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?

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