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.”

 

About Anna Thibodeaux 2071 Articles
Managing Editor

12 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.

  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.

  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

  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.

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