OXFORD — Kara Gallagher, a social work student at University of Mississippi, learned her classmate Jimmie “Jay” Lee was missing in the afternoon on Sunday, July 10, from a Facebook post. Campus police had posted a short description of Lee and the last time he was seen along with a picture of the 20-year-old Black student in a graduation cap, his arms flung wide as glitter floats in front of his smiling face.
It was baffling. But as social workers, Gallagher and her classmates knew they couldn’t sit by without supporting Lee or his family. In Zoom class and in group chats, they organized a GoFundMe for Lee’s family, but they wanted to do more. So they decided to host a rally to create a space for people to gather in Oxford.
“Jay would do the same for any of us,” Gallagher said.
The university initially said no but relented after Gallagher and her classmates got professors involved. On Wednesday night, the rally drew about 150 people to the Circle, a historic district at the heart of UM’s campus, to blow bubbles and hold colorful signs as a way “to illuminate Jay’s way home.”
One sign, a reference to Lee’s dog, read: “Come home Jay, Lexi needs to be fed. <3″
Lee was last seen on Friday, July 8, at 5:58 a.m., sitting in his car at Campus Walk Apartments, his home. He was wearing a silver robe, a gold bonnet, and gray slippers.
From there, police think Lee may have driven to Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex in northeast Oxford, to visit someone. His car was found three days later in the impound lot of a local towing company that had taken it from Molly Barr Trails on Friday afternoon.
Lee’s friends and classmates say it’s unsettling for someone so involved on campus and in Oxford to go missing – and for there to be so little information about where he could’ve gone. Police have not released any major updates in the 13 days since Lee disappeared except to brief the public on the investigation.
“When Jay walked in a room, you knew it,” Gallagher said. “For me personally, it’s difficult to wrestle with someone so big going missing. It’s like, how does that happen?”
Lee is also well-known in Oxford’s LGBTQ community – his disappearance has rattled them, too. Many queer people in Mississippi, in response to routine violence or harassment, conceal their identities, but Lee was known for his openness. Last fall, he ran for homecoming king and posed in a dress for his campaign photos. Earlier this year, he had spoken at a conference about his experience as a gay man who wears long hair, nails and eyelashes, and how his gender identity is often misunderstood.
“He was wildly free,” said Blake Summers, a co-founder of Code Pink, a local drag night that Lee had performed in for years.
An hour before the rally was set to start, TV news crews were already at the Circle setting up cameras, pointing them at a wooden podium that had been set in front of the flagpole. The university, expecting a large crowd, had cordoned off the street.
Gallagher and other students and faculty in the social work department got there early to set up a table and place electronic candles in a ring around the flagpole. They fielded questions on behalf of Lee’s family members, who did not want to talk to reporters.
One of the students designated to talk to the media was Precious Thompson. Like Lee, she was finishing her bachelor’s degree this summer. The oldest student in the social work program, Thompson didn’t hang out with Lee outside of class, but she described him as a charitable person. She said Lee would purchase textbooks for students who couldn’t afford it. He would give away clothes.
“He just loved people,” she said.
Four police officers stood by an oak tree as students passed out hand-lettered stickers that said “Hope for Jay.” One person came up to Jay’s dad to give him a framed portrait, drawn in graphite, of Lee in his graduation cap.
Shortly after 7 p.m., Gallagher took the microphone at the podium. She asked the crowd to come in a little closer as camera shutters started to click.
“Get buddy-buddy with the reporters,” she said. “We want to pull everybody in so they can see and hear.”
One of Lee’s classmates gave a prayer. The next speaker, Jennifer Buford, a social work instructor who helped students plan the event, talked about the importance of hope to the community. She referred to Romans 12:12, which says, “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”
“Hope can sometimes be confused with wishful thinking,” Buford said. “However, the hope that we intend to inspire today is based on the belief and the confident expectations that Jay will soon be home. Because these are our expectations, we will not accept gloom, doom, hopelessness and despair.”
Buford continued. She said she wanted Lee’s family to know that he is a “huge presence” in every community he was a part of – the social work department, the university, Oxford – and that he is missed.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lee, we are inspired by the level of faith and the hope that you have demonstrated,” she said. “Today, we want you to know, you are not alone.”
Lee’s classmates had planned to distribute candles, but they decided that might make the rally seem like a vigil. Instead, they asked the gatherers to blow on bubble wands. His classmates played Lee’s favorite songs, “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande and “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé, blanketing the sound of cicadas. Bubbles filled the air.
Lee’s parents placed the graphite drawing at the table in front of the crowd.
When the music finished, Charlotte Fant Pegues, the vice chancellor for student affairs, read a speech on behalf of Jay’s parents. The speech thanked local police, the mayor of Oxford, and everyone in the community who has shown the family support, and included an anecdote about Lee.
“Just yesterday my husband and I had to go through some Amazon packages that Jay had previously ordered,” Pegues read. “We were overwhelmed in seeing how he was ordering baby items out of his own pocket to give out to children in need. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Lee was interning at the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services in Lafayette County. He was supposed to organize a donation drive for baby formula the night of Friday, July 8. His parents realized Lee was missing when he didn’t show up.
At the end of the rally, Gallagher gave a closing statement. She told everyone how much their presence meant to all of Lee’s family, friends and classmates. Then she leaned forward on the podium, her voice firm with intent.
“I want to emphasize, we will find Jay,” Gallagher said.
“Say it with me,” she said, and the crowd replied: “We will find Jay.”
“That’s right, we’re gonna find him,” she repeated. “He will be safe and return to his parents.”