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?


  1. Antoinette Harrell's work has touched so many of us in Louisiana and Mississippi (and elsewhere). Thanks for creating this blog so that more folks will become aware of what she's discovered and how important it truly is. I've added About Peonage to the list of recommended blogs on my own blog.

  2. Thank you so much Changeseeker! I love that profile name. It is truly my privilege to be mentored by Antoinette Harrell.

    My eyes are being opened to the truths about my history.

  3. Hey Robin,
    Just yesterday, I found a set of my maternal second-great grandparents in the 1880 Census. They were already married, but were lving on separate farms (which were both owned by Black farmers) in Warren Co., NC. My gg-gf, Acy Brown's relationship to the HOH is servant, and his occupation is listed as farm laborer. In Halifax (an adjoining county), I found his wife, my gg-gm, Lou, listed as a farm hand in another household. She had their one month old baby daughter (who I'm sure was my g-grandmother) with her.

    If not for our discussions about peonage, I might've missed, or even ignored the possiblity that these were even my people, but I've done enough checks to be pretty sure that this is them. I'll have to do a bit more work to find out if either, or both of these situations were actually peonage, but at least I now know to even consider it!

    Thanks for helping to keep us enlightened. (And, thanks also to Antionette for all of her hard work!)


  4. That is great news, Renate. I am so glad this effort has been helpful to you. I am so excited to hear your discovery.

    Please keep us posted as your research unfolds. We are happy to help in any way we can.


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