CATEGORY: Tishomingo County


HED:Stolen baby meets her family

By Jane Clark Summers

Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

IUKA - Yellow ribbons line the driveway of the Jones' homeplace in Iuka, where a 55-year-old California woman is visiting with relatives she never knew she had.

Emily Neff of Laguna Hills is one of an estimated 5,000 children adopted through a Memphis social service agency operated by Georgia Tann in the 1930s to 1950s.

According to published accounts, Tann offered to help unwed mothers by paying their hospital bills and placing their babies with wealthy families. She resorted to lies and tricks, however, when the young mothers changed their minds and wanted to keep their babies. Movie actress Joan Crawford adopted two babies through Georgia Tann's agency.

A widow with three children and three grandchildren, Neff also has a sister, who her parents adopted 17 months after her own adoption.

Since she knew she was adopted, Neff said she dreamed that someday she would be watching television and see her mother or another relative looking for her. Ironically, it was her adoptive mother, Helen, now 87, who unknowingly helped her find her birth family.

Her mom had given Neff a subscription to Good Housekeeping magazine. Neff was reading an issue in 1991 that contained an article titled, "The Woman Who Stole 5,000 Babies," when her ears perked up at the mention of Memphis. Neff's adoption papers had listed that as her birthplace.

After her parents confirmed that they had gotten her from Tann, Neff contacted a volunteer from the Right to Know Foundation, who has helped other families torn apart by Georgia Tann get back together.

It took two years to retrieve her birth records identifying her 19-year-old mother as Beverly Davis, also known as Beverly Jones. In an ensuing search, she learned that her birth mother, Janie Odelle Jones Pharr, had died in 1978.

Iuka roots

About 2,000 miles away in Iuka, Neff's aunts and uncles had been hoping to find their sister's only child. Janie Odelle, one of 10 children born to Thomas Howard "Cowboy" Jones and Laura Cary McKee Jones, would be 75 if alive today. She is survived by all nine siblings.

Through fate or the hand of God, the family is now reunited, Neff's cousin, Rhonda Dill said. In June, Dill was watching a "Maury Povich Show" that featured the Right to Know Foundation and listed a telephone number to call for assistance in finding lost relatives.

Two days later, Jones family aunts, uncles and cousins were talking to Neff. They haven't stopped talking since.

Neff found that her birth father's family also lives in Iuka.

Neff's father, Milton Ozene Phifer, who died in 1981, had three other children, Jimmy Phifer and Benita "Sissy" Alder, both of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wayne Phifer of Iuka. She visited for hours with them by telephone after learning she had a sister and brothers.

Uncles and aunts on her mother's side include Charles, Gaylon, Ray and W.H. "Bill" Jones, Lorene Bishop, Dorothy Clark, and Mary Kirk and Jeannette Wilson, all of Iuka, and Louise Barnett of Tishomingo. She also has an aunt, Evateen Miller of Franklin, Tenn., on her father's side.

From all calculations, Neff has about 130 relatives on the Jones and Phifer sides. She even has double first cousins, the result of Phifers and Joneses marrying into the families.

Wearing yellow lapel ribbons, about 20 members of the clan met Neff at the Memphis airport Wednesday for a week-long reunion. The yellow ribbons have popped up around Iuka as news of the event spread.

Catching up

Catching up on 55 lost years has kept the family awake into the wee hours exchanging pictures and stories of the past. They rented the community center for a Jones/Phifer reunion on Friday night.

"I cried a river when I saw her picture," Neff said of a portrait of her mother. The black-and-white photograph taken when Odelle was in her late 40s closely resembles her daughter. Her mannerisms are uncannily like her mother's, she is told.

"See those hands," said her uncle, Ray Jones, gently taking Neff's hand into his. "Those are my sister's hands."

Neff learned that her mother had not planned to give her up.

Odelle kept going back to Georgia Tann wanting to know about Emily, said Ray, Odelle's youngest brother, who is three months younger than his niece. "She finally told her she would give her a picture and somehow got in touch with the adopted parents to get one," Jones said.

"Odelle told us she had been wanting to find her from day one," said her Uncle Gaylon Jones.

Elizabeth Jones said her sister-in-law accepted Tann's offer to pay for her hospital bill but said she told Tann she would never up her child. After delivering a baby girl and still under medication, Odelle was tricked into signing adoption papers by being told she was signing a birth certificate.

"Hornswaggled, I call it," said her Uncle Charles Jones.

"We have searched for her for years," he said. "Finding her has really made a completion in our lives," he said, as he hugged his newfound niece to his side. "Odelle was always so good with my children and now I know why. She was doing it for you."

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