Lacoochee family searches for answers in patriarch's long-ago death

Walter Jordan, Loretta Burns, middle, and Wilma Jordan Pope stand at Wallace Jordan’s unmarked grave in Trilby.
Walter Jordan, Loretta Burns, middle, and Wilma Jordan Pope stand at Wallace Jordan’s unmarked grave in Trilby.
Published Sept. 15, 2014

TRILBY — Wilma Jordan Pope trudges through the high grass and overgrown weeds at Trilby "Country" Cemetery trying to remember the spot where she stood over her father's grave 57 years ago. She can only recall the hill rise, the old railroad tracks and the split scrub oak tree off Old Trilby Road.

She still struggles with the horror of her father being threatened and watching as he was dragged from their home.

The official death certificate pronounced it an accident, hit by a train. Yet there was no investigation or autopsy, leading to speculation and distorted memories — and nothing approaching closure for his descendants.

Many among the older generation of living Jordans, including Wallace's eight surviving children, remain grief-stricken and trapped in silence. None were able to demand answers, and they didn't dare speak out in a segregated community.

Wilma, 64, begins to sob.

"It's been a long time but still it tears me up," she said. "I'm mad at the same time. We were robbed of a father and a mother, and to this day all the grandkids are still being robbed."

Wilma walks every morning by the water tower at the former Cummer Sons Cypress mill property in Lacoochee and greets her daddy's spirit. A company town, it's where Wallace Jordan worked as a log hooker.

It was there on the northbound railroad tracks that his mutilated corpse was found by a Seaboard Air Line conductor heading south on the morning of March 7, 1957.

• • •

Jordan was 38 and facing death threats for flirting with a white woman when his sister-in-law Lottie Mae Peacock hid him at her house in Okahumpka, southwest of Jacksonville.

He worked as a landscaper and drove deliveries for a Trilby grocery store in addition to being a log hooker. His family says a white woman at the store made the accusation against him.

Peacock, now 91, described Jordan's desperation while telling her, "no matter where I go, they're after me."

"He was a just quiet man who enjoyed my cornbread," she said. "When we heard someone put in writing that they were going after his family, Wallace agreed to return and I took the family to Sebring."

When he was found dead two days later, some witnesses swore they saw a bullet in his head, Wilma said.

The death certificate is signed by Third District Pasco County Justice of the Peace Judge J.G. O'Berry, who penned the code for intoxication under other significant conditions leading to death.

"It was the way the white world put it to rest," Wilma said.

• • •

People and their fears have survived the tragedy, only speaking their suspicions behind closed doors. The family always wondered about Jesse Stanley, the constable in charge of investigating, and Cliff Couey, who owned the grocery store — whether they knew something more about Jordan's death than they'd ever said.

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Today, Stanley Park in Lacoochee is a permanent tribute to the former champion boxer who coached boxing and baseball for youth in Lacoochee and Dade City.

Stanley died at the Royal Oaks Nursing Home in Dade City in 1996. Jordan's granddaughter Loretta Burns, 48, was nursing Stanley during a bout with pneumonia. She worked up the courage to ask him about her grandfather.

"He denied even knowing him," Burns said. "I kept taking care of him because it was my job."

Couey died in the same nursing home three years later. Wilma visited the ailing Couey with her two little boys. "Do you remember Wallace Jordan?" she asked him. "He went blank and said, 'If I tell you that, a lot of people will be in trouble.' "

• • •

Wallace Jordan is honored by hundreds of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who frequently exchange stories about the quiet, easygoing and humble family man whose passions were fishing, hunting and Coca-Cola with peanuts.

Standing in the graveyard, Loretta's brother, Frank Burns, quoted Genesis: "It came about after these events that his master's wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, Lie with me"— a tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.

He is long-frustrated by his quest for the truth. Yet he emphasized that no one is seeking revenge.

"It's only about not knowing where Wallace is buried," he said. "It would be worth a million just to get that closure."

Not everyone wants to reopen the wounds.

"I tell the family there's no need digging this up," Peacock said. "Forgive and stay ready because you don't know what's coming."

Dade City Commissioner Scott Black, a Trilby native and local historian, has joined the family's search for answers. He's also president of the Trilby Cemetery Association who has reached out for help to restore the neglected cemetery grounds where African-Americans are buried.

"For all I know, one of my uncles could have been involved," he added. "We all deal with our own ghosts."