Research shows slaves remained on Killona plantation until 1970s

Kentwood genealogist finds evidence on 19 plantations

Slaves were emancipated in 1863, but Antoinette Harrell says her genealogical research revealed many of them were kept on plantations, including the former Waterford Plantation in Killona, nearly 100 years later.

“To see a man cry and see the tears in their eyes, it was just heartbreaking for me,” said Antoinette Harrell of when she met with them nearly 20 years ago. “No one could make this up. They referred to themselves as ‘peons,’ meaning, ‘You can’t get away … because they were in debt.’”

“Peon” was short for peonage or involuntary servitude, which Harrell said those held on Waterford Plantation told her was perpetuated primarily through debt. But she said many of them also lacked the resources to leave or had nowhere to go, and the generations – as many as up to five – stayed on well into the 1970s because they couldn’t leave. Some didn’t want to leave family behind.

Harrell recalled a letter she saw on Whitney Plantation concerning a man who wrote about needing approval by the plantation owner to get his belongings and was determined to pay his $25 debt so he could leave.

“It was just people taking advantage of people who did not have the means to leave,” she said.

They were indebted at the commissary store for things like matches, candy, tobacco and bread, said Harrell, who also found Waterford Plantation records in Whitney Plantation records. They also owed on medical bills, which she said could total more their entire month’s wage.

“1973 is really, really not long ago,” Harrell said of when the modern day slaves finally left Waterford Plantation. “That’s in my lifetime. I was 13 years old, and the history books are teaching me that slavery was abolished and Lincoln freed the slaves. Was this just on paper? What about the people left on Waterford Plantation? Whitney Plantation? The history books failed to teach us that slavery wasn’t truly abolished, just on paper, but in actuality it was not for hundreds of thousands of people left behind.”

Harrell said 95 percent of them were African-American while the rest were just poor including Hungarians, Poles, Italians and Hispanics.

In St. Charles Parish, they worked on sugar plantations like Waterford Plantation.

“For the people who lived it, it’s a nightmare for them,” Harrell said.

Women recounted having watched their children being hired out to other plantations, and daughters molested and raped by the “straw boss” or foreman who supervised workers, she said.

“They talked about how hard it was … about not having enough food to eat,” she said. “I felt like I was in the room with newly freed people, and I can understand why they didn’t want to talk about this.”

Their struggles have stayed with her since hearing them and remembering the haunting images of their faces.

“I remember looking at their faces across the room,” Harrell said. “You could see the despair and the pain that was on their faces as they talked about their life.”

Harrell said they told her about a bell being rung at the beginning and end of the day. When it was time to get paid, they were told they didn’t come out ahead and to just work a little bit harder.

“That was the first time I met people in involuntary service or slavery. They didn’t want to go public with it because some of them were still employed by those same people and feared retaliation,” she said. “I promised not to betray their confidence and would not give out their names to anyone.”

Nearly five years after the Waterford meeting, however, Mae Louise Walls Miller of Mississippi told Harrell that she didn’t get her freedom until 1963. Miller told her about how she and her mother were raped and beaten when they went to the main house to work.

Since that time, Harrell has continued her research and documenting their story.

Over time, she said the “modern day slaves” did leave Waterford Plantation as their offspring were able to attend college or buy a home. While many of their parents, by then in their 70s and in poor health, knew they were free but still stayed where they were or went to another plantation. But she added they encouraged their children “to move ahead and take their liberties or freedom.”

 

27 Comments

  1. Ms. Thibodeaux, I was not aware of this History until I read your article. I work for a Federal agency, in tribute to Black History Month, it’s focus is Migration from the Plantations. Born in New Orleans, but Killona is home for me. I was born in 1967 and what a travesty! I will share this article with my staff, thank you for writing and giving the world insight.

    • I was born and raised in Killona in 1958, we did not live on a plantation, and everyone must have hid the fact that there were slaves there well into the 1970’s, most people that lived on Waterford plantation was able to move the house they were in to where they wanted to. Seriously I would love to know the slaves that were on the plantation in the 70’s.

  2. I am a member of Batiste James. He was a large land owner in Jefferson Parish and St. Charles parish. I have been trying to get his story told but to no avail. We are in a struggle with big corporations who tried to steal our land. One or those corporations is Bunge Grand Elevator in Destrehan, LA. Texaco, Shell Oil, Apache and other companies steal gas and oil from our land to this very day. Our ancestors signed a 100 year least in 1920 giving them permission to drill on our land but we have been cheated of our wealth. Please e-mail me or contact me at (504) 458-7001 if you can guide us to get a documentary on the James family. Thank you for your consideration. Lynn W. Lewis

  3. What is the last name of the family/families who own/s the plantation?! They are not being named and I’ve a good guess why.

    • That is a great question. They should have been, their lands confiscated, ane the real truth of the dirty South exposed. Time for reparation for all the descendants of slaves in the USA. There are now 47,000,000 of us.

    • Hey weren’t arrested because it was me to seem as if the people were choosing to stay there. That they were not actually being enslaved but working off their debt to those plantation owners is a form of sharecropping which is economic enslavement. So while the people technically weren’t enslaved because they owed those debts because landowners around there were often also the only business owner so you had to go through them to get your essential Goods in order to survive. So while on paper they were free in all actuality they never were really free because they were kept in economic bondage and because most of the blacks were poor they also didn’t have money for transportation which means in most cases they would not have been able to even patronize anybody but the plantation owners which is what kept the system going for so long. A lot of them were uneducated because it was a rural area. This happened a lot throughout the South truth be told. I have families that were raised on plantations and they are still on those plantations. In the very rule South debt enslavement is still very real even until this day because a lot of the blacks that were there were uneducated and they also feel an obligation to pay these debts because they’ve been brainwashed to believe that that’s being a good citizen.

  4. This is such a travesty. I often wondered about how the slaves made it after slavery. I see now that all were not really freed. Their cruel masters made it impossible for them to move on. It must have been ignored also by the authorities if they were allowed to do this to them for so many years and so many people. One day though the greatest authority of the universe, GOD himself wi give these people true justice and it’s coming soon.

  5. Wow! People have no idea this went on well into the late 20th Century & still exists, in some places. The exploitation of human beings by other human beings is the scourge of Mankind. People don’t want to give up their gravy train, no matter how heinous the means by which they benefit. Slavery may well be illegal in this nation, but so is speeding & folks do it all the time. I recently realized that a neighbor from my childhood had her personal slave, right in the heart of Washington, D.C.! He was a little black man, with no teeth, who didn’t know how old he was, who his family was or where he came from. He use to stand at the fence & watch us, kids, play ball in the alley. When the lady he lived with yelled at him to get back inside, he would get this frightened expression & run inside saying “yesum, yesum”. We had no idea what his situation was in reality. We were children. I am not surprised that some white people continue to use the old ruse of supremacy to keep folks tied down. Very sad.

  6. How did Mae get out finally? Were the owners arrested? America needs to get their own country in order before interfering in others. Just as sundown towns still exist America turns blind eye very sad

    • The government did know. The 13th Amendment had not been ratified in Mississippi. In 1995, it was finally ratified but the archivist in DC had not been officially notified. February 7, 2013 Mississippi was officially ratified. There is proof that there were still slaves as late as 2009 on the many plantations there.

  7. human beings are greedy and will exploit each other for their own monetary gain. Slavery is still happening all over the world, mostly to women and children.

  8. Of course, you know that slavery, Jim Crowism and racism were supported by the government and the legal system. After emancipation the federal government paid the slaveholder for the lost wages of the slaves, and did not pay the slaves for their lost wages after providing free labour for centuries. They did not trust “the White man”, after all the “White man was the law.” It was the government who made the slavery and Jim Crow laws, and it was the government, and the police enforcing them. Who were you going to tell? Your abusers? SMH!!

  9. TOTALY confused. No way this can be true. How?? SOME ONE IN CONGRESS had to have known about this awful SIN.
    NO AREST WAS MADE BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OF THE SLAVE OWNER’
    I AM DONE. I MUST BE DREAMING

  10. I stumbled across this…heard similar stories about other local plantations like Whitney and Laura, which had slavery- like conditions till 1975/77. Sharecropping and people were unfortunately a part of Deep South life well into the 20th century.

    I guess my questions are if anyone associated with those plantations are still alive – I have to imagine that there is a serious case for restitution.

    And also, how did those who were held against their will not manage to know that they were free for so long? Maybe they had no electricity and hence no TV, but didn’t their kids go to school? And what about family that had already left? Wouldn’t they have been able to spread the news? I wonder if there was something I missed.

    • I remember hearing about this in the early ’70s in Louisiana, but I didn’t know where. About 25 years ago I visited Laura’s plantation. Some slave cabins were still there. The tour guide said that people lived in the cabins until 1973. I naturally assumed that it was the plantation I saw on the news in the early 70s.

    • I think there is a great deal NOT mentioned in this article and therefore missed by the readers. I have family members that were trapped in a sharecropping situation where they were indebted to the landowners through the “company” store. Indebtedness is the primary trap that landowners, plantation owners, mines, mills, and other corporate interests have used for centuries to keep their workers dependent upon them. Debt is the very means of forcing someone to submit to your will. The “company” store was frequently the only place where a very rural worker could purchase food, clothing, and other goods. There was no public transportation, rarely were telephones available, nor did workers have the financial means to own a vehicle. Workers typically lived in housing provided by the landowner, sometimes at reasonable rents, to attract and keep them on the property. For this story, the housing my father-in-law’s family lived in had very basic electricity, but it had no indoor plumbing. They were finally able to get out just as WW2 was ending by getting factory jobs in a larger town. It took them a long time to save the money to payoff the landowner the debts they had. My father-in-law was a boy in the early 1940’s. He raised pigs and goats to help raise money to get out. His parents got him into high school in Tuscaloosa, AL where they had gotten the factory jobs. He went on to become the first person in his family to go to college.

      I would propose that this type of pattern of indebtedness provided the ultimate means of control over the workers at the plantations and farms being discussed here. In other words, the men, women, and children being discussed were not slaves in the historical sense of being owned as chattel by someone. They were enslaved by the debt they had created, with little means of paying it off. This is actually very similar to the situation today where so many Americans are carrying 70%-80% debt loads that they cannot possibly pay off. Who should be paying reparations for that indebtedness that will NEVER be repayable. Banks and credit card companies are the new “masters”.

      I am personally aware of debt being used for such control by unscrupulous employers in not only my father-in-law’s personal example, but my family in Appalachia on farms and mines. This type of control knows no skin color or national origin boundary. It is simply the strong preying upon the weak. It is absolutely predatory behavior. Many good people entered into working agreements with these unscrupulous owners and corporations OFTEN KNOWING that they were not getting the best wage or deal, but that they were getting a job that would at least put food on the table for their family (speaking primarily Great Depression Era). It wasn’t fair and most of them knew it. Not unlike today, people take advantage when they are in a stronger position and can do so. Supply and demand in the job market often times gives employees leverage over employers when there are fewer job seekers in the marketplace, just as it can flip and give employers leverage over employees when there are fewer jobs in the marketplace. I do not advocate taking advantage of people when they are down, but human nature always seeks to advance our own individual interests over all others. These are very predatory practices.

      I hope this helps to clarify and explain some of what has happened historically, as well as, helped you to see some of these same predatory practices being used now on most of our American society by those who would have us borrow money without any limits at all.

      • Yes, this absolutely happened in coal camps in Eastern Kentucky, where people did not own the mineral rights to their own land.

        Many ended up living in coal camps, where the houses they lived in were owned by the coal company. The families bought everything at the commissary, or “company store,” also owned by the coal company.

        The miners often ended up owing more money to the store than their paycheck would cover. This kind of practice went on well into the 1950s.

        The same thing happened (and is still happening) to numerous migrant farm workers in the US.

  11. The movie ALICE, in theaters now, tells the story. I had no idea until I saw the movie and began to do research.

  12. This is blaring and glaring truth of slavery in the USA. It is nigh time for reparations to be handed down to the 47,000,000 Black Americans who are descendants of slaves. America ‘land of the free’, hmph! Let all of the truth about the entire western hemisphere and even the entire world come out and then we can truly say ‘let freedom ring and let freedom reign’!

  13. After watching the movie Antebellum and Alice it became clear to me how easy this would be able to be happening not only 50 years ago but today as well. Who knows what’s happening on the other side of those extremely thick southern swamps. If you can hide a Still or a Meth lab, then how hard do you think it would be to hide an indentured servant?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*