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The Goree Girls

10 May

On Sunday, October 23, 1960, the Texas Prison Rodeo performance in Huntsville was slated to have a personal appearance by actor John Wayne, in Texas to promote the release of his film “The Alamo” in Houston the following week.  Scheduled to appear with Wayne was pop singer Frankie Avalon, who had been cast as the character known as “Smitty” in the film.  Wayne’s production was only the fourth of fifty-one film or television projects that Avalon appeared in, but he was at a peak of his career in pop music.  The previous year, his recording “Venus” was Number 1 for five weeks.  Between 1958 and 1962 between two and three dozen of his recordings hit the Billboard chart.  The rodeo arena was expected to be filled to capacity at around 30,000.

Also on the program were several inmate entertainment groups, including an all girl string group known as the Goree Girls from the Goree Unit of the Texas prison system.  Their lineup was always changing as members were paroled or had served their terms but this year, it featured Dallas’ Candy Barr (birth name Juanita Slusher) who had been serving time for a marijuana conviction.

The group had been formed in the early 1930s and was one of the first all female musical groups in the country.  There was even a time when they were on a weekly radio program called “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls.”  It was played live in a prison auditorium and carried on radio station WBAP on Wednesday nights.  Their usual musical lineup was comprised of covers of popular songs.  No recordings of the band are known to exist, but the radio program was popular and ran until its final performance in 1944.  However, this was not the end of the band as they continued to perform for the inmates.

goreegirls

(Image credit: marshallproject.org)

We believe that they first performed for the rodeo in the fall of 1947.  A Waco newspaper article said they arrived behind the grandstand at the rodeo after being transported from the Goree Unit in two cattle trucks that had been freshly washed.  They were described as wearing clean, starched white dresses with brightly colored belts.  Their hair was decorated with flowers and ribbons.  They took their places and performed during the rodeo.

Goree inmates were incarcerated for a variety of crimes, many for murder.  Others were imprisoned for prostitution, drug violations and other crimes.  The term Goree Girls has historically applied to the inmates at large as well as the one time band members.

The August 16, 1937 issue of the Santa Ana Register, a California newspaper, read “Argument Over Car Ends In Slaying.”  17 year old Mozelle McDaniel had been arrested for shooting her Wharton, Texas stepfather, farmer and oilfield worker Jack Watkins, eleven times for refusing to let her take the family car.  She had fired another five times and missed.  Other accounts of the incident included tales of Mozelle’s physical abuse by Watkins, and that she was fearful of getting another beating at his hands.  Nevertheless, McDaniel was tried and convicted and on January 29, 1938 she received a sentence of seven years for Watkins’ murder.  The next day, she was transported 135 miles to Goree to begin serving her sentence.  She became a singer in the group.

Ruby Mae Morace was incarcerated for participating in an assault, car theft and robbery in West Texas and became a singer in the band.  Burma Harris was in prison for heroin possession, receiving and possessing stolen property.  She learned to play the violin while in prison and became a “fiddler” in the band.  Bonnie Barron Scott was serving a sentence for kidnapping and robbery and became an accoustic guitar and bass fiddle player for the band.  Reable Childs, who wrote about the band and her experiences, was incarcerated for conspiracy to commit murder.  Childs was a key organizer of the band and a performer.

One of the more familiar names to North Texas residents among the prison band alumni mentioned above, was Juanita Slusher, better known by her stage name of Candy Barr, who was born in 1909 in Edna, Texas.  She had worked as a stripper in Dallas and one of her earliest jobs was appearing as a headliner at place called the Colony Club.  When she was in her 40s, she was charged with shooting her second husband, but the charges were dropped.  About one year later, she was charged with possession of marijuana.  She was tried, convicted and sentenced to a fifteen year term.  About two years later in late 1959, she came to the Goree Unit.

In a newspaper interview in her home in Brownwood some years later, she remembered wryly thinking, “I’ve always wanted a brick house of my own and now it looks like I’ve got one.”  She said that the first six months were the hardest, but she resolved herself to serve her full term.  Goree was where she was going to be living.  Slusher said that when she began serving on the sewing line that she experienced a lot of resentment and comments from the other inmates who probably thought that she wanted to trade on her former notoriety and be a celebrity, but she just wanted to keep her head down.  Early on, one of the other inmates grabbed a Madonna on a chain from her neck and Slusher decided she had had enough.  The fist fight cost her thirty-five days in solitary, but she served it.  Afterward, she began to read heavily, mostly poetry, and sketch.  She joined the Goree Girls band as a drummer and was included in a number of photos of the band.

Slusher served a total of three years and ninety-one days and was released April 1, 1963.  She faced a second marijuana possession trial later that year, but it is unknown if this ever came to trial.  She left the prison and returned to Edna, Texas as a condition of her parole, being confined to Jackson County where she lived with her father, stepmother and eight year old daughter.  Slusher served her three and a half year parole, after which Governor John Connally granted her a pardon on August 1, 1967.

Following her parole, she returned to stripping and performed in Dallas, New York, New Orleans and Las Vegas.  Slusher also tangentially figured into the investigation surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy because of her prior casual friendship with Jack Ruby.  Ruby, you will recall, fatally shot accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.  Shortly after Ruby’s arrest, Slusher was interviewed by the FBI in connection with their investigation since Ruby had been her visitor two months before the assassination, but apparently she had nothing to add.  After her release, Slusher, as Candy Barr, returned to the Texas Prison Rodeo several times as a featured performer.

As far back as 2009, there were reports of a feature film in production called Goree Girls, set in the 1940s.  Jennifer Anniston was set to appear in it.  In later years there have occasionally been more comments, but at this writing, the status of the project is unknown.

In 2017, a musical called The Goree All-Girl String Band debuted at the New York Music Festival.  It had an off-Broadway run and was billed as a production that “successfully couches a message about redemption through music in a consistently funny play about a female prison in Texas circa 1938.”

Due to legislative changes and revisions to prison policy, prison musical groups no longer exist on the scale that they once did, but the story of the Goree Girls remains a fascinating one in Texas prison history.

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