Warning: This report contains detailed descriptions of violence, including murder, substance abuse and associated trauma.
LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Miss.—Harry Mitchell’s pony might have been puny, but it was fast. As a young man in rural Lafayette County in the 1950s, he would race his friends Douglas Hill and his brother Curlie Hill on theirs, and he loved to show off what his pony could do.
One thing the little guy could do was jump. “Harry would ride up to the ditch, and he’d snatch the reins, and the horse would just jump the ditch,” Hill said about the Mitchell pony’s superpower.
One day Mitchell’s father Clifton rode the pony up to the ditch, unaware Harry had trained it to jump. “He went off,” Hill said decades later, laughing as he recalled seeing Harry’s daddy fly off the pony’s back. “He didn’t know the pony would do that. But it was fun for us.”
The Hill boys grew up with Harry Mitchell near the small village of Taylor, not far south of Oxford, and their sister later married him after they all grew up playing together. Back in those days, Hill said, young men raced horses like young people race cars or motorcycles today. “It was a Sunday evening sport for us,” he said.
Douglas Hill, his brother Curlie, sister Ollie Mitchell and other family members told and listened to stories about Harry Mitchell while sitting in the victim’s son Dennis’ home and garage several times in 2022 and 2023. The family now is demanding justice for Harry Mitchell’s death 32 years after someone brutally murdered him and abandoned his body under the Taylor Creek Bridge in 1991 in the county where they were all raised.
Mitchell, they all say now, was complicated and often difficult due to his alcoholism, but they loved him and don’t want him, his life or his death forgotten. So they opened up the garage door at his son’s home, formed up a circle of chairs and turned on a heavy-duty fan, then did what the white citizenry of Lafayette County, Miss., have failed to do for the last three decades—they remembered Harry Mitchell.
‘It Goes A Long Way Down the Family Line’
Harry Lee Mitchell was born in Lafayette County, Miss., in 1937 to Clifton and Olivia Mitchell, who farmed and worked construction. Harry grew up in the Jim Crow South, and eventually left school in seventh grade to begin laboring full time, including driving a dump truck and construction work over the years. As a child, he helped his family pick cotton.
During his 53 years of life, he married Ollie and helped raise their seven children.
Harry Mitchell’s children were young adults in 1991 and still suffering from the grief of losing one of their siblings “one year, two weeks and two days” before their father’s death, as his daughter Halleane Isom still recites today without hesitation. All now have families of their own. Harry’s murder left a lasting generational impact on his descendants, but they persevered through loss and are keeping his legacy alive despite the indifference they have faced over the years from law enforcement and media since his murder.
His granddaughter, Briauna Sutton, told her loved ones in the circle in September 2023 that the two conversations she had joined in her Uncle Dennis’ garage had helped her know her grandfather better, although she never met him. And she now understands the injustice following his murder after hearing the family talk, and cry, about it.
“They were heavily impacted,” Sutton told the Mississippi Free Press team present of her older family members. “And I never got a chance to know my grandaddy.”
Harry’s granddaughter then looked at family members in the circle. “It’s a huge effect, and a slap in the face to y’all. I can only imagine,” she said, adding that solving the murder would help bring much-needed closure to the family.
“It goes a long way down the family line. I think that’s a serious problem,” Sutton added about the ripple effects and trauma of her grandfather’s murder on her family.
The grief of Harry’s loss has not left his loved ones, but neither has the light he brought to their lives. Family pictures shared with this publication show him smiling with his children at Christmas, brimming with pride on his daughter’s graduation day later on and posing beside his work truck.
As renewed efforts to find Harry’s killers move forward, the family remains hopeful that someday the person or persons who killed the father of seven children will be held to account.
‘He Could Run. Dad Could Run.’
Harry Mitchell’s love of moving fast lasted into his adulthood. And like racing his Hill buddies as a kid on his pony, he would outrun his children when they tried to beat him on foot.
“He would give me and my brother a head start, and he would come by us and pass us. He could run. Dad could run, Dennis recalled.
“Dad, why don’t we just start from the beginning?” Dennis would ask him, wanting the chance to try to beat him from the starting line..
“Y’all know you can’t beat me,” Mitchell told his sons.
“He just wiped us out,” Dennis said sitting in his garage about his dad. “And he would just laugh.”
“‘What did I tell y’all?’ Mitchell asked his children. “I told y’all you can’t beat me. Can’t outrun me.’”
Harry’s daughter, Oleatha Mitchell, recalled a story that she felt exemplified her father’s love.
Growing up, her mother, Ollie, was more the authoritarian figure in the family, Oleatha said about the woman sitting near her in the garage.
Once, after misbehaving and drawing the ire of their mother, Ollie told Harry to punish Oleatha and her baby sister Mavis. He gathered them up and took them into a different room. “OK, y’all just start screaming,” he told his girls. “I’m not gonna touch you.”
“And we’d hug and just go on back out there like we had had the worst whooping,” she said, laughing.
A Complicated Man
Ollie Mitchell is always honest about her often-difficult relationship with her late husband who long suffered from the disease of alcoholism.
She would sometimes struggle to survive financially as Harry prioritized his drinking habit over stability, leaving it up to her to feed the children and make sure bills were paid.
“We were just barely making it,” Ollie Mitchell recalled while sitting in her son’s garage. “I would go and help my grandmama work in the garden to have food and stuff to help with the children and everything.”
Her grandmother worried about Harry. “‘You watch out now when you start working trying to help your husband, he’s going to sit down on you,’” she would tell Ollie.
“And she’s dead and gone, but she didn’t lie,” Harry Mitchell’s widow added.
Eventually, the issues came to a head. Ollie had had enough of the drinking, but Harry could not quite get his fill. The alcoholism and consequences that followed became too much for the family.
“Sometimes he might get mad and raise hell around the house and his family, but outside of that, he’s just as good a guy as you’re going to find,” Ollie’s brother Douglas Hill said, describing the dichotomy many families face with an alcoholic family member.
“As good a guy as you’d want to be, but as soon as he started drinking…,” Ollie added balefully.
‘Give It All You Got’
Douglas Hill is not sure the police will be able to solve Harry Mitchell’s murder despite best intentions or the promises made to his family over the years.
The Hills and Mitchells are still waiting for results, but the family, and Douglas Hill in particular, have resolved to make peace with their plight. But he wants to believe that law enforcement did everything possible to solve the case and bring closure for his family.
Sheriff Joey East, whose mother is from Taylor, said in late September that he grew up knowing the Mitchell and Hill families, and he wants to bring justice. “I grew up knowing Mr. (Douglas) Hill; his sister married Mr. Harry,” East said on Sept. 28, 2023. “I grew up with his sons and grandsons.”
But, East added, “a 30-year-old case is hard.”
“Unfortunately we haven’t found a smoking gun,” he said.
Douglas Hill’s message back to Sheriff East echoes that of his family. “My thing is this. Give it all you got,” Hill said in late September. “And when you see it ain’t going nowhere, turn it over to somebody else.
“So I’m going to turn it over to The Lord. I just believe that He can handle this better than I can,” Hill said.
If you or someone you know has information regarding the murder of Harry Mitchell, you can reach out to the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department at 662-234-6421 as well as reporter Christian Middleton at email@example.com. The Mississippi Free Press will keep communications secure unless you opt to speak for publication.
Read more about Harry Mitchell’s murder and the family’s search for justice: “Heart of Darkness: 1991 Lafayette County Cold Case Spurs Black Family’s Struggle for Justice”
Harry Mitchell’s story is part of a new Rural News Network series. The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut—from industry land grabs to struggles with access to justice to broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that make it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part RNN series by six newsrooms, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.
Donna Ladd contributed to this story package, and Imani Khayyam photographed Harry Mitchell’s family and Taylor, Miss., as part of the Rural News Network’s Mississippi team.