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.