A career's roots in Mississippi lessons

Stands for civil rights helped mold Jessamy's approach as city's top prosecutor


HOLLANDALE, Miss. -- As a teenager in this Mississippi Delta town, she sat defiantly at all-white lunch spots and marched downtown with her classmates to take movie theater seats reserved for whites.

As a college student at Jackson State, she listened in disbelief as police fired hundreds of bullets on campus - shots that thrust that historically black college into the epicenter of the civil rights movement.

And as a newly minted lawyer, she forced Grenada, Miss., to remake its government, giving black residents a greater voice in running the city and prompting threats to her life.

Patricia Coats Jessamy, 57, has been the top prosecutor in Baltimore for a decade now, but the lessons she learned as a young civil rights activist have stuck, molding her sometimes controversial approach to the job.

Jessamy's employees say she doesn't wear her past on her sleeve or use it for self-promotion. But she exudes a maternal demeanor and talks frequently about the value she places on education and tolerance.

It causes "a pain in my heart," she says, to see black men in shackles and chains lined up each morning outside Baltimore's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, named for a civil rights leader. "I knew if I wanted things to be different, I would have to make it so."

It was homecoming last month at Jackson State in south-central Mississippi, and a homecoming for Jessamy, too. For the first time in three decades, she walked across the changed campus, her southern drawl growing syrupy as she spoke with fellow alumni.

"It is quite a pleasure," Jessamy said in a lunchtime speech at Jackson State, "for me to be home."

Cotton collects in clumps along the roadways that lead to the rural Mississippi towns where Jessamy was born and raised. Down a gravel road squeezed between farm fields that stretch into the horizon, a green street sign is rusting in a ditch. It reads, "Coats Road."

This is Percy, Miss., the 120 acres of farmland where Jessamy and her five sisters and two brothers were born. They picked cotton and "everything else you can imagine," she says. They played among persimmon trees and potato patches.

Beatrice Coats, an 88-year-old with an impressive memory, remembers sewing clothes for her children and needing to buy only flour and sugar for baking. Everything else, they raised and grew themselves. She nursed Jessamy through a bout with polio as a baby, sent seven of her children to college and buried one of Jessamy's older sisters, who died from multiple sclerosis, in the 1970s. She says her life has been about "doing right for the children."

The family was poor, Jessamy says, but, "I had joy in my childhood.

Each Christmas Eve, Beatrice Coats would take her children to Hollandale to buy 10-cent presents for one another. Daddy would play Santa Claus, Jessamy recalls, and Mama would make 14 or 15 cakes. "People would come out to the country to visit," says Jessamy's older sister, Alveria Crump.

When she was old enough for elementary school, Jessamy was sent to live with her grandparents in Hollandale. Her mother didn't want her to be educated in the one-room schoolhouse in Percy, the only option at the time for rural black children.

Jessamy's grandpa, "Papa Neal," owned a dry-cleaning business on Bee Bee Street, the only paved road northwest of the train tracks that bisected the town into white and black. The black neighborhood came to be called "Jonestown." When he died while Jessamy was in high school, Beatrice Coats moved to town and took over the dry cleaner's.

Back then downtown Hollandale, with its Goldfarb's department store, Booth's drugstore, dime stores, cafes and a theater, was humming. Juke joints bounced on Morgan Street. Three, maybe four, stoplights controlled traffic on the main roads.

During Jessamy's schooling, Principal T.R. Sanders, Howard Sanders' father, kept the children in line with whompings from a strap. They walked single file on the right side of the hallway and never let a scrap of paper litter the school grounds, Jessamy says. In college, fellow students would tease, "You must have come from a military academy."

In 1965, as a 16-year-old in the 11th grade, Jessamy began following her mother's lead in the local civil rights movement. Beatrice Coats had long been involved, helping black residents pay their poll taxes and registering to vote in the 1940s.

"We felt as though this is our little part of he world, and we were contributing our share," Jessamy says of her civil rights involvement as a teenager.

She sat in all-white lunch spots called Coker's and the cafe at the Jitney Jungle grocery store.

When she and other young people took seats on the main floor of the theater, defying the rule that blacks had to sit in the balcony, the white people were escorted out, and the movie - Jessamy says she was so scared that she doesn't remember its name - was intentionally blurred. "We sat with our eyes closed, praying that a bomb wouldn't go off," she says. "But we weren't about to leave."

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