Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Art of Re-enslavement

A couple of days ago, I posted about a remarkable woman I've met here in the Louisiana parish where I moved last year. Today, I'm posting about another.

Antoinette Harrell started out just studying her family history. She began with the arduous task of talking to elder members of her family and poring over public records. Then, she had her DNA checked and discovered that she is descended from the Tuareg tribe in Western Africa. But this didn't just become an interesting tidbit for her to discuss at family barbeques. It became the motivating force to send her to spend a month with the Tuareg in Niger, West Africa, reconnecting to her past.

In the process of this personal historical journey, however, Harrell developed an ever deepening sense of what African-Americans have suffered in this country over the past five hundred years. Most people that look like me and even many people of color have long since brushed aside this crucial information.

"Slavery ended over a hundred years ago," they flatly state, as if mildly irritated. "What does that have to do with us today?"

And this is the question Harrell seeks to answer for us all, whether we're ready or not.

The fact is that even if slavery did end a hundred years ago (and Harrell and others argue that it did not), the effects of it, as I've often discussed in my blog posts, don't just linger on, but actually run rampant through the lives of all U.S. citizens. If you look like me, you benefit daily in a thousand ways -- without, as a rule, being forced to realize or acknowledge it -- allowed to live your life as a privileged member of this society (see the video in yesterday's post). And if you happen to be African-American, you just don't access those benefits and privileges. It's that simple.

But that's not all there is to it. Not by a long shot. In fact, I had the rare good fortune to be invited to the premiere of Harrell's documentary, "The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century" at Loyola University in May and, believe me, this is something you're going to be hearing about.

Some years ago, at one of her many speaking engagements on the importance of tracking family history (even the painful parts), Antoinette Harrell was approached by Mae Louise Wall Miller, who told her that she was raised in what amounted to slavery and only escaped in 1963. That's right. Not 1863, but 1963.

Miller's family lived in a remote setting in Mississippi, far from cities or even roads, not being able to read or write and completely cut off from outsiders. The story Miller tells is harrowing and, as she told it at the premiere, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

Miller talked about how they were treated worse than dogs. How they all spent their every waking moment "picking cotton, pulling corn, picking peas, picking butter beans, picking string beans, digging potatoes; whatever it was, that's what you did for no money at all." How the "Boss's" table scraps were tossed into a tub for days and then set out under a tree for them to eat out of like hogs.
How the only drinking water they had access to was from a creek that was green with slime and whatever else might be floating in it. How they never had a spoon or a toothbrush or shoes. How, when they laid down to sleep at night, exhausted, on the dirt floor of their bare-bones shack, her father, Cain Wall, (seen in the photo at nearly 105 years of age) would lie flat on the dusty earth and the rest of the family would lie perpendicular to him, using his body (even when it was bloody) as the only pillow they ever knew. How she was raped so often and so brutally as a child that it left her incapable of having children herself. How they were beaten routinely and viciously and threatened with death if they even thought about trying to leave. How they were assured that if they did break free, the ones they left behind would be murdered. And on one occasion, when Cain Wall escaped in desperation, seeking help for his family, whoever picked him up actually returned him to his tormentors.

"We thought all Black people were being treated like that," remembers Mae Wall Miller now. "So where were we going to go?"

When Miller finally reached her breaking point and ran off in her late teens, she made it to a road where, still bloody from her morning beating for refusing to work, she was picked up by some folks in a horse-drawn wagon. That night, they all returned for the rest of her family.

It was difficult for the Walls to acclimate to the world outside. Isolated for so long, they found it hard to trust people outside of the family. Miller has learned to read and write, but she says her feet still don't wear shoes easily. Nevertheless, the Wall family has moved on and Miller has bonded now with Antoinette Harrell and joined her in her work to make the world aware that the slavery of African-Americans in the United States (also called "peonage" or "involuntary servitude") is far from dead even yet.

Harrell has spent literally hundreds of hours crawling through private collections and public documents from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to the dusty, bat-infested attics of Court Houses in the rural South. She has found Justice Department records documenting cases of White people being prosecuted well into the twentieth century for holding people in involuntary servitude. She has copied more than 30,000 documents: case records, letters from people in bondage, and even letters to officials as high up as the President of the United States from lawyers and other credible sources (including the N.A.A.C.P.) requesting investigation of peonage in sixteen states. She has learned that the Department of Homeland Security now holds former F.B.I. files further documenting such cases under investigation as late as the 1970's. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly, under the circumstances), these files are closed to the public.

Why would they be closed? Well, one reason might be that Harrell and Miller, among others, have brought a class action suit demanding reparations. Not primarily personal reparations, you understand. But reparations to benefit the entire African-American community because of their centuries of unpaid labor, because of the physical, emotional, psychological, and economic devastation from the on-going effects of the past, and most importantly, because individual cases like that of the Wall family demonstrate that the paradigm of White Supremacy still functioning in this country has allowed these effects to continue into the present.

Harrell recommends to nay-sayers that they read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. Bill Moyers calls it "truly the most remarkable piece of reporting I've read in a long time."

Antoinette Harrell is off this week delivering food to destitute families in Mississippi. She rarely sits for more than a minute. If you want to know more about her on-going projects and research, including her documentary, "The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century," and most particularly if you want to support her work in any way, you may contact her directly at afrigenah@yahoo.com.
I was turned onto the Bill Moyers YouTube video featured above by Professor Zero and Macon D. (Thank you kindly.) Photos of Marie Wall Miller and Cain Wall by Antoinette Harrell.


Professor Zero said...

Great post. I could say more but it's late ... people always told me I was being too harsh in saying that certain working conditions I've observed amounted to reenslavement or just shy of it, but I really don't think so.

Professor Zero said...

I mean, I don't think I was being to harsh in saying that.

changeseeker said...

Not at all, PZ. We all know that many poor people in general do horrific things to earn even the littlest paycheck. But certain populations and most particularly, I think, migrant workers and African-Americans in the South remain routinely and unapologetically reduced to an economic and social level that should demand instant investigation and relief. But won't, I fear, anytime soon.

Even worse, though, are the cases like the Wall family, cases that I have no question still exist down the backroads and in the prison systems in this country. Before 1865, the vast majority of self-righteous non-slave-holding White folks did little if anything to stop the injustice and brutality being meted out against people of color in the U.S. That is still the case. And no less shameful.

I truly believe that if we're not actively involved in bringing down White Supremacy, we're committed to and compliant with it. I'm not saying there's only one way to oppose, but those who do nothing are only kidding themselves about not being racist. In my opinion. And harshness be damned.

Professor Zero said...

When I lived in northern Brazil in the early 80s I observed directly some cases that to my knowledge weren't quite as bad as the Wall family's, but came close to it, and I've heard of others. People always told me that the reason I found these cases problematic was that I was a judgmental American imperialist. To notice white supremacy was imperialist...

changeseeker said...

It sounds as if they saw it as a class issue rather than a race issue. And while they were not wrong, neither were you. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. May it spread all over the blogosphere.

After reading your entry, I headed on over to


Incredible that this can happen in our history, yet so few know or seem to care. Blacks are told every day to get over it already as though black enslavement is a thing of the distant past. Not so. Not so at all.

changeseeker said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm sure I'll be posting more on this topic as time goes on. It's huge, no question.

Anonymous said...

I knew the Wall family, I worked with Mr. Wall on dairy farms and hay fields. This is not accurate. By the way, I am white

changeseeker said...

Perhaps, Anonymous, you knew the Walls subsequent to their escape.

whoever said...

I agree with your last post to Anonymous. The terrible tragedy was never discussed until 2001. By that time, Mr. Wall was about 99 years old. Was he still working at that age? So Anonymous just may have met Mr. Wall way before 2001 while he was still able to work.

Changeseeker, how is Mr. Wall and his family these days?

changeseeker said...

Welcome to the neighborhood, Porfiris. Hope to see you around in the future, as I start visiting my own blog more regularly now. Mr. Wall and one of his daughters has passed on. I just saw Mae Wall in February when we went on a poverty tour of the Mississippi Delta with some other folks. She teaches me every time I see her. Otherwise, the rest of the family stays pretty well under the radar.

whoever said...

Thanks, Changeseeker. I am sorry to hear about the passing of Mr. Cain Wall and his daughter. America is blessed to hear Mae Wall Miller's family history.

Since I began to understand, I have always known that Black Americans had never really been freed. But I have never envisioned how extent the attempt to re-enslave Black Americans was. It was devious and the entire machinery that went into this was big. It was a collective mission in my eyes. White Americans of the South spent a enormous amount of energy to facilitate this program, and the rest just turned a blind eye, seeing a "benefit" with this in the form of labor and used it.

It is reminiscent of Stalin's purge of the 30's and 40's.

"Slavery by another name" is enormous. It should be read by every American.


changeseeker said...

You're absolutely right on all counts, Porfiris. I've been thinking about this a lot because I just read From the Bottom of the Heap by Robert Hillary King as part of my research on the pogrom against the Black Panther Party beginning in the 1970's and continuing to the present in such cases as Albert "Cinque" Woodfox and Herman "Hooks" Wallace. I'm also working on a huge school de-segregation case right now and it's the same thing. It's calculated, deliberate, and unconscionable. And it just goes on and on.