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.”