Monday, September 22, 2014

In Touch With Our History in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana

Antoinette Harrell and Bernice A. Bennett researching
family history in St. Helena Clerk's Office
Whenever I visit the St. Helena Clerk of Court office to conduct genealogy research, I prepare myself to spend the entire day. There are so many records and documents to read. The marriage, conveyance and other indexed books are very helpful, if you would like to see the original documents you can tell the employees and they would gladly pull them for you.

After finishing my research in the courthouse I went to the St. Helena Parish Branch library. There isn't many African American genealogy family history books in the library. I made copies of all the family records that I could find of my family members on all side of my family, and any other record that's vital to my family research.  Once I left the library, I visited Rocky Hill A.M.E. church were my 2nd great grandfather Thomas and his wife Amanda Richardson are buried. Their graves were easy to find because they have headstones. Amanda Breland Richardson was born in Livington Parish, Louisiana in the mid 1800s. 

Rocky Hill Cemetery, St. Helena Parish
Several branches of my family roots are deeply connected in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana. The Richardson, Hart, Burton, Boykin and Harrell records can be found and I still have relatives that reside in St. Helena Parish. 

My plans is to go back and look at other records that had been buried in the dust. Since I've been traveling back and forth conducting genealogy research, I found one other African American person researching their family history and that is a woman by the name of Myrtis Johnson. Myrtis was looking for slave cemeteries, and I'll never forget the first time she took me to a slave cemetery in St. Helena Parish. There were over forty unmarked graves. She managed to get the graves cleaned off and add some head and foot markers put on the graves. 

I asked her did she know the names of any of the people in the cemetery,  she said that someone gave a few names. I wanted to know if Carrie Richardson was buried in that cemetery. I would like to find other information about Carrie. I do know she was sold to the Kemp family in St. Helena and that's all I know about Carrie.

St. Helena Parish has beautiful land. If you live close by and are looking to take a country scenic ride, St. Helena Parish is the place to visit. I often stop and talk with elderly people who were sitting on their front porch. I enjoy sitting a spell as they would say to talk with them, I soon learn that I'm talking to a walking library so I sit, listen and take notes, especially when you are talking about people they know and events they can recall.  If I'm lucky they will pull out a photograph of their loved ones.   

Sometimes I feel like I stepped back in time, a time when life was much simpler.  My ancestors who were slaves saw the harsh treatment of the slave masters and planters. But they remained in St. Helena and called it home. As a matter of fact, some will tell you that there is no other place they would rather live. The smell of the morning fresh air, trees whispering, birds chirping and the morning dew can be found on the green grass and beautiful meadows.

Most of the people who live there wouldn’t trade the beautiful and quiet parish for life in a busy city.  They will stay their until they are called on to “Glory” as they would say. Genealogy has no ending, I can only research and document what I found until the next genealogist or family historian comes along and pick up where I left off. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Records In The St. Helena Parish Vault

St. Helena Parish Courthouse
One of my favorite places to research is the St. Helena Parish courthouse in St. Helena, Louisiana. There are so many document and records that can help you when you’re researching your family history. Although you can no longer go into the vault to pull the records for yourself, but one of the employees will gladly pull the records for you.

I found the succession records of Benjamin Richardson and my ancestors Carrie and her child Thomas were listed in his inventory as well as  how much they appraised for. Some of the records are crumbling up and are in bad shape and need to be preserved. There are records such as: the Asylum Records, Crop Lien Records, Marriage Records, Land Records, and Court Records housed in the vault.

If your ancestors were slaves in St. Helena Parish, the inventory list can be very vital to anyone who is researching their family history, especially if they come from St. Helena Parish, Louisiana.  Researching the history of the slaveholder family might give you some answers you were looking for.

I got a full understanding of crop liens when I found the application of those who were borrowing
money to plant their crops. The application named the person who applied for the services. They also gave you a legal description of the property and how much money they borrow against the crops.

When I first opened the drawer to access the files in the vault, my eyes filled with tears of excitement when I found my ancestors in the succession records. I was pulling their files for the very first time, I found them and who owned them.

Bernice A. Bennett and Antoinette Harrell inside the vault
I couldn’t help but wonder what was that day like for Carrie and her child Thomas Richardson who appraised at $1,100 dollars. As I continued to review the succession and inventory list, I wanted to know if the others people on the inventory list were related to Carries in some way.

Standing inside the vault and looking at old file cabinets that I had seen on the television series "Gunsmoke" wondering how long it had been since anyone opened these files outside of the employees who are employed there.  Pulling the files for the first time and opening them to look at the records was like freeing my ancestors and letting them know that I came back to learn more about their lives as slaves in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana.

I took the files and sat at the desk with my fingers cross in high hopes that I would find more of my ancestors.  Reviewing the succession records of Benjamin and Celia Bankston Richardson and looking at all the slaves they own on their plantation. I wanted to know if any of the other slaves were related to Carrie, could one of the women on this inventory list be her mother?

I wanted to know more about Carrie. Where did she come from? Who did they purchase her from? Was she one of the Africans’ who was kidnapped and sold into slavery? Who were her mother and father? Did she have other siblings? What cemetery is she buried in?

As I continued to look inside the vault, I found the crop lien records of people who borrowed money to grow their crops. I found my maternal grandmother Emma Mead Harrell and her son Jasper in those files. Jasper’s brother Palmer Harrell’s application was there also. 

Scanning the room looking at the old books, the policy jury records, criminal records, and the asylum records, my curiosity has gotten the best of me and I wanted to look at those asylum records.  For what medical reason was that person  sent to East Louisiana Mental Hospital?  I knew my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Richardson spent many years in the asylum and I was hoping that I would have found his medical records, but I was out of luck here.

When I visit the St. Helena Clerk of Court office to conduct genealogy research, I can stay all day. There is so much to see and so many records and document to look at. The marriage records are indexed in books and if you would like to see the original marriage license you can tell the clerk and she would be glad to pull them for you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Precott Plantation In St. Helena, Louisiana

Genealogist and Author Bernice Alexander Bennett
Bernice Alexander Bennett spend long hours conducting genealogy research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.,  Her genealogy roots are connected to the East Florida Parishes and Orleans Parish. Researching the Freedmen Bureau Records is her specialty. A very special thanks to Bernice for sharing these records with Nurturing Our Roots and Preserving Our History in St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes, Louisiana.

The following contract is from the Precott Plantation of St. Helena Parish, dated August 5, 1867. The list below are the names of all the people who was working on the Prescott plantation in St. Helena Parish in 1867. They could read or write, they made their (x) to confirm that they were in agreement with the contract. She found her on maternal great-great grandfather in the slave inventory, he appraised at $1,700 dollars and was purchased for $1, 500 dollars. If anyone with the surname Sweeny, I hope that you find your ancestors on the contract. 

The records by the Freedmen's Bureau through its works between 1865 and 1872 constitute the richest and most extensive documentary source available for investigating the African American experience in the post Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Historians have used these materials to explore government and military policies, local conditions, and interactions between freed people, local white populations, and Bureau officials. 

Name                      Age    Sex

Nathan (x) Sweeny 48    Male
Lotta    (x) Sweeny 19    Female
Ellen    (x) Sweeny 15    Female
Albert  (x) Sweeny 12    Male
Joseph (x) Gordon  42    Male
Sebrum (x) Washington      

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Undocumented History and Culture of African American People in St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes, Louisiana

Agreement with Freedmen Contract
Courtesy of  Bernice Alexander Bennett
Tangipahoa Parish began in 1869, when it was carved from Livingston Parish, St. Helena Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and Washington Parishes, Louisiana. According to the Tangipahoa Parish Quick Facts from the U.S. Census Bureau,  Black or African American percent alone was 30.3%. Tangipahoa came from an Acolapissa word meaning “ear of corn” or “those who gather corn.”

Earlier settlers emigrated from South Carolina and Georgia in the late eighteenth century. The parish is a blend of several noted cultures: Scottish, English, Irish, and Italian.  Although there is a large African American history that blends into this parish as well, very little is written or documented about the African American people, their history or their culture. Slavery was abolished in 1863 and many newly freed slaves came from St. Helena, Washington and Livingston Parishes into Tangipahoa Parish. A large percentage of African Americans remained in the parishes where they were held as slaves, and some migrated to Tangipahoa Parishes as sharecroppers on farms or plantations.

Sharecropping became widespread during the end of slavery and after Reconstruction.  With no food, shelter, clothes, land, seed, tools and money, the former slaves had no other choice but to seek employment by signing contracts that would perhaps bond them to a new form of slavery called sharecropping.

An Agreement with Freedmen was contracted that listed former enslaved African Americans on by the Holloway Plantation in 1868 who remained or moved to the plantation seeking employment. The Holloway Plantation listed the following people who worked on their plantation and signed their mark (x) because they couldn’t read or write. The following people below were listed on the Agreement with Freedmen contracts for the Holloway Plantation.

Simone (x)  Holloway 35,  Ellen (x) Holloway 28, Sally (x) Holloway 13, Ada (x) Holloway 12, Carolina (x) Holloway, Julia (X) Holloway 16, Louise (x) Holloway 15, and Bell (x) Holloway.

The Agreement with Freedmen contracts bonded them to a new form of slavery called sharecropping or peonage.  The sharecropping system is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land. While there were some advantages to sharecropping, there were often corrupt situations where African American and other poor people of color were cheated out of their wages because they couldn’t read or write and had no one to turn to for help or justice.

The disadvantages of sharecropping quickly became apparent. The new system of credit, peonage,   Many African-American sharecroppers complained of being told that they owed for that year of crops, even though they knew that they made a good harvest. They couldn’t dispute what the landowner said was on the account books. Crop liens and loss of land became associated with sharecropping.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Today, you can’t find many people, black or white, who will talk about the history of slavery, segregation, peonage or sharecropping.  Many African Americans who were sharecroppers up until the mid-sixties can still be found in the parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Helena, Washington, and Livingston.

The harsh realities of the time and period of sharecropping unleash bitter memories that many choose to block from their memories. The days of beating, murders, rapes, and being called derogatory names is what keeps them from wanting to talk about it.

Part of me can understand not wanting to re-live the harsh life as sharecroppers or peons. However, learning about the history of the African American life in the East Florida Parishes is absolutely crucial, and so African Americans who lived in the parishes must discuss and document their past history.

There are many Ruby Bridges that can be found in the East Florida Parishes that keep their own voices silent.  The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, also known as “Bloody Sunday”, was one of the marches that led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The birth of the civil rights movement for the East Florida Parishes  took place in Washington Parish, Louisiana in a town named Bogalusa in August 1967, where African Americans marched from Bogalusa to the State Capitol in Baton, Louisiana for equal economic opportunities, equal education, desegregation of all public accommodations and facilities and other discriminatory laws.

History tells us that P.B.S. Pinch was the first African American Governor in our nation’s history. He was the son of a planter and an emancipated slave. He was elected to the Louisiana Senate in 1868 and, three years later, became acting lieutenant governor when Oscar Dunn, the first elected African American lieutenant govern in American history, died.

Did the former slaves and African American sharecroppers pass their fears of living in the Macon Dixie line down to the present generations? The fear of talking about their own history and the history of their ancestors who were slaves is still prevalent today in the East Florida Parishes. No one should be afraid to talk about or discuss their family history.

A genealogist’s ultimate goal is to get more people interested in researching, documenting and preserving their family history in genealogy libraries, universities, and other repositories. Indeed, family history makes up the history of parishes or counties.

There are many historical and cultural events that have taken place in the African American communities in the East Florida Parishes that need to be recorded and documented for study.

Early African American noted pioneers in Tangipahoa Parish like Fred McCoy, Rev. Willard Vernon, Emma Mead Harrell, Reginald Cotton, Sr., Spelman Jones, Willie K. Gordon, Sr., Alexander Richardson, Dr. Walter Reed, and Dr. Percy Walker and many others helped shape the African American communities. However, some will agree that communities in the Town of Amite, Louisiana, like Clemmons, Hyde and Reid Quarters should be renamed. These communities are predominantly African American communities and yet they still carry the names of large plantations or planters.  In the 21st century, African American people in these communities are still calling their communities “the quarters”. It could be a possibility that the African American’s of those communities don’t associate the word “quarters” with slave quarters.

 After approaching several African American Town Councilmen who sit on the Amite City Council asking them to consider passing a resolution to rename the community is the first step. The African American’s who live in the communities need to contact their council person and ask them to support and pass the resolution to renamed these African American communities.


Unpuzzling Our Family History and Our Past

Antoinette Harrell conducting research in the
St. Helena Parish, Louisiana
A genealogist is one who studies the family history, events, places and records. Often times we spend a great deal of time researching family’s vital records and documents, preserving our history, family photographs and collecting oral history. Thinking of genealogy with a twist--one may ask the question what that means? Well, the question that I often ask is, “What have we learned from the past? How are we applying what we learned? Have we strived for success, or have we regressed?”

I have talked with many people who don’t think that family history isn't important. I am the third generation from slavery. My third maternal great-grandfather Thomas Richardson was a slave born on the Benjamin and Celia Bankston plantation in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana. Thomas and his mother Carrie appraised for $1,100 dollars in 1853. Not much is known about Carrie and her son Thomas after they were sold to the Kemp Family. However, I know that after the freedom bell rung in 1863, Thomas married Amanda Breland of Livingston Parish. They had five children; Thomas, John, Sophia, Annie and Golene.

Gordon Family
Thomas, my great-great-grandfather married Emma Vining.  During their union, they gave birth to four children; Rosabell, Alma, Josephine and Alexander .  My mother shared the oral history that she   She said that he spent most of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital in Jackson, LA for mental illness.

 I interviewed several people that knew him.  They knew him as Mr. Moss or Uncle Moss. One thing they all pointed out during the interview was that Moss was a very intelligent and handsome man. He passed away in 1958 in Amite, Louisiana.  My mother was the only person in the family who would talk about him and the illness he suffered and share the information she knew about him.

We can learn so much from our family history if we chose to study it. The oral history passed down to me about my grandfather Thomas are very helpful to me, and I hope that others family members find this information helpful for medical information.

Thomas's descendants went on to become successful people,  many have earned college degrees and  hold the occupations as engineers, lawyers, doctors, educators, entrepreneurs, ministers, dentists, entertainers, television talk show hosts, authors, law enforcement officials and other careers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if these people who have become successful in their careers ever think about their ancestors and were forced into slavery and who shoulders they stand on.

I wonder if they ever think about paying tribute to those who endured the long, hot days in the cotton fields working for the slave masters, being sold on the auction block and never to see their dear loved ones again. What was life like for Carrie and her child Thomas? Did Carrie have other children? If so, where are they and who are they? Perhaps I am looking at her offspring every day, not realizing that I am actually seeing a relative.

Why we've chosen to forget our history is a puzzling mystery! What impact would it have on the youth if we told them about their history? Why aren't we telling them about slavery and Jim Crow? Perhaps we think that we're saving them from something without realizing that we’re hurting them by keeping the truth from them.

Some people are ashamed of their history and avoid the topic of slavery and its widespread effects. I wanted to know about my ancestors, where they came from, if they were free people of color, or if they were slaves. If they were slaves, who owned them? What kind of plantation did they live on?

What happened to them after the freedom bell rung? What did they do and where did they go? I may never have all the answers, but at least I can pay tribute to them for all that they endured for me. We’re are talking about people who had little or no formal education, but nonetheless purchased land and build their own homes with no mortgages. They fed themselves from the food they grew and kept themselves warm with the wood from the land they owned. They understood what freedom meant. Today, we define ourselves by material things, we have lost sight of the things that should be most
important to us, and we pass those same senseless values down to the next generations.

What ever happened to the respect for the community and ourselves? The elders in the community would come together to solve problems; they would share food with one another, help take care of those who were ill and certainly took in children who needed homes and families. I often wonder if this was just a dream. At times, I even wish I lived in a world were we took care of our community.  It is the past that shapes the present, and the present that shapes the future? Where is our future headed if we don’t take responsibility for it?

We can learn valuable lessons by studying our own family history. I am grateful for the lessons I learned while researching my family history.  I found land ownership, home ownership, business owners, family members who were debt-free, and family members who cared about each other. Now I can pass these lessons down to my grandchildren.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Putting Our Children First By Bringing Educational Enrichment Programs to Our Parish

Exploring through the arts
Each district in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana should have a community resource enrichment center,  I've notice the lack of enrichment programs for the youth. Sports seem to dominate small rural towns all across America. We need after school programs and summer enrichment programs for our youth.  No town can grow without empowering the youth with enrichment education.

Enrichment programs such as cultural studies, music theater, college preparatory courses, computer science, art, foreign languages and film making are just some of the enrichment programs that should be considered.  Every child should be given the advantage of exploring learning through arts. If the community and schools offer these types of programs to the youth, it can only bring future success for the child, community and parish. Our primary focus should be to emphasize the importance of enrichment programs in our community.  
We should talk with  to our local school board members, our elect officials and community leaders about the need for enrichment programs.

These enrichment programs can offer field trips to local museums, state archives, state capitols and other places that affluent students will have available to them. Our goal is to help children achieve in their curriculums. If we want our children to develop a positive attitude toward school and learning as well as develop respect for others, the only way is through education  and cultural awareness.

Give A Child Hope Through the Gift of Reading and Learning

Giving the gift of reading
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re living in a rural town. Maybe you’re down on your luck between jobs, or maybe you’ve never had more than the proverbial 2 cents to rub together.  Perhaps you’re a child or teen gifted with the promise of a bright mind but limited opportunities to imagine life beyond the classroom. Or maybe you’re trying to escape impoverished situations at home and need information to put a plan together.

While it might seem obvious to many that for someone in such a situation, the library or community center would be a good place to escape, to learn, to dream bigger dreams and to just cling to hope, there’s just one problem.

There isn’t one.Welcome to the reality of life in the Town of Webb, MS., But in the bleakness of this reality, a spark of hope is being fanned into a great light. We have a vision of a Community Resource Center and Library for the town – a place of hope and possibility for people in this town and in the surrounding towns. It’s a vision that is shared by many – we’ve already collected over 10,000 books, art supplies, and other educational materials to be used in the community resource enrichment center. But there’s still a long road ahead. Will you be the one who carries the light of this vision to others in our community?

We need your help.  Specifically, we still need donations of art talents, time and contracting skills
to help us get the building prepared for the community center. You’ve probably heard over recent years about all of the cuts in state and federal funding for various things – including education. 

In small towns like Webb, the generosity of people like you makes a huge difference in the resources available for families and children. What can your gift accomplish?  By giving a child the gift of reading books that spark their interests, we’re opening up the doors of higher learning and giving them the opportunity to see the world through books and our other educational resource materials.

What can you do? We’re asking church, civic and school organizations – any individual or group who would like to make a difference - to join Gathering of Hearts in this effort. It all comes down to this.  If we hope to end the heartache of poverty in towns like ours in America, we must start with finding a way to give our youth – and all of us – the resources we need.

What is a Community Resource Center? 
Home of the new Community Resource Center in Webb, MS
The Community Resource Center is a place where students can spend time after school. They can get tutoring to help support them academically.  They’ll have opportunity to learn music, drama, the visual arts and performing arts.  We’ll be training members of the community – like you, if you’re interested – to serve our youth as mentors, helping them to discover the gifts of learning and culture that are surrounding them. 

As you know, the Mississippi Delta is the home of the blues. We’re a culture rich with art, music and some of the world’s finest blues festivals.  But the way to keep that culture alive is to bring it to our children, giving them the hope they need to become strong contributing members of our society as adults. We believe in our children and our families. Do you? 

Can we count on you or your organization to join us through Gathering of Hearts?There are opportunities for every kind of involvement, whether by donating money, time or resources.  Please contact us to find an opportunity to help that is right for you. As Mahatma Gandhi said “ Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

We all want to see a world that empowers all children to enjoy the adventure of learning, academically and through cultural experiences. If you would like to help us help our community’s children, please contact Gathering of Hearts at 504.858.4658 or you can email Antoinette Harrell at

Gathering of Heart wishes to thank the many supporters who donated funds, books, educational material or perhaps you donated your time and effort to this cause. You kindness and generosity can never be forgotten.