Monday, February 28, 2011

Antoinette Harrell, modern-day Harriet Tubman

Nothing But Love: The family on the Modern Day Plantation give Antoinette Harrell a gift of love a shirt they created to express their love to her.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Most of the time we wait until it is everlastingly too late to get to know and appreciate a person's life work.  We want to then throw a lavish memorial to make up for not making an effort to discover enough about them to ensure we have the story right.  We have heroes and heroines working among us or further in the trenches.  Antoinette Harrell is such a person.

We remember Harriet Tubman for courageously helping her people to escape from bondage.  Antoinette Harrell, a modern-day Harriet Tubman has in her day recognized that this very same race of people endured the after effects of slavery and are yet caught in its grips.
Ines Soto- Caption: Gathering of Hearts founders Antoinette Harrell and Ines Soto-Palmarin leads the Southhaven Muhammad Study Group and the Bessie Jean Farrakan on a poverty tour in Webb, Ms.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

You may call her the poor people's advocate.  She works to teach us that they are not in destitute conditions because they are lazy or choose to be.  When others turn their heads and take the other side of the road, the modern-day Tubman stops, accesses, helps, and show compassion to them through  Gathering of Hearts, a non-profit organization, which brings food, clothing, and shelter to those in need.

Antoinette on plantation: Antoinette Harrell talking with the families who live in sharecropper shacks in Webb, Ms. Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

One such person, Ms. Mae L. Miller, grew up as a slave in Amite, Mississippi.  She walked into a genealogy reparations conference held in Amite, Louisiana on Good Friday. She told Harrell how she and her family were held as slaves.  Three days later on Easter Sunday, Harrell met with 105 year old Cain Wall, Sr and his family, and she spent the next 10 years interviewing and researching the subject of peonage and how it related  to  their family.

Harrell, whose family migrated from Darlington, South Carolina in 1803 with Levi Harrell and his son, Hezekiah, has deep roots in Amite, Louisiana and Amite, Mississippi.  Her ancestor along with the ancestors of Cain Wall, Sr are not related but were slaves in these areas.

"I believe if genealogists and family historians from every family would research the entire area, they would find stories that that will not be found any other way.  My second peonage research localities were Amite, Mississippi and Amite, Louisiana," said Antoinette Harrell.

Antoinette on plantation: Antoinette Harrell talking with the families who live in sharecropper shacks in Webb, Ms. Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Unfortunately, if your only attempt at genealogy is what Antoinette Harrell terms "safe genealogy," you may avoid the difficult parts of the story, but you will definitely miss the opportunity to partake in the redemptive part.  That part, I believe, is still unfolding.  When history is retold years from now, and we talk about freedom, we will remember Harriet Tubman still who helped slaves steal away from slavery, but we will also celebrate the life of Antoinette Harrell who helped many to be free from its effects.

Crawford Allen and family sold for $20 in Fluker, LA in 1926

Home in modern-day Fluker, Louisiana.  Walter C. Black, Sr., Photographer.
The article included below was discovered at the National Archives by Antoinette Harrell as she researched the localities where her  own family lives  (Amite, Mississippi and Amite, Louisiana.  Asleep in bed with his wife at his side one night in August 1926, Crawford Allen, his wife, and children were forced from their beds and homes into the night according to the article below.

Another account found in the Times archives and dated Monday, February 14, 1927 reveals the names of Allen's wife and children:

"Crawford Allen, Mississippi Negro, lay sick abed in his shanty just across the Louisiana line. It was night and his wife Anna slept deeply beside him. Nearby slept his three pickaninnies, Teelie, Lewis, Myra. None of the Aliens had any clothes on." 

Read more:  NEGROES: Black Bodies

The Allen family was taken to a farm in Fluker, Lousiana in 1926 where they were sold for $20.  The family was taken by "prominent citizens," Webb Bellue and John D Alford, and both were convicted.   
See  Forced labor in the United States,  by Walter Wilson.  The investigation of this case led authorities to other cases of Peonage.  See both articles for further details.

What biographical information can we glean  (only using the article below)?
1. Crawford Allen was about 50 years old when this event took place?
2. Crawford Allen and his family lived in Amite County, Mississippi near the border of Louisiana.
3. Crawford had a wife, three children who were under 12, and one grown daughter who was not taken this night.

What other records would you use to identify further information?
1.  Identify members of this family group on the 1930 US Census.
2.  Identify death records for each family member.
3.  Identify Crawford Allen on each consecutive census going back to 1880.
4.  Using death records or census records, locate the parents of Crawford and his wife.
5. Where did the daughter who was not taken live?
6.  Using census records identify the name of the older daughter.

Do you have any further ideas?  Please leave comments below. 

Newspaper clipping-selling of Negroes (National Archives).  Published Feb. 1927.

 This clipping was found in the National Archives by genealogist peonage researcher, Antoinette Harrell.  According to Antoinette Harrell she found many newspaper articles without the headlines and dates. She questions why an archivist would preserve documents in this manner.  Please also see another account of this story: NEGROES: Black Bodies   The Times article was published in 1927.  The article above states  the family was taken in "August last."

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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thurgood Marshall notifies DOJ about 1943 peonage case in Mississippi

I am really appreciative to Antoinette Harrell for being willing to share important documentation which she was gathered over the past ten years on peonage.  Her great contributions will provide an additional record type for many, especially African Americans, who will learn about these records which have great genealogical worth.  You can simply Google "Antoinette Harrell" and "peonage" to learn more.
She has been featured on Nightline and People's Magazine.

See also:

Genealogist Recently Discovers Forced Bondage In Modern Day America

If you have any question about peonage records, contact:
Antoinette Harrell  504-858-4658

Join us as we:
  • explore records documenting peonage
  • explore vital information contained therein
  • point out further resources that help to identify the family group, former slave owners, other vital information.
Thurgood Marshall
 The following letter was submitted by Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the NAACP on October 18, 1943 and states that Witney Smith, owner of a farm located in Webb, Mississippi, held David Watson on a peonage farm from 1926
to 1943 when he escaped to Maywood, Illinois.

While in the service of Smith, Watson was not allowed to register for the National Selective Service. After Watson arrived in Maywood, he registered, but Smith was still successful at having the FBI to seize him for evading the law.  They recognized he was being framed, and was inducted into the Army a week or two later.
David Watson informed the NAACP that many other people were being held on this farm (see documents below).

What biographical information can we glean?

1.  David's grandfather may live in Maywood, Illinois
2.  David lived in Webb, Mississippi on the property of Witney Smith from 1926 until January 1943
3. David escaped to Maywood, Illinois.
4.  David registered with the Maywood Draft Board
5.  David was arrested by the FBI in Maywood, Illinois
6.  David was inducted into the Army

What other records would you use to identify further information?

1.  Look for David Watson on the 1930 US Census in Webb, Mississippi
2.  Look for the farm of Witney (Whitney  Smith) in Webb, Mississippi on the 1930 US Census
3.  Search for US Army WWII Enlistment Record
4.  Do city directories exist for Maywood 1942-1943 that may reveal the name of the grandfather?
5.  Find out how to access the 1943 Maywood Branch NAACP records.

Do you have any further ideas?  Please leave comments below.

Department of Justice, NA, RG60

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In the voice of a sharecropper, John L. Hancox (1904-1992)

Raggedy, Raggedy Are We is one of the songs of John L. Hancox (1904-1992) who knew about the life of a poor cotton farmer all too well.  I remember some of the stories that my father told me about having to pick cotton in Memphis as a child in the 40's.   Take a moment and listen to the song.

Oklahoma Sharecroppers-1914  By dok1 Don O'Brien

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed to protect tenant farmers.  Handcox had to escape Arkansas for Memphis leaving his wife and family behind and those who sought to hang him for his support of the STFU. This is the same path my family took leaving Mississippi to Arkansas and on to Memphis.

"Born in Brinkley, Arkansas on February 5, 1904, to a large African-American family, Handcox knew the hard life of a poor cotton farmer early on. His father, the son of slaves, owned animals, tools, and even some land in eastern Arkansas, near -- but not in -- the fertile Delta of the Mississippi River. Handcox joked, "You couldn't even raise a fuss on that land." Even though the earth was poor and they had to raise cotton on other people's property for money, their land ownership gave the family a measure of security that many other farmers of the era did not enjoy. Young John even attended school up to the ninth grade, much longer than many of his peers, and idolized the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. With Dunbar's work in mind, Handcox first began writing his own poetry and songs.

When his father was accidentally crushed to death by a wagon in 1921, Handcox and the rest of his expanding family entered some particularly hard times. They lost their homestead, leaving them no choice but to live and work others' land as tenant farmers. During this time, many people -- both black and white -- made a precarious living as tenant farmers raising cotton in the rich lands of the Arkansas Delta region and throughout the South and Southwest."   See The Planter And The Sharecropper.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My family, my people, and peonage

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. (LOC), Delano, Jack, photographer, 1939

After Slavery

Slave masters had become quite brutal under the system of slavery.  It would be next to impossible to expect them to refrain from reverting to force, abuse, and murder of African Americans who turned to them for work after slavery ended.  Immediately after 1865, the Southern states sought to pass strict laws known as Black Codes that were essentially very similar to the rules slaved had to live by.

How it began

Peonage originated in Spain and spread to New Mexico. On March 2, 1867 under 13th Article of Amendment, peonage became illegal in the United States. It was defined then as exchanging money in advance of the promise for labor, not a slavery. Through manipulation, money owed would increase as people were arrested for minor things like vagrancy or not having proof of employment on their person. These people are forced to work off debts against their will. See Digest of decisions of the United States courts: Volume 8 - Page 4930.

The National Archives has thousands of documented cases of peonage up to WII.  Cases have been disclosed as late as 1963. See the videos below.  Peonage researcher and genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, has worked tirelessly to bring these genealogical resources forward. 
Union troops remained in the South for a time to ensure the freedmen's rights were not violated.  African Americans made great advancements during Reconstruction until 1876. Union troops went home,  Former Democrat slave owners banded together, elections were overturned and by violence, threat, and intimidation took over.  I am very fortunate to have the sworn testimony of great great grandfather, Beverly Vance (1832-1899) of Cokesbury, Abbeville, South Carolina.  His experience is dramatic and heart wrenching.  Read it below.

Testimony of Beverly Vance after  1876 elections:

The Great Migration

Unfortunately, newly freed African Americans lost ground that they had attained in a few short years. Equally as unfortunate is the fact that many families were separated during the Great Migration. Those who were affluent enough to get out an go North did. Some never looked back.

"Passing along the street where a Negro was employed by a white man, a sympathetic observer noticed that his employer frequently kicked and cuffed the Negro when he was not working satisfactorily. '' Why do you stand this J Why do you not have this man arrested for assault?" inquired the observer. "That is just the trouble now," responded the Negro. "I complained to the court when another white man beat me, and the judge imposed upon me a fine which I could not pay, so I have to work it out in the service of this man who paid it to have the opportunity to force me to work for him." The Supreme Court of the United States undertook to put an end to such legislation in 1911 by declaring the Alabama peonage law unconstitutional, but in the many districts where there is no healthy public opinion to the contrary or where the employer is a law unto himself, peonage has continued in spite of the feeble effort of the Federal Government to eradicate the evil."   See The Negro in our history, by Carter G. Woodson, page 271
Most of my family left. My grandparents were among them. I am the first of their descendants to return. I am in search of the truth. I hope you will travel along with me as I share experiences and documentation. I will also share the experiences and words of people like Carter G. Woodson, Booker T Washington, and W. E. DuBois who worked to rid society of this awful ill.

I invite you to share your insights and successes as well. Please be sensitive to family members who may not yet be ready or willing to disclose what they know.

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