Parting Shot

Story Berkley Hudson

Once, in 1934, O.N. Pruitt photographed a farmer named Sylvester Harris with his mule, Jesse. In the era of the Great Depression, Harris had listened to the fireside chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and took him at his word. Around that time, Harris could no longer pay the mortgage for the loan on his 140-acre cotton farm he and his brother Mason shared in south Lowndes County. So Harris drove in his pickup truck to Columbus to telephone a plea to the president.

After some difficulty in persuading assistants to bring Roosevelt to the phone, Harris reached him. Roosevelt agreed to help to stop foreclosure. As a result of the Associated Press’ distribution of the Pruitt photograph, along with stories about Harris that first appeared in The Commercial Dispatch, the farmer from Plum Grove became famous.

Harris became a folk hero, celebrated in the mainstream white press such as the New York Times as well as the African American press including the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier.

Newsreels came to Harris’ farm to record him. Those stories played on movie screens across the country. Blues singer Memphis Minnie wrote, recorded and performed, “Sylvester and His Mule Blues.” Ben Bernie sang about Harris on his New York City jazz radio show. Cartoonists depicted Harris; editorialists and preachers opined about the Mississippi farmer who called the president and got help from the White House. Harris once traveled to Chicago to campaign for a Democratic congressional candidate, who eventually defeated a Republican rival. Each year at Thanksgiving, Harris would ship a turkey to the Warm Springs (Georgia) White House as a thank you to the president.