.
The route on 49 West to the small town of Drew, Mississippi, will take you through Entergy Mississippi’s spanking-new solar facility near the outskirts of Ruleville. Three-hundred and fifty thousand freshly constructed solar arrays stretch across 1,000 acres of fertile Delta soil that would otherwise be sprouting cotton and soybeans, not technology. But Entergy Mississippi’s ambitious 1 gigawatt facility is a modern update to the Delta; today, we’re picking through the past.
About seven minutes outside Drew sits a picturesque lake choked with cypress trees and moss. Owned by Shaw company Boair, Inc., the lake is utterly still in summer, dotted with turtles and wildlife. On any given day, a visitor can spy a fisher trying their luck along the roadside. Power lines running the length of a nearby road hold a tackle box of captured lures and fishing line swaying in the breeze. But the lake comes with a history more tragic than lost fishing lures. It’s a history that fewer and fewer people appear to know about as the years wear on.
The Lighthouse discovered the legend of the lake while interviewing former Issaquena County Supervisor Willie Bunton, 78, who lives 85 miles away in the little town of Mayersville. The legend, as he describes it, is ghastly.
“They killed a lot of Black women, put ‘em in that creek, and there wasn’t nothing done about it. Went on for years,” said Bunton during an unrelated interview on former Mayersville Mayor Unita Blackwell.
According to Bunton, the years following the Civil War and emancipation were a deadly time for Black Mississippians. Working in the Delta ultimately meant working for a white man because white farms and farmhouses were the only jobs hiring. Cleaning the owner’s kitchen got you out of the cottonfields and the hot Mississippi sun, but put you within reach of the owner. That same owner was virtually above the law when it came to sexual assault because white county authorities did not prosecute sex crimes lodged by Black people, and all-white juries rarely convicted one of their white peers.
What made matters worse, according to Bunton, was the reality that a young woman was in no position to refuse the homeowner’s advances if she wanted to keep feeding her family. Refusal meant not only getting fired but also getting blacklisted by every other white-owned farm in the county. And almost every farm in the county was white-owned. With so many legal advantages behind him, the homeowner would inevitably return to his young victim for new crimes. This often led to babies with a vague resemblance to the rapist. The farmer’s white wife eventually could not deny the connection.
But Mississippi was a sexist state as well as racist; a white woman in old Mississippi had little power in her marriage. Divorce was anathema in this rabidly Bible-belt region, and white men held all the power. The only place left for a bitter housewife to direct her vengeance was the Black victim, who was in no position to fight. Bunton claims old folks carry frightful tales of vengeful wives banding together to mob their own housemaids.
“They’d kill them. They’d just kill them and put a –well, I don’t know whether they’d kill them first or not—but they’d put some kind of weight around them, tie ‘em down and put ‘em in that creek up there in Sunflower County.”
As a final act of indignity, Bunton claims the murderers named the creek “Whore’s Lake,” as if the murdered women had a choice in the matter.
The lake outside the town of Drew officially bears the name “Hoard Lake,” which has a resemblance to the word “whore.” State topological maps identify the lake as “Hoard Lake” as far back as 1932, but locals say they’ve never called it that.
“We ain’t never called that place ‘Hoard Lake.’ It was always Whore’s Lake, as far back as I can remember,” said Drew resident Betty Smith, 68. “That’s just what the community always called it. We didn’t know no better.”
Smith says she also remembers the horrible stories, and she recalls the dangerous power white plantation owners wielded over their Black employees. Rape and abuse, she said, was difficult to control when accusers could get fired merely for complaining.
“It’s not like you could go to the (white) sheriff or anybody. Nobody was gonna help you, so it was just something you had to carry around with you deep down in your mind,” Smith told The Lighthouse. “In the 1960s, when I was living on a plantation, you couldn’t say anything.”
While rarely prosecuted, Smith said interracial rape was a widespread fear among Black sharecroppers, and workers took care to guard their daughters. Smith recounted an incident between her father and the owner of a farm her family worked in the 1960s. The white owner visited Smith’s shack one night, looking to familiarize himself with the family, including the sharecropper’s daughters, but Smith said her father refused to let him in. The farmer evicted her family from the plantation a few days later.
“I’m glad (my father) wasn’t a fearful man,” says Smith. “He stood up. We had to move, but we weren’t taken. But sometimes you couldn’t move over to somebody else’s place because (the farmer) had already gone ahead of you and told folks they didn’t ‘like your tone.’ We got (blacklisted) twice like that after my Dad stood up.”
Violet Burnett, 72, is another Drew resident who knows the old stories. Her parents were keenly aware of the tale.
“My parents would never let us go to Whore’s Lake. They didn’t want us down there. They told us that the white men used to go with these Black women, and when they got through with them, they’d take them and kill them and dump them in that lake.”
Burnett said the lake carries an ugly sense of dread that endured decades. To older generations who suspect its history, the pristine water has a dangerous, predatory feel.
“You’d never know when somebody’d be down there waiting on somebody,” Burnett said. “Other people knew about it, too, but they’re all dead now.”
Younger generations confess ignorance of the legend. Smith said nearby churches used the lake to baptize congregants until pastors started performing baptisms in-house. It seems an odd use for a lake that invokes the name “whore” among locals.
“I didn’t even know the history of that place until recently,” said Sunflower County NAACP Branch President Charles Modley. “This was news to me when I first heard about it.”
Modley arranged for The Lighthouse to interview Smith and other Drew residents at the headquarters of Drew nonprofit We2gether Creating Change, which holds training sessions and sponsors community events. The nonprofit encourages visitors to know the history behind the Civil Rights Movement, and employees proudly hang posters and images of some of its most prominent icons. The innocent face of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till beamed down from the wall during interviews, forming a fitting backdrop to the conversation. Deplorable racists kidnapped and murdered Till less than 30 miles away, in Money, Mississippi. Like the victims allegedly under Whore’s Lake, Till was dumped in water. His murder arguably kicked the civil rights effort into high gear in the 1960s as modern America was finally forced to confront the soulless evil of white southerners. But the style of his lynching and disposal apparently goes back much further than Till. If the deeds of Whore’s Lake are any indication, lynching and sinking a teenager into the Tallahatchie River was not the pinnacle of evil, but a tried-and-true tactic that’s worked for decades.
Former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said the act of dumping lynched bodies in lakes and rivers across the state was common practice.
“It would seem illogical that people would drive that far to use one particular lake, but most legends have some truth in them. I suspect there might be something to it. Emmitt Till wasn’t exactly a one-off deal,” Hood told The Lighthouse. “That kind of thing probably happened.”
Multiple sources confirm Mississippi as the lynching capital of the nation, with 656 reported incidents of murder and disposal. But this number fails to capture the legion of killers targeting Black people since the Civil War. The NAACP points out that it’s “impossible to know for certain how many lynchings occurred because there was no formal tracking” for it, so historians believe the true number is wildly under-reported. Authorities dredged rivers while searching for the bodies of murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and unexpectedly discovered other missing activists, including Henry Hezekiah Dee, Charles Eddie Moore, 14-year-old victim Herbert Oarsby and five Black men who were never identified. Raced-based savagery was a reliable tool for our white Mississippi grandparents and forefathers. It was apparently the first gadget they yanked from the toolbox, and at the slightest infraction. But discovering Till was a lucky break, and residents suspect countless more bodies reliably stayed anchored to whatever garbage their murderers lashed them to. Generations of white Mississippians were professionals at sinking bodies, after all.
“Till came back up, but think about all the people who went into a lake and didn’t come back up,” said Drew resident Mary Phillips, 74, who is also familiar with the legend of Whore’s Lake. “There’s no telling who all went in lakes that we’ll never know.”
Hood, who prosecuted former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for planning the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, said there are methods for finding bones in most any body of water.
“Bones might be down there. If they were sunk with heavy equipment, they could still be near it or something metal and you could detect it from the surface and then search for bones nearby,” Hood said. “Sonar could detect heavy metal objects on the bottom, and that’s how you’d probably start. Check the lake and see if the heavy object load beneath it is heavier than anywhere else.”
He added that he did not expect authorities and their stretched budgets to embrace such an effort. The murderers are long dead, and sonar machinery is expensive. The likelihood of identifying the victims is also slim.
“If there’s any genetic material in those bones, you might be able to pull some DNA, though mitochondrial DNA is probably about all you’d get. That’s old technology that would tell you who was in the maternal line. I’ve used it in cases before,” Hood said.
Brian Fisher, owner of equipment retailer JWFishers, said his company offers a variety of underwater search equipment, including its Pulse 12 boat-towed metal detector, which can detect metal objects varying in size from vehicle to handgun, even under lake mud.
“The Pulse 12 is a good item to look for items … even if they’re buried. It’s a matter of finding the metal under sediment,” Fisher told The Lighthouse.
The device is available online for roughly $10,000, which makes this endeavor a difficult investment, particularly for an investigation that will convict no perpetrator and likely identify no victims. The most any agency or organization could hope to uncover in this crusade is a tragic history lesson, and at a time when white Mississippi politicians are scrambling to bury history, not learn from it.
Modley said if there’s history to be discovered from this, however, it’s decades overdue.