Bill Steigerwald

Sprigle and Dobbs spent a week in the Mississippi Delta, which is why on May 18 I found myself tramping through a badly overgrown black cemetery in Lyon, Miss., looking for the "magnificent tomb of white Alabama marble" that Sprigle described in his series.

According to Sprigle, the tomb had been erected in Shufordville Historical Cemetery by a wealthy black Clarksdale dentist, Dr. P.W. Hill, to honor his wife Marjorie and their unborn child.

Both had died on an operating table in a black Memphis hospital 78 miles away. Dr. Hill had sent them north by ambulance in the middle of the night because he knew his wife, who needed an emergency Caesarian section to save her life, would not be admitted under any circumstances to the local (whites-only) Clarksdale hospital.

Just as I was about to give up my search for Dr. Hill's tragic tomb, it emerged from its clump of dense bushes like a Mayan ruin.

Far from gleaming, its white Alabama marble was soiled and discolored and its heavy metal door was off and leaning against an inside wall. Inside were six marble vaults, including one carved with "Margie Hill, Born October 30, 1904; Died October 10, 1939."

When Dr. Hill proudly showed his newly erected mausoleum to Sprigle and Dobbs 61 Mays ago, Sprigle wrote, Dr. Hill regarded it "only as his tribute to the ones he loved." But Sprigle, who by then had seen as much of Jim Crow's separate and unequal domain as he could stomach, was not so naïve.

In his series he called Dr. Hill's tomb "a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins."

I have no idea what Dr. Hill's neglected and desecrated tomb would symbolize to Ray Sprigle today - if he could find it - or what the ghosts of Sprigle and Dobbs would make of the New & Improved South.

But they'd obviously be mighty pleased and proud to learn that Jim Crow, the system of legal oppression that appeared so invincible to them in 1948, has been dead and gone for decades -- and that marble monuments like Dr. Hill's no longer have to be built for its victims.

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..