Black people were held in slavery in the Deep South as late as the 1960’s
According to a series of interviews published by Vice, historian and genealogist Antionette Harrell has uncovered long-hidden cases of Black people who were still living as slaves a century past the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Harrell’s groundbreaking work has exposed cases in her home state of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida.
Harrell first began her work over twenty years ago; in 1994 she began to look into public and historical records and discovered that her ancestors belonged to Benjamin and Cecilia Bankston Richardson in 1853. From there, Harrell tracked down freedman contracts on her father’s side of the family that verified they were sharecroppers, and word spread around New Orleans leading to a number of speaking engagements.
It was at one of these engagements that Harrell would be set off on the path which lead her to discoveries of hidden slavery into the 1960’s. Harrell recounts a woman who came up to her after one of her talks and told her that she personally knew a group of people who didn’t get their freedom until the 1950’s. Intrigued, Harrell accepted an invitation to her house where the group gathered and told Harrell their story of being enslaved on the Waterford Plantation in St. Charles, Louisiana.
They had become debtors to the plantation owner and as a result, could not leave the property. At the end of the harvest, this group was always told they did not make any profit, and were told they had to try again next year. This cycle kept them on the land and some of those people were tied to that tract of land until the 1960’s.
Harrell recounts that there was a great amount of trepidation on the part of the former slaves to tell their stories because in the Deep South there is great fear of what is colloquially referred to as “old money.” The families who owned and ran plantations, their original source of political power, still retained political power, moving from the plantations to the local government and big businesses. Harrell reveals that a lot of these kinds of stories are still not told because of this established fear of repercussion.
At another speaking engagement, Harrell was confronted after a talk in Amite, Louisiana by a woman named Mae Louise Walls Miller who told her that she didn’t get her freedom until 1962, which was two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed granting Black people a host of legal rights and protections. Miller’s father lost his land by signing a contract he could not read, which subsequently locked him and his family into a land peonage state.
Miller told Harrell that she and her mother were routinely raped and beaten by the white men who owned the land. Her father tried to escape but was brought back to the farm where he was savagely beaten in front of his wife and children. Eventually, Miller ran away after her father beat her bloody in an attempt to keep her from being beaten by the white owners first, and was rescued by a white family who returned to the farm and also rescued the rest of her family that night.
Even after Miller’s death in 2014, Harrell does not believe that Miller’s family is the last family to face such a fate in the Deep South. She told Vice:
Do I believe Mae’s family was the last to be freed? No. Slavery will continue to redefine itself for African Americans for years to come. The school to prison pipeline and private penitentiaries are just a few of the new ways to guarantee that black people provide free labor for the system at large. However, I also believe there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.