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From Rural Fields to Battlefields Part 1: Mississippi

This blog is part four in a five-part series about Clark Hall by 2019 National History Academy student Dominique Castanheira. 

Part 1: Mississippi

Clark B. Hall has survived gunfights and guerilla warfare. He has investigated criminal activities in Milwaukee and dived into egregious Tanzanian corruption. But he still tears up at the thought of his childhood companion: a yellow tabby cat named Percy.

Clark Hall, the 75-year-old who now spends the majority of his time as a preservationist and historian, could give Forrest Gump a run for his money. In the 1960s, he served in Vietnam as a Marine. In the 1970s, he was an FBI agent taking on the mafia. By the 1980s, he was leading the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. Since the 1990s, he has been working with The Fairfax Group to conduct internal inquiries for multinational companies. But before he could begin his illustrious career, Clark Hall first had to navigate rural Mississippi in the 1950s.

Clark Hall and his father at a church picnic in Neshoba County, MS (Courtesy Clark Hall)

“I was the quintessential farm boy,” Mr. Hall said. “Youngest of eight on a cotton farm, but I always felt alone. My cat was really my sole companion.”

Growing up on a farm, Mr. Hall had all the chores one would expect – feeding mules, cleaning the outhouse, and maintaining the crops. But when those were done, he pursued a hobby not often seen in the fields of Philadelphia, Mississippi: reading.

“If there was one thing my father had, it was books,” Mr. Hall said. “And so before I even got to the first grade, I effectively taught myself to read. But the other students could not. I can recall wanting to fit in. I’d be sitting in a circle of other students and we would be reading together and they would ask, ‘Teacher, what’s this word?’ And I would always know the answer to the question, but I wouldn’t say anything. Because I didn’t want to stand out.”

Being able to read at an early age was not the only thing that separated Mr. Hall from his peers. There was another truth, a darker one, that followed him throughout childhood. His mother had died giving birth to him.

“I was the little boy in that classroom without a mother. And I was very conscious of that because people would talk about what their mother said or what their mother gave them. And I could never join in that conversation. At an early age, that developed in me a sense of insecurity because I didn’t have that person to go home to at night and talk about the day’s work. And so it drove me further into my own shell,” Mr. Hall said.

Although without a mother, Mr. Hall had his father, a man who went to church out of societal obligation rather than faith. A man who defied the norms of the times through his tremendous generosity and dignity towards all. A man who championed civil rights before anybody knew what that was.

“My bedroom was in the front of the house,” Mr. Hall said. “I’d be reading over a kerosene lamp with my cat Percy alongside when there’d be steps at night. My father would very quietly get up, walk to the front door, go outside, and close the door. I could see the two shadows. One of the men had come up from Colored Town in need of money. I could see my father reach into his wallet, take money out and hand it to this person. The next night, out on the front porch would be a mess of fish or squirrels that had been killed as payment for the loan. He never turned anybody down that needed funding. That was a powerful signal to a young boy.”

That same signal carried Mr. Hall into his teenage years, where he witnessed the effects of racism, Jim Crow, and the KKK in his hometown.

“Growing up, I lived daily with injustice. Blacks went to separate schools, they used separate toilets, they couldn’t go to our theater. And as a fair-minded, equitable, young person, I repelled against the injustice. And so at a young age, I became a political liberal. John Kennedy was my hero. The day that he was shot and killed was the worst day of my young life. In 1963, I remember dropping to my knees and I could not understand why the world did not stop on its axis because he had been killed. He gave me hope. He spoke to a larger vision than Mississippi,” Mr. Hall said.

Mr. Hall, too, sought more than just Mississippi. He did not find his purpose in working his family’s fields; he found it in the books he had read since he was a child.

“I grew up without means but with a purpose,” Mr. Hall said. “In the books that my father kept around were ones about the Second World War. I was born in ‘44 when the war was still underway. So I would read the war books, and I would see those Marines in the South Pacific and I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that be cool?’ So I wanted to be a Marine. And then he had books about the FBI. And it’s a time where the FBI is very active in anti-communist investigations. So early in my career, the two things that I wanted were to be in the Marine Corps and the FBI. All I had to do was position myself to get there.”

It would be a long road to achieve either of his goals, but Mr. Hall knew that the first step would be to leave his small, stagnant town. Soon, anything tying him to Mississippi was gone: his father passed away and his beloved cat Percy was killed by a water moccasin before his eyes. Mr. Hall packed his bags and left for Kansas State University. Little did he know that he wouldn’t be in college for long. A war had broken out across the ocean, and Marines were needed. Clark Hall was going to Vietnam.