Parchman Penitentiary is an 18,000-acre penal farm located in the heart of the Delta. For many years, Parchman was farmed with mules driven by white and black convicts. Inmates were segregated, and one of the largest black camps was Camp B, which was located near the community of Lambert.
During the summer of 1968 I visited Camp B and recorded and filmed black inmates chopping wood to the rhythm of work chants, a musical tradition that originated in West Africa. From five to fifteen men lifted their axes in unison and chopped wood to the beat of a work chant called by a leader who faced them. Verses in the chant described inmates who escaped from Parchman by swimming the Sunflower River to confuse the trailing bloodhounds, prisoners who returned their hoes to the “Captain” and refused to work, and a beautiful woman named Rosie who waited outside the camp for her man.
Prisoners at Parchman were known by nicknames they received after they entered the prison. These nicknames reflected either personality traits or physical characteristics. Johnny Lee Thomas, a former Parchman inmate, received the nickname “Have Mercy” when he protested the brutal beating of another prisoner.
Thomas was at Parchman when inmates served as “trustees” and carried weapons with live ammunition to guard other inmates. Thomas told me about “Old Timer” or “Timer,” a prison trustee who was ninety-six. He described Parchman Penitentiary as a world of fear in which only the strong and intelligent survive. Like the trickster rabbit, the black prisoner had to move quickly and think faster than his white boss. Because he was a “high