Friday, March 18, 2011

African American genealogical records yet to be unearthed

Asylum records in local parish and county courthouses are an important genealogical resource.  The most brutal and harshest conditions that former slaves endured occurred after Emancipation.  Transitioning to a new way of life from slavery to pseudo-freedom, realizing freedom did not elevate one to a higher social station, and being submitted to unjust treatment took its toll. Some lost their sanity.

Stress made some lose sanity

"Due to the horrific atrocities that happened to some ancestors, it was too much to handle.  They had to look at lynchings, beatings, mistreatment, undernourishment, and being overworked.  There were those who could not hold on to sanity,"  said genealogist and peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell.   "Some endured a lot of harsh treatment and watched their communities and loved ones suffer.  Some of them were descendants of slaves who were sold away and they still suffered because of being so closely associated with the former plantation."

Antoinette is only two generations from her ancestor, Alexander Harrell, who was born a slave in 1859.  Her grandfather, Jasper Harrell, Sr. was the son of Alexander Harrell.  Her mother is the granddaughter of a slave (Alexander Harrell).  Slavery was not that many generations ago for many African Americans.  I am also a great granddaughter of a slave on three lineages.

"Some of them saw so much, and they could not talk about it with anyone.  They had to deal with so much injustice such as being jailed and beaten.  If it drove you insane, it drove you insane," said Antoinette.  For many years after slavery African Americans were not admitted to hospitals or asylums.  When the South was forced to address the issue, African Americans were admitted to institutions run by former Confederates. 

Below:  Antoinette Harrell, conducting courthouse research

   Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Asylum records are "out the box"

Today, Antoinette shared the asylum record below, and she stresses the fact that medical records are private and are not shared due to privacy laws.  However, these records are available in courthouses.  She says that we must realize for African Americans conducting genealogical research, we are just getting started.  There are many more records to be revealed and studied.

"In the early seventies, the first knowledge about genealogical research came through Alex Haley, the author of Roots.  We really did not get started until the early nineties when genealogy became the number two hobby.  It took ten years to realize it is not a hobby,"  said Antoinette.

"We have to look outside the box outside of census records, marriage records, death records, social security records, and birth records.  We do not know what is outside the box.  Record types vary.  Asylum records are a rich genealogical resource. They give the name, age, condition, residence, birth place, information about who the person was living with, diagnosis, and more," explained Antoinette. She said we have not yet examined Jim Crow records or Civil Rights records for example.

Records do exist for African American research

Antoinette also shared the fact that it is not that we hit brick walls because records do not exist to provide the documentation that we need.  The records do exist!  They just have not been revealed by African American researchers.  Records exist which are so rich and vital to African American genealogical research.  Antoinette discloses that some do not want to reveal them because they will show we were still enslaved.

"The picture cannot be complete until every piece of the puzzle has been revealed.  If a record contains a name, date, birthplace, something about an ancestor, that makes it a genealogical record.  The records of prominent families in an area are maintained in archives, museums, associations, and local and university libraries.  There is no problem obtaining grants to preserve this history.  Resources, funds, and manpower are devoted to researching, documenting, and preserving the files," said Antoinette.

Antoinette explained that most of the time, African Americans go in search of a particular document, when we need to go to learn about the courthouse and the courthouse records "simply because there is no educational tool that will educate about a parish or county that is being taught in secondary education or higher."  The history that pertains to genealogy is excluded.  

We have to "go through every courthouse and look at the index of all books that are in that courthouse."  This is how we will learn about records "outside the box."  Antoinette suggests that genealogists should also search records of pioneering families, university libraries, state archives, and local libraries.

Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA

The following is the 25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914.  Extract the vital information about H. Wheeler below and decide on the best way to discover more about is wife, and mother.  Hint:  Louisiana Deaths from 1900-1940 are indexed on

25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914.

25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914.

25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914.

25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914. 

25th Judicial Court Record in the matter of the Insanity of H. Wheeler of St. Helena Parish. LA on May 24, 1914.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jewish immigrants suffered peonage in United States

"Try to save me, dear cousin.  Maybe it will be useless and we will never see one another again.  They have fooled me to this place, where I cannot escape.  I am beaten because I am not strong enough to carry big boards, and beating does not give me any more strength. For twenty days, I have been sick with fever.  They will not let me go.  The company says that I owe money for food.  Try. try, and release me.  Colored men with guns guard me, and I cannot escape.  This is worse than Russia, and I thought it was a free country,"  Jacob Lerner.
Published in The New York Times, "Woman Lawyer Heard of Peonage Cases," July 23, 1906

I was so taken back by the horrific experiences of immigrants to the United States who were trapped by the system of peonage that I wrote What is history without historical documentation? on About Our Freedom where I explain my policy of treating historical documentation as if I am color blind and how cheated I feel after my parents provided a private school education for me only to learn I know so little about historical truths.

I know most people assume that I am only an African American researcher, and they are grossly in error.  I am a scavenger of all record types and especially the rare ones no matter who they document.  I have been able to help people of all races find records to document their ancestors.  For that reason, I am not going to side-step peonage records replete with the oral history of immigrants and their experiences when they entered this country.

Mary Grace Quackenbos and the Federal Campaign 
against Peonage: The Case of Sunnyside Plantation
Randolph H. Boehm
The Arkansas Historical Quarterly
Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 40-59
(article consists of 22 pages)
Stable URL:
After genealogist and peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell, shared the Department of Justice records documenting the peonage suffered by Jewish immigrants and others, I can now suggest, and she agrees, that those who have an ancestor who immigrated to the United States who disappeared or was unaccounted for in public records should search county and federal peonage records in the National Archives.

As I have researched some of the personal experiences of these immigrants, I have come to understand that they were treated as slaves in most cases.  If you read the last post, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) knew slavery did not end in 1863,  you will recall that the Tampa, Florida Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to Secretary of State Elihu Root in 1908 accusing Attorney Mary Grace Quackenbos of New York City of being a "discredited sleuth." 

She actually had been appointed by the Department of Justice to investigate peonage in the turpentine industry in Florida.  She was also assigned to other states and industries which we will address in a future post.  Antoinette Harrell shared a list of affidavits taken from some witnesses to peonage in Florida on record in the DOJ peonage files:

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

Even while aboard vessels bound for the United States, immigrants learned about advertisements which promised pay for work luring them South to Florida to Buffalo Bluffs and other locations not disclosed beforehand.  Once there, they signed contracts which may or may not have been translated for them to understand.  They were at times misled by false statements in labor contracts and found themselves being charged for food, water, and travel even before the first day's work.

Antoinette also shared the sworn statement below given by Jewish immigrant, Heinrich Yonge, on August 15, 1906 and witnessed by Mary Grace Quackenbos.  Yonge found passage aboard the Kroonland from Antwerp (See Germany Emigration and Immigration) where he learned from a cook aboard the ship about work in the South advertised in the newspaper.

He made an agreement to be taken to Buffalo Bluffs, but after leaving, he discovered they tried to take him to Maytown until he protested. At Buffalo Bluffs he signed a contract where he would be given "not much work" for $1.25 a day and later $1.75.  Transportation would cost $13.00.

Jews and German immigrant workers were housed separately.  He said the Jews were treated "shamefully."  They were not given mattresses and were "hit" more than the Jews.  Yonge was eventually given a little authority over the other workers.  He was made a deputy sheriff and one of the colored guard's gun was taken and given to Yonge.

He was told that if he saw anyone running away, he could shoot them.  When men did run away, he always said he did not see them.  He did on one occasion protest when another guard drew his gun to shoot a group of escapees.  Read the testimony in its entirety below:

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

According to Antoinette Harrell, those most effected by peonage were: Hungarians, Jews, Polish, Mexican, Native Americans, Italians.  Even though many immigrants suffered, the majority were African American, and even though several cases went before federal courts, many many more were never heard or brought before the federal court.

"The institution of peonage had an effect on everyone, and everyone profited from companies, banks, stockholders, and political associations," said Harrell who questions why presidents who had knowledge of this information and these injustices did not do more to end it.  She raises a valid point when she says there was a need for a second emancipation.  I feel that this discovery of peonage among immigrants to the United States will help to reveal the plight of African Americans who suffered under this institution simply because their case and stories were not as readily heard in federal court. 

Already, I have discovered peonage in the time period and places where my ancestors lived where the records and oral history are silent.  I no longer need to look through the glass darkly, but can glean more about their experiences through the eyes of immigrants who have existing local and federal documentation.  This much the same way that African Americans discover more about their ancestors through slaveholders' estate records.  Stay tuned...much much more to come!

Many thanks to Antoinette Harrell for her sacrifices to bring this history forward!

To learn more about the history about how the peonage immigrant investigation began see page 83 of The shadow of slavery: peonage in the South, 1901-1969  By Pete Daniel:

For lectures, interviews,  and more information on the subject of peonage, contact:
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) knew slavery did not end in 1863

Slavery, involuntary servitude, and peonage are all relatively the same thing as argued by Assistant Attorney General, in November 1908 (See The shadow of slavery: peonage in the South, 1901-1969, by Pete Daniel, page 105).  Persons in these conditions all suffered from being held against their will, forced labor, and the like. The reason the term peonage was adopted was because prosecuting someone based on the enslavement of another left an open door to a defendant. The objection was that since slavery had been outlawed, no one in the United States could be convicted of it because it did not exist. Crazy, right? What if we could not convict someone for murder because it was considered not to exist only by the virtue of it being outlawed?

Peonage and involuntary servitude became substitutes for the word slavery. I reserve the right here to use these words interchangeably because I feel they are all relatively the same. Just keep in mind that prosecutors needed to distinguish between slavery and peonage in order to secure convictions. The word peonage  lessens the severity because not many can define it. We know a great deal about slavery, and I would say, by any other name it is still the same. Who can define exactly what victims were subjected too under peonage? Perpetrators took the same liberties over those under peonage as they did under slavery when it existed. Crimes committed after 1865 were even more heinous than slavery, because laws against such acts had been instituted.

People such as Mary Church Terrell knew the practice of slavery had not ended. Both of her parents, Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers had been slaves. They understood the liberating power of education, and they sent her from Memphis, Tennessee where she was born to Antioch Model College School in Yellow Springs for elementary and secondary school.
Mary Church TerrellMary Church Terrell (1863-1954) Image via Wikipedia

At Oberlin College, Mary became the editor of the Oberlin Review and earned and became one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor's degree in 1884. She went on to teach at a school in Washington D.C. and at Wilberforce University in Ohio. After two years of study in Europe, she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

Her accomplishments are too great to do justice here. I would suggest you read her autobiography, "A Colored Woman in a White World." Mary Church Terrell became a strong civil rights activist and was a leader in the woman's suffrage movement. See Mary Church Terrell to learn more.

"Mary used her education in journalism to bring awareness to the world that people where still held as slaves and that slavery did not end as alleged in 1863 for hundreds of thousands of people in 16 states and 27 counties," said Antoinette Harrell, "Notable people such as Mary Church Terrell, Thurgood Marshall, James Weldon Johnson, and Fannie Lou Hamer knew that slavery did not end."

Antoinette Harrell personally feels the importance of unearthing and disclosing records from such notable people in the world whose voices should be heard. As a writer and researcher, I feel compelled and honored to write about the peonage research of Antoinette Harrell and to bring to you the following documentation which Antoinette discovered in the National Archives which illustrates the frustration which Mary Church Terrell brought to those in Florida who upheld the institution of peonage.

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60
This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

The Chamber of Commerce in Tampa, Florida is responding to Secretary of State, Elihu Root, after he declined the invitation to attend an Immigration Convention. Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce seems rather agitated by what he perceives as governmental endorsement of "slander" about peonage in the South. The convention was planned to "show" that they were preventing peonage. 

Thompson expresses his anger about Department of Justice investigations and writings of Mary Church Terrell and others.  Even though Thompson says there was not enough evidence to convict. I will show in the next post that in fact, there were convictions.
"I am learning the hidden history by researching my own genealogy.  Documents such as these and other artifacts and memorabilia would not have been revealed if I had not been on my personal genealogy journey," Antoinette Harrell.

Last night, Antoinette's special guest, Fabiola Clark-Taylor, said that she had named her the "Bloodhound of Genealogy."  This is absolutely true.  Just recently, Antoinette proved beyond a shadow of a doubt how far her great diligence in searching and preserving will take her.  Look for an upcoming post on her latest find below on About Our Freedom.

           Antoinette Harrell salvages history, Walter C. Black, Sr. photographer

For lectures, interviews,  and more information on the subject of peonage, contact:
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658

Enhanced by Zemanta

Friday, March 11, 2011

Genealogist reveals Georgia Roman Catholic priests held slaves in 1921

Antoinette Harrell at National Archives, Walter C. Black, Sr., photographer

When genealogist and peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell, shared her next finding with me yesterday, I was astounded.  I have come to the conclusion that not only do many peonage records exist, but the record-types are also quite varied.  So far, a few of the types Harrell has shared have been an NAACP letter to the Department of justice, a newspaper clipping, and a local courthouse constable record.

Senator (later US President) Warren G. Harding...Warren G. Harding, Image via Wikipedia

Letter to Warren G. Harding

The latest records that she shared which she unearthed in the National Archives on one of her many research trips happen to further reveal the scope of peonage particularly in Georgia.  The letter below was addressed to President Warren G. Harding notifying him of an article in the Columbia Sentinel, whose editor was a Georgia senator, disclosed the news that 65,000 girls were lost or went missing between 1920 and 1921. The second letter acknowledges the receipt of the first letter to the White House.

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

The number of girls missing is staggering.  The National Congress of Mothers appeared in Washington on April 27th to "file a plea" for the 65,000 missing girls who had not been found.  What is totally mind boggling is that according to the article, a "great majority of these girls were captured by Catholic priests and sentenced to slavery in the Houses of the Good Shepherd."

Bishop Keiley

Bishop Benjamin Joseph Keiley (1847-1925), Bishop of Savannah, is mentioned as having "a score or more" of the missing girls in Savannah, Georgia. There were laws instituted which gave authorities in Chatham County, Georgia the right to inspect his facility.  Act No. 548, Inspection of Private Institutions, was approved on August 21, 1916 and called for inspections of private institutions where citizens of Georgia are kept confined in Houses of the Good Shepherd, convents, private hospitals, asylums, and the like.

The law required:

  • an interview with each person confined in these institutions to determine why they were there, what labor they performed, and whether they desired to be there.
  • a report of dissatisfied persons confined in an institution was to be made known in open court or in the local newspaper.
  • persons held under involuntary servitude or persons whose liberties were being compromised were to be ordered to be released immediately.
  • there would be prosecution for false imprisonment.
Even though this law was in place to protect the citizens of Georgia and it was charged that the House of the Good Shepherd under the stewardship of Bishop Keiley, held some of the "missing girls," authorities were not allowed to inspect.  According to the Columbia Sentinel editorial, Bishop Keiley "informed them that he gets his laws from Rome, and, therefore, he cannot recognize laws made in this country."

Screenshot of Benjamin Keiley, The New Georgia Encyclopedia

"I am not surprised at the Vatican's involvement because of their involvement in slavery.  This is just one of the untold hidden truths that has been uncovered," said Antoinette Harrell.  I began to be curious about why Bishop Keiley felt that he was above the law and could not be held accountable by Georgia law.  I discovered that Bishop Keiley served in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in 1864 under Robert E. Lee.  When he died, a Confederate flag was draped near his coffin, and a wreath from the United Daughters of the Confederacy was at it's foot.

Also "Keiley publicly criticized President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, and once stated: In America no black man should be ordained. Just as illegitimate sons are declared irregular by canon black can be declared irregular because they are held in such contempt by whites."  See Benjamin Joseph Keiley. See also the address of Bishop Keiley delivered before Confederate Veterans on April 26, 1902 on page 125 below.

Unanswered questions

So these questions remain:  What happened in the end?  Was there a cause for concern about African Americans confined as wards in House of the Good Shepherd?  What forces protected this Bishop from being prosecuted for refusing inspections required by Georgia law?  Why did he refuse inspections?  Why did he resign in March 1922? Was failing sight the real reason? See BISHOP KEILEY RESIGNS.; Failing Sight Causes Retirement of Savannah Prelate at 74.

Portland State University students

Portland State University students under the direction of Professor Clare Washington and genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, will work to shed more light on this issue.  Stay tuned to the articles on this blog about peonage, involuntary servitude, and sharecropping which will be used a part of the course syllabus.  Also Nurturing Our Roots BlogTalkRadio show will be used as a classroom for the students.  Special guests have been lined up during the Wednesday evenings students meet including those who have lived in the shadows of slavery.

No doubt students will discover other articles in the Columbia Sentinel that address peonage.  The letter to Warren G. Harding mentions a second article:

"You will observe that the leading article on this page states that it remains to be seen whether the people of this country shall be blessed by the hypocrisies and false pretenses of Warren G. Harding as they were by Woodrow Wilson, and that the Roman Catholic Church dictates to Harding, just as it dictated to Wilson."

Tracing Georgia families

How would one tracing a family with one of these missing girls proceed at this point?
1.  Trace each member of the family group on each census (especially 1910-1920).
2. Locate girls if possible on 1930 Census (some may have married).
3. Check Georgia death certificates.
4.  Search state and federal peonage records (not indexed).
5. Learn about procedure for reporting missing persons.
6.  Research local newspapers.

For lectures, interviews,  and more information on the subject of peonage, contact:
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sharecropping replaced slavery

SLAVES, EX-SLAVES, and CHILDREN OF SLAVES IN T...Image by Okinawa Soba via FlickrDuring slavery, slave owners depended on slave labor for planting, harvesting and keeping up farms.  After the end of slavery, those ex-slaves who could do so, left and bought their own land.  Many former slave owners tried to keep as many freedmen on their land as they could.

The freedmen became tenant farmers and rented a portion of the owner's land, or they planted crops and gave a larger share of the harvest to the landowner.  Either way, the tenant farmers and sharecroppers purchased goods from the owner's store where credit was extended until harvest time.  Any number of misfortunes resulted in the tenant farmer or sharecropper owing money and being indebted to the landowner at the end of the year.  They never seemed to be able to free themselves of this debt.

Gradually the hope of financial and economic freedom faded for newly freed slaves and their descendants who remained trapped on the plantations where ancestors had lived as slaves. There has been much talk of freedom, and I believe the slave as well as the sharecropper and tenant farmer all thought freedom included them too.

I love the poem by Langston Hughes called Freedom's Plow:

When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came from across the sea
Bringing the Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new-
To a new world, America!

With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams.
In little bands together,
Heart reaching out to heart,
Hand reaching out to hand,
They began to build our land.
Some were free hands
Seeking a greater freedom,
Some were indentured hands
Hoping to find their freedom,
Some were slave hands
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
But the word was there always:

Down into the earth went the plow
In the free hands and the slave hands,
In indentured hands and adventurous hands,
Turning the rich soil went the plow in many hands
That planted and harvested the food that fed
And the cotton that clothed America.
Clang against the trees went the ax into many hands
That hewed and shaped the rooftops of America.
Splash into the rivers and the seas went the boat-hulls
That moved and transported America.
Crack went the whips that drove the horses
Across the plains of America.
Free hands and slave hands,
Indentured hands, adventurous hands,
White hands and black hands
Held the plow handles,
Ax handles, hammer handles,
Launched the boats and whipped the horses
That fed and housed and moved America.
Thus together through labor,
All these hands made America.

Labor! Out of labor came villages
And the towns that grew cities.
Labor! Out of labor came the rowboats
And the sailboats and the steamboats,
Came the wagons, and the coaches,
Covered wagons, stage coaches,
Out of labor came the factories,
Came the foundries, came the railroads.
Came the marts and markets, shops and stores,
Came the mighty products moulded, manufactured,
Sold in shops, piled in warehouses,
Shipped the wide world over:
Out of labor-white hands and black hands-
Came the dream, the strength, the will,
And the way to build America.
Now it is Me here, and You there.
Now it’s Manhattan, Chicago,
Seattle, New Orleans,
Boston and El Paso-
Now it’s the U.S.A.

A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too,
And silently too for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
It was a long time ago,
But not so long ago at that, Lincoln said:
There were slaves then, too,
But in their hearts the slaves knew
What he said must be meant for every human being-
Else it had no meaning for anyone.
Then a man said:
He was a colored man who had been a slave
But had run away to freedom.
And the slaves knew
What Frederick Douglass said was true.

With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Negroes died.
John Brown was hung.
Before the Civil War, days were dark,
And nobody knew for sure
When freedom would triumph
"Or if it would," thought some.
But others new it had to triumph.
In those dark days of slavery,
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
The slaves made up a song:
  Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That song meant just what it said: Hold On!
Freedom will come!
   Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
Out of war it came, bloody and terrible!
But it came!
Some there were, as always,
Who doubted that the war would end right,
That the slaves would be free,
Or that the union would stand,
But now we know how it all came out.
Out of the darkest days for people and a nation,
We know now how it came out.
There was light when the battle clouds rolled away.
There was a great wooded land,
And men united as a nation.

America is a dream.
The poet says it was promises.
The people say it is promises-that will come true.
The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper.
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumblingly say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand,
And the trying to say,
"You are a man. Together we are building our land."

Land created in common,
Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning
Into the warp and woof of America:
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!
To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide
And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
To all the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
    Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.
Sharecropper Plantations

Monday, March 7, 2011

Discovery of peonage records in courthouse attic of Koscuisko, MS

In Peonage letter leads Harrell to Oprah Winfrey's childhood home, we presented a letter genealogist and peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell, discovered in the National Archives.  This letter led Antoinette and her colleagues to  Koscuisko, Mississippi, childhood home of Oprah Winfrey situated in Attala County.

Map of Mississippi highlighting Attala County                                                                                                   Image via Wikipedia

Raised in this sharecropping community, Oprah recalls looking through a screen door watching her grandmother, Hattie Mae Lee (1900-1963), boiling clothes in a big black pot. Her grandmother's advice to her was to grow up and get her some "good white" folks.  In "African Ancestors Lives", Oprah shared how she had the distinct impression that this would not be her life.

I am just on the brink of understanding what life must have been like for people living in these conditions.  This area, like some of the other areas in Mississippi were logging towns.  I have ancestors who worked for saw mills.  It is important to learn about how they made their livelihood and the type of restrictions they lived under to understand why some could not make it out.

Forced labor in the United States helps to paint the picture:

"Let us try to picture the way in which a wage worker 
in a company-owned American textile, coal or lumber town 
centers into one of these "free" contracts, implying an agree- 
ment between equals, made "without duress" and "with full 
understanding of all the obligations assumed." The steps 
taken by the "party of the first part," the capitalist, to pre- 
pare the minds and bodies of the "party of the second part," 
the workers, to sign this "free" contract are somewhat as 

A company in one of these towns shuts down its plant. 
Thousands of the workers suffer months of unemployment. 
The company threatens to import other workers at lower 
wages to take the jobs of those formerly employed. It pre- 

pares blacklists of those who may have criticized the com- 
pany or attempted to organize a union. It cuts off credit 
at the company store. It may even evict workers from 
company-owned houses. Finally gun thugs, policemen and 
detectives attempt to terrorize the workers. 

When the workers' ragged clothes hang limp on their 
starved bodies and when they have been terrorized suffi- 
ciently, the company, with the aid of its high-priced lawyers, 
draws up a contract. Usually the document consists of sev- 
eral pages of fine print which are full of "whereases" and 
conditions of every sort — ^all, of course, in the company's 

At last all is ready for the signature of the "free worker." 
Hundreds or perhaps thousands line up in front of the 
employment office in response to a notice that the plant is 
about to resume operations. All of them, according to capi- 
talist theory, are waiting their turn to "bargain freely" with 
the corporation ! Usually the procedure of hiring the whole 
line of workers takes only a few minutes. As soon as they 
sign their names or make their mark they pass inside the 
factory gates — ^hired after having exercised their right to 
make a "free" contract. And not a line or a word of the 
form contract, drawn up by the lawyers, has been changed ! 

In practice, the worker is often forced to trade in the 
company store, to accept as pay scrip which is redeemable / 
only at the company store at a discount, and to live in a 
company house from which he can be evicted at the com* 
company's will. To incur the displeasure of the boss in one 
of these company towns means to be driven from the com- 

The worker is bound to abide by the contract. In addi- 
tion to hunger there are other penalties which prevent him 
from breaking it. Among them are the clubs of company 
thugs and policemen, the bayonets of the militia, poison 
gas, and the enslaving orders of the courts. An example 
of the latter is the injunction. The ultimate purpose of the 

injunction is to keep workers in a condition bordering on 
involuntary servitude, and its immediate purpose is to break 
the resistance of workers who try to bargain collectively. 
A great many cases of injunctions might be cited which 
have prevented union members and others from leaving, or 
threatening to leave, their employment without the consent 
of their employers.* And very closely related to the injunc- 
tion is the yellow dog contract — a contract whereby workers 
"agree" not to join in any collective attempt to better wages 
or conditions no matter how bad these may be." See page 12.

Labor contracts, records of fees, and fines paid are all record types that may document peonage.  Most importantly, these resources hold a wealth of genealogical information.  Among the dusty old records in the dark courthouse attic in Koscuisko, Mississippi, and by the light of a flashlight, Antoinette Harrell uncovered the following document:

From Attala County Constable Book, in Attala County Mississippi.  Walter C. Black, Sr. photographer.

In this particular record, one Ephraim Holly is fined for assault.  If you will recall, James Weldon Johnson alleges that a letter from a correspondent charges that the Justice of the Peace at Kosciusko and the constable, Jeff Thurrell, were in a conspiracy to arrest colored and white people on trumped up charges, and fines are imposed.  Please review Peonage letter leads Harrell to Oprah Winfrey's childhood home where the letter from James Weldon Johnson is posted.

The constable, Thurrell or Therrell is mentioned  in this record.  Let's assume Ephraim Holly, the defendant, was the ancestor you were tracing, and this was the only record you had that documents his name.  How would you proceed to learn more about him from this point?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Peonage letter leads Harrell to Oprah Winfrey's childhood home

Among the documents that genealogist and peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell,  discovered at the National Archives was a letter from James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP, on February 9, 1927 to Attorney General of the Department of Justice, Hon. John G. Sargent.  The letter identifies cases of peonage in the counties of Attala and Coahoma, Mississippi. Sheriff Glass, and J. W. Cuterer are alleged to have plantations practicing peonage in Clarksdale.   Kosciusko, Mississippi is the birth place of Oprah Winfrey.

James Weldon Johnson alleges that a letter from a correspondent charges that the Justice of the Peace at Kosciusko and the constable, Jeff Thurrell, were in a conspiracy to arrest colored and white people on trumped up charges, and fines are imposed. These fines, Weldon states, are being paid by a saw mill and logging camp at Zama in Attala County which holds the prisoners indefinitely.

This letter found among  Dept. of Justice collection NARG60

These records are not indexed by surname, geographical area, or demographics.  This letter was found among Dept. of Justice Collection NARG60.

Peonage is economic slavery

It is significant that we remind you about the 2006 series "African Ancestors Lives," hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates.  A portion of Oprah's genealogy was featured in this series, and Gates briefly mentioned the sharecroppers who rented land at very high prices and who worked and were paid far less than what they should have been paid for their labor.  Gates said, "Racism was about economics, who was going to control the pie."
Homesite of Oprah Winfrey, Koscuisko, Mississippi. Walter C. Black, photographer.

He made no mention specifically of peonage, nor how prevalent it was in the series.  Curious, I discovered that Dr. Gates published a book three years after the series in 2009 called "In Search of Our Roots:  How 19 extraordinary African Americans reclaimed their past.  In this book, Gates provides a definition of peonage and explains its broader scope:

"The rural poverty she (Oprah) describes was typical, indeed pervasive, among black people in the South.  Oprah grew up in a community of sharecroppers, people bound to the soil by a system that was intended to replace slavery with its mirror image, a system of peonage to which most blacks were charged economically, as surely as they had been charged in slavery.

The vast majority of former slaves became sharecroppers, almost as soon as slavery ended, and very few were able to break out of this system and own their own land,"  (page 209).

On to Koscuisko

"After reviewing the contents of this box and analyzing each document, I found the records to be very valuable to my research, and I was determined to travel to these places.  I traveled to Koscuisko, the childhood home of Oprah Winfrey." said Antoinette Harrell. 
"When I got to Koscuisko, I found open land, open territory, and a small town.  My first stop was the courthouse in Attala County.  Also traveling with me that day was Walter C. Black, Sr, John Moseley, and John Johnson.  At this time, I was looking for documents from Sheriff Glass in the constable books.

I was told that any records prior to 1984 were housed in the courthouse attic.  The staff contacted the sheriff to get permission for me to go into the attic.  When I went into the attic I went into total shock over the conditions of the records stored there,"  explains Antoinette Harrell.

Records in Attala, Mississippi Courthouse attic, Walter C. Black, photographer
"I felt such a lonely, dark, and sad feeling immediately when I entered the attic.  There was a legend about ghosts in the attic, and people did not go up there.  I believe the ghosts were souls who were not at rest who wanted their stories to be told.  I told them that I was there to set them free,"  explained Harrell.

Hundreds and hundreds of people suffered injustices  in that courthouse, and their stories were among the dusty books in the courthouse attic.  Harrell believes it is very important that their stories are told.

According to Harrell, the records pictured here were not indexed, were dusty, and exposed to bird droppings, water, and silverfish. The attic was completely dark, and they had to examine the records using a flashlight.

About the stories

The loneliness, darkness, and sadness that Antoinette felt in the attic was because she knew there were so many untold stories in the dusty books in the attic.  There was no way out for them.
"There was no way out for them--no justice system that would ever hear their cries.  some of them died as 20th Century slaves," exclaimed Harrell.
In "African American Lives,"  Henry Louis Gates shares with Oprah how to get to know our ancestors:

"How we even begin to understand their lives...begin by listening to their stories.  Some are humorous, some are painful, but all make up the essence of African American history."

Antoinette Harrell, who has painstakingly sacrificed to help today's victims of peonage and educate us about our ancestors who lived a life of involuntary servitude, understands the need for us to understand the stories:

"Was I afraid in the courthouse?  Was I ever afraid about what could happen to me or my colleagues? I had to do it. I knew I would go if no one went.  The more I learned, the deeper I was called into untouched territory...

 Who held them?

What held them?

Why couldn't they get away?

When I opened the books hidden in a dark attic since 1923,  pages shed light on names that history would not recall.  I was releasing them.  What if this was me?  Although I would be dead, would I want someone to learn about my story?  No one would have interest in these records but those who are searching their family's genealogical history.   History is being uncovered everyday. Our duty and our responsibility is to leave no stone unturned.  We start to turn over the stones, and we find things that become a hard pill to swallow.

We must go beyond the basics of "safe genealogy."  By safe genealogy, I mean birth, death, marriage, and census records.  Genealogy is one of subjects and courses that will unearth the vital history found in peonage records." 
We will reveal a document Harrell discovered in the next post.  For now, what are some bits of genealogical data found in this letter from James Weldon Johnson?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dr. Ron Walters, eyewitness to residue of slavery

Antoinette Harrell, Mae L. Miller, Dr. Ron Walters at press conference held at 44th annual re-enactment of Bloody Sunday, in Selma, Alabama 2009.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Dr. Ron Walters (1938-2010) political analyst, professor, lecturer, strategist and more, was the mentor of Antoinette Harrell.  He understood the importance of educating the world about peonage, a form of slavery that did not end for hundreds of thousands of African Americans in 16 US states and 27 counties.

Another eyewitness

"I met Dr. Ron Walters at The State of the Black World Conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana.  I phoned Dr. Ron Walters four days later and invited him to take a tour with me in February 2009 to talk with former sharecroppers and peons.  Also joining this public tour was the co-founder of Gathering of Hearts, Inez Soto Palmarin, Rebecca Hensley, professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University, Donna Owens, journalist  with NPR, Mae L. Miller, along with 30 others.  Dr. Ron Walters was convinced after traveling to several counties in Mississippi that the people could not get away,"  Antoinette Harrell.

Photographer, Walter C. Black Sr.
Dr. Ron Walters, having been an eyewitness to the extreme destitution of the people of Mississippi, developed a working relationship to bring out what was happening in this modern-day to the people in the Mississippi Delta and the abject poverty which held them bound.

Desire to educate

"I am honored to be associated with Antoinette Harrell, who runs a non-profit organization in New Orleans known as "Gathering of Hearts."  She has researched files on 20th Century slavery in  state courthouses and the National Archives.  This enhanced her work as an activist, finding individual families and communities in the Black Belt who had links to the story of 20th Century slavery, and helping those who desperately needed food, clothing, and shelter.  As a result, she has become a lifeline to many  in isolated communities, ferrying clothing and food into Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta to poor black people, Native Americans, and others,"  Dr Ron Walters, August 2010 press statement.

He was scheduled to appear before the National Press Club to issue what would become his last press statement and an appeal to the American people on August 9, 2010.  He was unable to take the heat and requested that his statement be read by someone representing him.

"Antoinette:  I am really sorry, but I won't be able to get out today.  I can't take the heat.  So, I sent you this piece that can be read by someone representing me and hope that the session goes well.  I can also be reached by phone at home today. Be well.
Ron Walters" (E-mail on Monday, August 9, 2010).

Residue of slavery

Dr. Ron Walters explains that the tour arranged by Antoinette Harrell  gave him a "21st century opportunity to
see" with is own eyes what his own research on the documents had "revealed--the damaging results of slavery at the close of the 20th century and its extension into the civil rights period."  (August 2010 press statement)

Becoming an eyewitness to the present conditions of people living in the Mississippi Delta through the "Those Left Behind" Poverty Tour, provided Dr. Walters an increased understanding of the broad scope and plight of the African Americans living in small communities in Mississippi like Marks, Lambert, and Glen Allan situated in Quitman and Washington counties.

"What one can see is that their poverty is not merely that shaped by the lack of money, but a poverty of the spirit shaped by the oppressive forces that have robbed them of hope.  So much so that many (who) cannot conceive of leaving their circumstances are ignorant of the steps (to) manage the transition to a new reality of living.  They do not fit the model of Harriet Tubman's charges who struck for freedom; they fit her model of those who do not yet fully know they are free.  For example, while information is a modern key to freedom, on our tour we found only one person among the poor we encountered who had access to a computer,"  Dr. Ron Walters, August 2010 press statement.

Dr Walters goes on to address poverty and how the people suffer from much more than economic poverty.  This portion of his statement will be addressed in a subsequent post.  I feel it is vital that I briefly address how this relates to genealogical research.

My responsibility

Anyone who has captured the true spirit of the work at some point desires to go beyond what they have discovered among documents.  Since 1985 I have been researching my own ancestors who lived in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina.  Records from South Carolina were much easier for me to find and obtain.  This led me to relocate so that I could be closer to resources and extended family there.

It has been a very rewarding experience.  Yet, my heart longs to know more about my ancestors who lived in Mississippi and Arkansas.  I was told in my youth very heart-wrenching stories, so I know that research there will not be pretty.  That will not stop me from taking the necessary steps to understand my history.

Because Antoinette Harrell has not been silent on the issue of peonage and existing documentation, the hand of Providence has brought her into my life and has instilled within her the desire to mentor me.  I will not turn a blind eye to these issues for it is highly likely that I will be turning a blind eye to extended family I suspect to one day discover.

I have a responsibility.  I have a duty.  I cannot walk blindly on the other side of the road.  Genealogy turns our hearts toward our ancestors, and it also turns our hearts toward the living descendants if our motives are not superficial and if we are not too short on integrity.

My heart has turned.  I am fortunate that by Divine intervention my paternal ancestors made it out of bad situations.  My father, who was one of the youngest of 12 children, sent money to the Mississippi Delta to get his siblings and their families out.  We have some unfinished business.  If any people have the capacity to make a difference and to help educate,  genealogists and family historians will be among those who lovingly seek their own.

For lectures, interviews,  and more information on the subject of peonage, contact:
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...