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

1 comment:

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