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400 years: An Acknowledgement & Apology

Like so many these days, I’ve been working on family genealogy. In pursuit of more information about my mother’s relatives in her hometown of Opelousas, Louisiana, a very upsetting image emerged. It is a photograph of a young African-American man shirtless atop a makeshift scaffold, crowded with four executioners, the stairway filled with huddled expectants, the words JUSTICE haphazardly painted on a support beam, with a massive crowd of onlookers shoulder to shoulder. The caption read, “Opelousas Massacre of 1868.” I don’t know if the photograph was taken in Opelousas during the event, but it certainly represents the horror of the day for African Americans.

An article about the event goes on to describe the white residents of Opelousas, Louisiana, and surrounding areas, killing up to 200 African-Americans. The event was about a white schoolteacher trying to educate local blacks and encouraging them to vote.

Of course, my first thought was, Oh my God, did my family participate in this? Why had I never heard of it?  I visited Opelousas my entire childhood. I knew my family to be kind, loving, religious, and generous of spirit to all. The town was charming, how could this atrocity be aligned with my family, or this community? Were these people capable of such atrocities?

The sheer brutality of the murders lingered with me.  

While searching for more information, random childhood memories of inadvertent racist comments from family members filled my head. “Hey t’nig!” (Cajun French for Petit Nig)… “I’m not prejudice, [after saying Nigger] that’s just what we call them!”…“They are from the other side of the tracks”…“They used to let me pick cotton with the niggers and pay me 2 cents for a bag full, which I spent on candy in their store in Lawtell.” I felt ashamed.

 When my great-grandmother broke her hip around 1975 she required constant care and an African-American woman was staying in the bedroom next to hers to help her in her recovery. When better, she had her African American gardener bring the mattress outside to ‘sun’ it, and flipped the mattress before making the bed where the ‘colored woman’ had slept.

Somehow the love they radiated on me and my family throughout my entire childhood blinded me from a seeing the social divide so deeply ingrained in their cultural patois. 

I was intoxicated in the bucolic setting of the pretty little town with centuries old oak trees with Spanish moss, French Creole architecture, Cajun cuisine: black-green roux gumbos, Étouffée, craklins, boudin, demitasse cups of strong coffee with chicory.  

Opelousas, Louisiana in the 1800s

There was always laughter, love, story telling, eating and drinking.  Picking pecans for my great-grandmother, “Mama Perk.” Going on Sunday to the Catholic Cathedral for mass. The jovial social attitude of ‘Never meeting a stranger.’ Being polite to everyone, willing to help any person in need. 

Going to my great-grandparents, “Big Mama and Big Papa’s,” cotton farm and shooting BB guns at our cousins. Going to the “camp” to hunt.  Souileau’s restaurant for Étouffée, visiting with relatives. Don’s Seafood in Lafayette. Eating red beans and rice at Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, and on to La Poussiere to dance “Chanky Chank.” It was all pure joy.

The men in my mother’s family, my grandfathers, were men of principle; men of God…living in their own sense of the world with notions of success and ‘Christian’ ideas wrought with contradictions that immigrated on-board with my 8thgreat-grandfather Etienne Daigle, who arrived in 1717 on military exploration to New Orleans on the Ship Marlborough

My 7th great-grandfather, Sergeant Jean Louis Fontenot arrived to Alabama on the ship Drommadaire in 1720. He was stationed at Fort Toulouse in Alabama to secure friendship with the Native American Creek Confederacy, and to keep the British out. Fontenot raised 12 children on a farmstead near the fort. After the French defeat in the French and Indian War of 1754, his son, Jean Baptiste Fontenot and another relative, Louis Coquelin de Latiolais migrated to Opelousas, Louisiana.

Fort Toulouse, Alabama

Next my 8th great-grandfather, Joseph Broussard “BeauSoliel,” led 58 French Canadian families on the ship Santo Domingo first to the Caribbean, and then to Louisiana. These settlers would become known as the “Cajuns.” Bringing my great-grandmothers Guidry, Savoie, Daigle. Who married into the families: Cormier, Meaux, Richard, Hebert, Dubret, Bourg, Barre, Pitre, Taillon, Boudreaux, Jahot, Lavergne, Laprade, Picot, Aucoin, Boisset, Babin, Dugas, Doucet, and Comeau.

In the late 1700s, my Scotch-Irish, McClelland family arrived to the area, and farmed cotton. The men married into the Barousse Family, the daughter of Senator Homer Barousse, Savoie, DaigleHarmon, and Andrus families. When I met my great-grandfather, “Big Papa” he owned a 300-acre cotton farm, a cotton gin, and a store in Lawtell, Louisiana.

My Great-great grandparents with their three sons at the Cotton farm in Lawtell, Louisiana

My mother’s grandfather, James Austin Perkins, Sr.’s father, Samuel Perkins was the first to arrive to Opelousas, by way of the Mississippi River from Missouri, in route to trade horses in New Orleans, sometime before the Civil War. He married German-French speaking Alsatian woman, Marie Ester Pefferkorn. Her family migrated from Alsace and joined the many German Speaking migrants outside New Orleans in “German Town.” James Austin Sr. married a Guidry and his son, my grandfather, a McClelland.

My great-grandfather, “Papa Perk” was on the Board of Planter’s Bank & Savings, owned St. Landry Lumber Company, and acquired sizable land holdings around the Opelousas area.

St. Landry Lumber Company, Opelousas, Louisiana, bought by J.A.Perkins, Sr. in 1925

My mother’s father, James Austin Perkins, Jr., was in the petroleum industry and left Opelousas after university. My mother was born on my great-parent’s cotton farm in Lawtell, less than 10 miles outside of town. Her mother, Maxine McClelland frequently brought my mother to visit family. 

I asked my mother if she had heard of the Opelousas Massacre of 1868, and she had not. I went on to ask other questions about racism in her childhood, what she remembered in Louisiana at the time. She didn’t remember anyone being ‘ugly’ to African-Americans, but she did have this to say:

“My first memory as a child was my grandmother ringing the head of a chicken and it running headless around the yard, her then boiling it and removing the feathers. 

“I had warts on my hand as a little girl and they took me to see Ike, a black man with blue eyes, which I thought was so strange, to do some ‘gris-gris.’ He rubbed them and said some prayers and told me not to think about them and a few days later they were gone! One of the kitchen cooks’ daughter, Cecile, and I used to play ‘beauty shop’ in my grandmother’s bedroom because she had a large mirror. I liked her and was nice to her, but she was like my plaything. My grandparents were very nice to the workers (black tenant farmers at that time). My grandfather was a very quiet and gentle man, but my great-grandparents used to yell at the workers from the porch. 

“There were always a couple of women, wives of the workers, in the kitchen helping my grandmother. In town, Mama Perk was always polite to her cook, Mary, and her maid and yardman. I could see the workers houses (provided by farm) on the other side of the cotton fields. 

“I used to ride on the wagon with my cousins full of cotton from the end of the road to the gin. It would take a long time to get there. I was always afraid we would be sucked up with the cotton.

“There were no black people at our church. The McClellands always sat in the same spot in church, on the second row.

“When I stayed in Opelousas in the summers we went to the drive-in theater and the swimming pool. Blacks were not allowed. I lived in Houston by then, and I thought it was so strange to see the “White Only” signs at the water fountain.

“Colored” water fountain during segregation

Slavery was never discussed.” 

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When I did family research on my biological father’s side of the family several years ago, I learned that my family’s earliest arrivals were on the Mayflower, as well as early arrivals to Jamestown. I am related to approximately 66 families who arrived to Virginia before 1800.

 George Washington is my relative (third cousin, 8xs removed), Patrick Henry (5th great-grandfather), “Give me liberty or give me death!” who was vehemently opposed to slavery, yet owned 65 slaves. Thomas Jefferson (also a distant relative) owned slaves (600 slaves), including his lover and mother of his children, Sally Hemings, and he was also opposed to slavery, but never gave Sally legal freedom during his lifetime.

After fighting in the American Revolution, my relatives, Reverend Thomas Maxwell (5th great-grandfather, Started Falling Creek Baptist Church) and Isham Hailey Teasley, Sr. (4th great-grandfather, cotton plantation/slave owner), moved further south to Georgia to take up cotton farming on newly available land from the removal of the Creek and Cherokee tribes in Land Lotteries in 1806 and 1827. Teasley was both a land lottery recipient and the owner of slaves. 

Will of Isham Hailey Tesaley 1834

Over time, and as I researched further, I began to realize that if my relatives where some the first European settlers to arrive, they would, in fact, be the very people that killed Native Americans and essentially removed them from the south. Also lending to the one of the most horrific events for Native Americans, The Trail of Tears: From the 1830s to the 1840s, five Tribes (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) were forcibly removed from their fertile wooded homelands and made to travel to Indian Territory to live on reservations in inhospitable lands in Oklahoma. Of course, they rarely mention in the history that is the year they found gold in Georgia!

Moreover, my early Virginia ancestors would have seen the arrival of the stolen African slave cargo ship, The White Lion, in 1619, with the first 20 African slaves to be brought to the Virginia colony.  The first African slaves to work in the Tobacco fields of Virginia: seeding a tradition that would make Virginia the largest slave producing state in America. 

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In 1719, the first slaves arrived in New Orleans. In the same year, the French sent military troops to the Territory of Opelousas. Shortly after, French settlers arrived to trade with the local natives, and the city was founded in 1720.  What happened to the indigenous tribes in the area? In my visits to Opleousas, there was no sign of native people, just the occasional name? My mother’s wedding reception was held at the Indian Hills Country Club…

It is estimated that approximately 70,000 Native Americans inhabited Lower Louisiana by the end of the seventeenth century, a population greatly diminished on account of the contagion of European diseases that began more than a century earlier with Spanish-Indian contact. 

The Appalousa, or Opelousa, were the original inhabitants of the land surrounding Opelousas and the Atakapa, a larger local tribe, who referred to them as Ishak, or “The People.” In addition, Louisiana had the Caddo, Chitimacha (New Orleans) Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica tribes. 

The name Opelousa has been thought to have many meanings, but the one most commonly accepted is “Blackleg.” Because of mineral deposits and the great number of leaves covering the bottom of the lake where they lived, hunted, and fished stained their legs to appear black. By all accounts, they were a peaceful tribe.

The French first arrived to Louisiana in 1682. The Spanish ruled Louisiana 40-years from 1763 -1802. In 1769 about one hundred families lived in Opelousas. By 1776 there were 139 families. The population began to increase due to the Spanish Land Grant Policy, which stated that a person was eligible to claim the forty acre land grant if he or she owned a substantial number of cattle and livestock and owned at least two slaves (enslaved Africans). This policy was only partly responsible for the increased number of residents in the parish. 

Additionally, the increased population was due to the migration of French military persons to St. Landry from Alabama and France and the arrival of other Anglo-Americans from other American colonies.  As a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris making the colony of Canada a part of the British Empire, in 1765, the ‘Cajuns’ arrived. The French-Canadians who migrated to Louisiana after the British demanded that they pledge allegiance to the British crown. By the end of the 1700s, Louisiana was well established; then came the sale in 1803.

According to Robert Lee, the United States did not buy a big chunk of real estate from France in 1803. Instead it bought the right to displace Native Americans from the land. The U.S. paid France $15 million for those rights. It would take more than 150 years and hundreds of lopsided treaties to extinguish Indian title to the same land.

Shortly after that a rival Indian tribe, the Appalousa (Opelousas), coming from the area between the Atchafalaya and Sabine rivers, exterminated the Eastern Atakapa. Full blood Opelousas natives were last seen in the area around the 1930s. Some African Americans claim Opelousa heritage, and it is also believed that some surviving Opelousa might have mixed with the Bayou Chicot Choctaws.

Attakapa Village

Old land records show regular and peaceable commerce among the Attakapas and the newcomers. The following accounts are land deals with my relatives and the Attakapas tribes:

The Attakapa’s village on Bayou Plaquemine Brûlée was on land bought in 1784 by Antoine LeBlanc (related to family) from Nementou, chief of the Attakapas. LeBlanc bought land on the bayou one league wide and 40 arpents deep (about 2,820 acres). Chief Nementou, and 13 of his warriors, who lived in the village at the time, signed the deed. This deed was approved by Alexandre Chevalier Declouet, then commandant of the Opelousas and Attakapas districts, and was witnessed by William Hays and Louis Latiolais (both relatives).

In 1799, the Attakapas sold a village on the west side of the Mermentau River to Andre Martin (related to family) for $100.   Martin bought 1,523 acres on the river from Celestin La Tortue, chief of the Attakapas, “adjoining the lower side of the village then occupied by the Indians.” Louis de la Houssaye, then 52 years old, told Land Office commissioners in 1814 that “from his earliest recollections … Nementou, the chief of this village on the river by the same name with other Indians of the tribe, were residing on the land now claimed by Andre Martin, where they ever since continued to reside, and have never had any other village” to his knowledge.

The second Attakapas village on the Mermentau was on land claimed by David Guidry (related to family) and Jean Mouton. The claim was for 2,000 arpents (1,689.579 acres) on the west side of the river. The deed was signed by Celestin La Tortue, chief of the Attakapas, acting for one of his men named Potate, “the old village being in the center of the 50 arpents.” Jean Baptiste Chiasson, testifying in 1811, said that he had visited the village about 1775 and that he thought the Attakapas had lived there many years.

It is believed that the Attakapa tribe later absorbed the Opelousa, and that eventually the Attakapa were absorbed into the CaddoKoasati, and other neighboring nations. According to Swanton, there were 3,500 in 1698 and only 175 in Louisiana in 1805. By 1908 there were only nine known descendants. 

It is worth noting that there is a very long and interesting history of African American, French, and Spanish intermarrying with the native tribes in Southern Louisiana. When black slaves escaped, called “Maroons,” some went into the bayous and lived with the Native people. It is not uncommon today to find residents within the surviving Native populations, with multiple mixed races.’’ 

In 1712, there were only 10 Africans in all of Louisiana. In this early period, European indentured servants submitted to 36-month contracts did most of the work clearing land and laboring on small-scale plantations. 

In addition to enslaved Africans and European indentured servants, early Louisiana’s plantation owners used the labor of Native Americans. In 1722, nearly 170 indigenous people were enslaved on Louisiana’s plantations.

Under French rule (1699-1763), the German Coast became the main supplier of food to New Orleans. German immigrants, white indentured servants and enslaved Africans produced the land that sustained the growing city. Enslaved Africans cleared the land and planted corn, rice, and vegetables. They built levees to protect dwellings and crops.  They also served as sawyers, carpenters, masons, and smiths.  They raised horses, oxen, mules, cows, sheep, swine, and poultry.  Enslaved people also served as cooks, handling the demanding task of hulling rice with mortars and pestles. The German Coast’s population of enslaved people had grown four times since 1795, to 8,776.

African slaves were brought to the Opelousas area, where slave labor was used to build the colony, and work the sugarcane, cotton, and indigo fields. Early slave owners were both Black and White; most having fewer than twenty slaves.

Beyond the backbreaking work from sunrise to sunset, the African slave had no civic rights in Louisiana. In 1724, the French implemented the “Code Noir” which essentially put a metaphoric heavy, dark wool blanket over the entire African population in the burning hot temperatures of the cotton and cane fields. 

The Code Noir, 60 articles, often ignored by Whites, dealt: mainly with slaves, though it also restricted the privileges of free Negroes. It required Catholic instruction and baptism for all slaves; forbade marriage or concubine of white or free born or manumitted Negroes with slaves; fixed the conditions by which slaves could marry; deprived slaves of the right to sue or be sued; forbade the shackling of slaves; declared Negroes movable property; stated the conditions under which they might be manumitted (released from slavery) and regulated in great detail the manner in which slaves might be punished. (To read a translation of Code Noir)

“Code Noir” was put in place in 1724 by the French

Before the Civil War, nearly 4 million black slaves toiled in the American South. 

By law, slaves were the personal property of their owners in all Southern states except Louisiana. The slave master held absolute authority over his human property as the Louisiana law made clear: “The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labor; [the slave] can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master.”

Slaves had no constitutional rights; they could not testify in court against a white person; they could not leave the plantation without permission. Slaves often found themselves rented out, used as prizes in lotteries, or as wagers in card games and horse races.

By the year 1751 policies to control the slave population were strictly enforced, and Louisiana begin to move more toward a state where slaves were viewed as incorrigible. Runaways were on the increase. They fled to wooded areas and bayou country where they organized with other runaways and remained uncaptured. They survived by joining Native American settlements and by looting plantations on the Mississippi. Slaveholders became alarmingly concerned about the growing population of slaves who remained at large. 

Under Spanish rule, 1763-1802, Louisiana became a more developed, successful colony, in large part because of a sizable increase in the enslaved population. The Spanish period can be seen as transitional, linking the “society with slaves” of the French period to the mature “slave society” that emerged under later American rule. 

In 1806, the territorial legislature passed an act (never fully enforced) prohibiting free black males from entering Louisiana and ordering those over the age of fifteen who had been born elsewhere to leave (Louisiana’s native free people of color had been granted U. S. citizenship in 1803). 

In 1812, one year after the failed German Coast uprising, free black men were denied the right to vote. Throughout this period and until the abolition of slavery made their separate legal status obsolete, free persons of color were required to carry passes, observe curfews, and to have their racial status designated in all public records.

Cotton was king in Louisiana, and most of the Deep South during the antebellum period. Between 1840-1860, Louisiana’s annual cotton crop rose from approximately 375,000 bales to nearly 800,000. By 1860, Louisiana produced about one-sixth of all cotton grown in the U.S. Almost all of the sugar grown in the U.S. during the antebellum period came from Louisiana. Louisiana produced almost half of all sugar consumed in the U.S.

Slaves in the cotton fields

The U.S. Census of 1820 reported a total population of 10,075 in the County of Opelousas: 5,368 Free White People (53%), 3,951 Slaves (39%), and 756 Free Colored People (8%).

During the antebellum period, 1840-1860, Louisiana’s free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity, a legacy of the state’s French and Spanish founders, but as the American Civil War approached, white society increasingly turned against them. Martin Donato, outside Opelousas, a “gen de coleur” (free person of color) owned 75.6 acres, and, in 1830, owned 70 slaves.

The old Martin Donato residence

Free persons of color, most often mulattoes, became slave owners and planters, businessmen and businesswomen, artisans, and shop owners. The occupations they entered included carpenters, joiners, shoemakers, tailors, coopers, painters, blacksmiths, plasterers, barbers, grocers, merchants, seamstresses, prostitutes, and boardinghouse keepers. Despite their numerical decline in New Orleans and other parishes during the late antebellum era, this group remained by far the wealthiest group of free Negroes in the country. 

The social and cultural life of creoles of color, as many of these French-speaking free colored people were called, reflected their unique position in the South. They developed mores and customs to protect themselves from the periodic hostility of whites, or the possibility of being mistaken for slaves. They formed tightly knit social and family clans, socialized with one another, attended church together, provided an education for one another’s children, and arranged for marriage of their children within the clan. Whenever possible, they clustered together in the same residential neighborhoods and farming districts. In New Orleans they attended the opera, theater, horse races, cockfights, and circuses. On Grand Opera nights, a portion of the gallery at the Theatre d’Orleans was occupied by gens de couleur, including several patrons of the theater.

A totalitarian form of government ruled until 1845 when a Jacksonian democratic process begins in this area. Prior to 1845, voting privileges were extended to only landed gentry White males twenty-one and over who owned fifty acres of land or more.

In 1845 a new constitution went into effect and the common man (white men), twenty-one and over, was enfranchised to vote. Local officials were now elected by popular vote, whereas before officials were appointed by the Governor or state legislation. Blacks and women however were still ineligible to vote. 

Three of the six Fontenot brothers (left to right) Hypolite, Denis and Horthere of the “Opelousas Guards,” Company F., 8th Louisiana Infantry.

In the five years after the Civil War, the Republican-controlled Louisiana Congress enacted powerful civil rights legislation aimed at securing African Americans their political rights. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, respectively, abolished slavery, recognized African Americans as citizens, and guaranteed African American men the right to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment was particularly significant because it guaranteed African Americans the same rights of citizenship that white Americans had, including equal protection under the law. 

After the Civil War, the Opelousas area planters were economically devastated. Often slaves, while given their freedom in the 14th Amendment, had no place, nor money to leave. They often worked for food and housing, or very poor wages. The Opelousas area had natural disasters with flooding, Yellow Fever outbreaks, Union ‘jayhawkers’ had ravished households and farms of livestock and valuables. This is the social climate that precipitated the Opelousas Massacre of 1868 and many others.

There were numerous massacres throughout the South, as well as in New York City. The Draft Riots of 1863 in which an estimated 200-2,000 African Americans were killed, homes and buildings burned, including an orphanage. The New Orleans Massacre of 1866, occurred when white residents attacked Black marchers near the reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention. The Thibodaux Massacre was a racial attack that was mounted by white paramilitary groups in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887.  Violence and intimidation were widespread and rampant in the Reconstruction era.

The Opelousas Massacre of 1868

Matthew Christensen does a fine job of analyzing the multitude of details in and around the Opelousas Massacre. From his 100-page dissertation entitled “The 1868 St. Landry Massacre: Reconstruction’s Deadliest Episode of Violence,” I have highlighted some of his comments to create an overview. (To read the entire work)

On the surface, a Republican (progressive liberal in today’s terms), educator and editor of a Republican newspaper, Mr. Bentley, was speaking out, and writing articles against the Democratic parties racist policies, and corruption, trying to educate African American children and encouraging the black community to vote.  

A large Yellow Fever outbreak occurred in the late summer of 1867, in the midst of regional crop failures, a destroyed Southern economy, and a contested transition from slave to free labor.  In addition there were natural disasters and flooding.

By 1874, St. Landry became the home of the first Louisiana White League, a Democratic paramilitary organization designed to remove Republican officeholders from their positions. 

As freedmen became more politically informed, their desire for political office also rose, creating conflict between planters and Union Leagues across the South. 

In late 1867, the Opelousas Courier printed an article claiming that “leaders are familiarizing the minds of these negroes with the idea of blood, firearms, confiscation, robbery, and plunder…Their teachings are calculated to make the negroes dissatisfied with honest labor and the white race.” 

Due to his interaction with the black community both as a schoolteacher and as the editor of the parish Republican paper, Bentley quickly became a local Republican leader. 

Bentley also wrote of the intimidation present towards certain speakers, where they were forced to refrain from speaking in fear of their lives. Furthermore, Bentley directly attacked Democratic tactics, declaring that Republicans “do not plot in the dark; we do not assassinate inoffensive citizens or threaten to do so; we do not seek the lives of political opponents; we do not seek to array one class against another; but we intend to defend our just rights at all hazards.” 

Three men, all Seymour Knights, approached Bentley, declared that he had broken the peace treaty with his article depicting the events at Washington on September 13, and demanded a retraction of that article. Outgunned and outmanned, Bentley signed the retraction but the three men, gave him a “severe caning” of around thirty blows, causing the children to flee the schoolhouse. 

The Democratic leaders were able to use this conditioning, as newspaper articles and rhetoric were increasingly targeted towards the possibility of a black insurrection since the passage of the Reconstruction Acts, in order to eliminate the Republican presence in the parish and establish Democratic control. 

This violence not only succeeded in its initial goal of securing a victory for the Democratic Party during the 1868 presidential election, but long term consequences also arose. Louisiana responded to the violence with a series of election laws, one creating the Returning Board on Elections, a potentially corrupt committee that could decide elections in the state by invalidating votes it deemed to be obtained by fraud. 

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Beyond the sheer brutality and horror of murdering innocent people, one of the chilling parts about this event for me today is that key factors associated with the Opelousas Massacre of 1868: the socioeconomic conditions, a pandemic (Yellow Fever), voting concerns (access, polls, counts), and a polarized media with a strong biased agenda are all precisely similar to the conditions that caused the recent attack on the Capital of the United States, January 6, 2021.

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Slavery transformed America into a global economic power. The exploitation of Black people for free labor made the South the richest and most politically powerful region in the country. 

Slavery was a national enterprise, not simply relegated to the South. Many firms on Wall Street such as JPMorgan Chase, New York Life and now-defunct Lehman Brothers made fortunes from investing in the slave trade, the most profitable economic activity in New York’s 350-year history. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one of the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.

In 2020, as our nation struggled with racism, voting issues, unequal distribution of wealth, police violence, and racial profiling—and in some cases overt murder—the “Black Lives Matter” movement swept across the nation, with people from all walks of life and races united in civil protest. Many white people have struggled to understand the expression “Black Lives Matter.” Perhaps reading the following transcripts from former slaves working on my ancestors plantations, in the context of the history I have presented, will bring light to the importance.

Background

In the 1880’s, East Texas had a lumber boom, bringing many African-Americans from the Cotton fields of Louisiana to the sawmills of Beaumont, Texas. Many former slaves from Louisiana entered Texas to find employment. Christophe Landry, PhD, while doing research, found a collection of carefully edited interviews by Federal employees with former slaves interviewed 1936-38. I was horrified to see the family names and realize that some of them are my distant family relatives. For the sake of this article, I have shared the interviews where I know I have a distant family connection. All the interviews can be read here .

The interviews were intended to represent a collective voice of what slavery was like for Americans socio-legally regarded as Negroes during Jim Crow. Landry emphasizes the intentional edits of the interviews to remind the reader that, after all, it was a Federal Writers Project of the National Library of Congress; writers were conducting the interviews, and editing the transcriptions along the way. With that said, it confirms slave ownership of my relatives, and a general idea about the conditions on the plantation. While there are many, I have selected some the interviews from my own distant relatives’ plantations.

Selected Interviews from 1936-1938, in Beaumont and Houston Texas from former Louisiana slaves. 

Agathe RICHARD, Ex-slave of Auguste GUIDRY 

Old Marse was Ogis2 Guidry. Old Miss was Laurentine. Dey had four chillen, Placid3, Alphonse and Mary and Alexandrine, and live in a big, one-story house with a gallery and brick pillars. Dey had a big place. I ‘spect a mile ‘cross it, and fifty slaves. 

Us slaves lived in shabby houses. Dey builded of logs and have dirt floor. We have a four-foot bench. We pull it to a table and set on it. De bed a platform with planks and moss. 

Old Marse bad. He beat us till we bleed. He rub salt and pepper in. One time I sweep de yard. Young miss come home from college. She slap my face. She want to beat me. Mama say to beat her, so dey did. She took de beatin’ for me. 

We have dance outdoors sometime. Somebody play fiddle and banjo. We dance de reel and quadrille and buck dance. De men dance dat. If we go to dance on ‘nother plantation we have to have pass. De patterrollers come and make us show de slip. If dey ain’t no slip, we git beat. 

I see plenty sojers. Dey fight at Pines and we hear ball go ‘zing—zing.’ Young marse have blue coat. He put it on and climb a tree to see. De sojers come and think he a Yankee. Dey take his gun. Dey turn him loose when dey find out he ain’t no Yankee. 

When de real Yankees come dey take corn and gooses and hosses. Dey don’t ask for nothin’. Dey take what dey wants. 

Some masters have chillen by slaves. Some sold dere own chillen. Some sot dem free. 

When freedom come we have to sign up to work for money for a year. We couldn’t go work for nobody else. After de year some stays, but not long. 

De Ku Klux kill niggers. Dey come to take my uncle. He open de door. Dey don’t take him but tell him to vote Democrat next day or dey will. Dey kilt some niggers what wouldn’t vote Democrat. 

Dey kill my old uncle Davis. He won’t vote Democrat. Dey shoot him. Den dey stand him up and let him fall down. Dey tie him by de feet. Dey drag him through de bresh. Dey dare his wife to cry. 

When I thirty I marry Tesisfor Babino6. Pere Abadie7 marry us at Grand Coteau. We have dinner with wine. Den come big dance. We have twelve chillen. We works in de field in Opelousas. We come here twenty-five year ago. He die in 1917. Dey let’s me live here. It nice to be near de church. I can go to prayers when I wants to.” –Agathe RICHARD 

Valmar Cormier, Ex-slave of Duplessin DUGAS  

“I ‘member de day my old marster go to de war. I kin ‘member dat jes’ like yesterday. He used to like to play de fiddle and make me dance when I was li’l, but he went to de war and got kilt. He name Duplissent Dugat. Mary, my sister, she don’t ‘member de old marster. 

De slaves did de work on dat farm. Dey was two growed-ups, my mama, Colaste, and my uncle, and dere was us two chillen. My father was a white man, a white Creole man. I never carry he name till after freedom. 

I seed de sojers and I run under de house, I was so scared. Mary, she hide under de bed in de house. De Yankees come take de cattle and went ‘way with dem. I kin sho’ rec’lect when dose sojers come and de road was full goin’ day and night. 

After while it all over and dey told us we free, but my mama kep’ working for old missus after freedom, ’cause old marster, he kilt in dat war. Den old missus die and left three li’l chillen, but I don’t know what happen to them, ’cause us go to another place and I plow and Mary she he’p pick cotton.” –Valmar Cormier

Victor Duhon, Ex-slave of Jean-Baptiste DUHON 

(Blue Eyes, almost white skin, speaks in French patois)

I didn’t have brothers or sisters, except half ones. It is like this, my mama was a 

house servant in the Duhon family. She was the hairdresser. One day she barbered master’s son, who was Lucien. He says that he’ll shave her head if she won’t do what he likes. After that she his woman till he marries a white lady. 

My grandmama was stolen from Africa and she lived to be 125 years old. She died last year in April. I think I’ll live long as she did. There were fifteen slaves on the land what Duhon’s had but I never ran around with them. I had room at the back of the big house. You know, Madame Duhon was my grandmama. She was good to me. The only thing I did was look to my master’s horse and be coachman for Madame. Master had four sons. They were Ragant and Jaques and Lucien and Desire41. Desire was shot at the dance. 

Master had about 100 acres in cotton and the corn. He had a slave for to hunt all the time. He didn’t do other things. The partridge and the rice birds he killed were cooked for the white folks. The owls and the rabbits and the coons and the possums were cooked for us. They had a big room for us to eat in. Where they cook they had a long oven with a piece down the middle. They cooked the white folks things on one side. They cooked their own things on the other. They had each ones pots and skillets. 

When my mama had 22 years she married a Polite Landry42 slave. Then she went to the Landry plantation (my relatives). There was often marrying between the two plantations. When they married the wife went to her man’s plantation. That made no difference. It wouldn’t be long before a girl from the other place marry into the man’s plantation. That kept things in balance. 

I had 22 years when war came. You know what war I mean. The war when the slaves were set free. I wasn’t bothered about freedom. Didn’t leave master till he died. Then I went to work for Mr. Polite Landry (*Hyppolite Landry). 

I was always in good hands. Some slaves ware treated bad. Mr. Natale Vallean44 beat up a slave for stealing. He beat him so hard he lay in front of the gate a whole day and the night. –Victor Duhon

Orelia Alexie Franks, Ex-slave of Valerien MARTIN 

I ‘s born on Mr. George Washington’s birthday’, the twenty-second of February but I don’t know what year. My old massa was Valerian Martin and he come from foreign country. He come from Canada and he Canada French. He wife name Malite ( Emilie “Melite” GUIDRY)

 Guidry (my relative) . Old massa a good Catholic and he taken all the li’l slave chillen to be christen. Oh, he’s a Christian massa and I used to be a Catholic but now I’s a Apostolic, but I’s christen in St. Johns Catholic Church, what am close to 

Lafayette, where I’s born. 

My pa name Alexis Franks and he was American and Creole. 

My ma name Fanire Martin and I’s raise where everybody talk French. I talks American47 but I talks French goodest. 

Old massa he big cane and cotton farmer and have big plantation and raise everything, and us all well treat. Dey feed us right, too. Raise big hawg in de pen and raise lots of beef. All jes’ for to feed he cullud folks. 

Us quarters out behind de big house and old massa come round through de quarters every mornin’ and see how us niggers is. If us sick he call nuss. She old slavery woman. She come look at ’em. If dey bad sick dey send for de doctor. Us house all log house. Dey all dab with dirt ‘tween de logs. Dey have dirt chimney make out of sticks and dab with mud. Dey [Transcriber’s Note: unfinished sentence at end of page] Lots of time we eat coosh-coosh. Dat make out of meal and water. You bile de water and salt it, den put in de cornmeal and stir it and bile it. Den you puts milk or clabber or syrup on it and eat it. 

Old massa have de graveyard a purpose to bury de cullud folks in. Dey have cullud preacher. Dey have funeral in de graveyard. Dat nigger preacher he a Mef’dist48. 

Old massa son-in-law, he overseer. He ‘low nobody to beat de slaves. Us li’l ones git spank when we bad. Dey put us ‘cross de knee and spank us where dey allus spank chillen. 

Christmas time dey give big dinner. Dey give all de old men whiskey. Everybody have big time. 

Dey make lots of sugar. After dey finish cookin’ de sugar dey draw off what left from de pots and give it to us chillen. Us have candy pullin’. 

Dey weave dey own cloth. Us have good clothes. Dey weave de cloth for make mattress and stuff ’em with moss. Massa sho’ believe to serve he niggers good. I see old massa when he die. Us see old folks cry and us cry, too. Dey have de priest and burn de candles. Us sho’ miss old massa. 

I see lots of sojers. Dey so many like hair on your head. Dey Yankees. Dey call ’em bluejackets. Dey a fight up near massa’s house. Us climb in tree for to see. Us hear bullets go ‘zoom’ through de air ’round dat tree but us didn’t know it was bullets. A man rid up on a hoss and tell massa to git us pickaninnies out dat tree or dey git kilt. De Yankees have dat battle and den sot us niggers free. 

Old massa, he de kind man what let de niggers have dey prayer-meetin’. He give ’em a big cabin for dat. Shout? Yes, Lawd! Sing like dis: 

Mourner, fare you well, 

Gawd ‘Mighty bless you, 

Till we meets again. 

“Us sings ‘nother song: 

Sinner blind,
Johnnie, can’t you ride no more? Sinner blind.
Your feets may be slippin’
Your soul git lost.
Johnnie, can’t you ride no more? Yes, Lawd,
Day by day you can’t see, Johnnie, can’t you ride no more? Yes, Lawd.

Orelia Alexie Franks 

Gabriel Gilbert, Ex-slave of Edouard Belisaire BROUSSARD

My old massa was Belizare49 Broussard. He was my mom’s massa. He had a big log house what he live in. De places ‘tween de logs was fill with dirt. De quarters de slaves live in was make out of dirt. Dey put up posties in de ground and bore holes in de posts and put in pickets ‘cross from one post to the other. Den dey build up de sides with mud. De floor and everything was dirt. Dey had a schoolhouse built for de white chillen de same way. De cullud chillen didn’t have no school. 

I didn’t know what a store was when I was growin’ up. Us didn’t have store things like now. Us had wooden pan and spoon dem times. I never see no iron plow dem days. Nothin’ was iron on de plow ‘cept de share. I tell dese youngsters, ‘You in hebben now from de time I come up.’ When a man die dem days, dey use de ox cart to carry de corpse. 

Massa have ’bout four hundred acres and lots of slaves. He raise sugar cane. He have a mill and make brown sugar. He raise cotton and corn, too. He have plenty stock on de place. He give us plenty to eat. He was a nice man. He wasn’t brutish. He treat he slaves like hisself. I never ‘member see him whip nobody. He didn’t ‘low no ill treatment. All de folks round he place say he niggers ruint and spoiled. 

De li’l white folks and nigger folks jus’ play round like brudder and sister and us all eat at de white table. I slep’ in de white folks house, too. My godfather and godmother was rich white folks. I still Cath’lic. 

I seed sojers but I too li’l to know nothin’ ’bout dem. Dey didn’t worry me a-tall. I didn’t git close to de battle. 

My mammy weave cloth out cotton and wool. I ‘member de loom. It go ‘boom-boom-boom.’ Dat de shuttle goin’ cross. My daddy, he de smart man. I’ll never be like him long as I live in dis world. He make shoes. He build house. He do anything. He and my mammy neither one ever been brutalize’. 

Goin’ back when I a slave, massa have a store. When de priest come dey hold church in dat store. Old massa have sev’ral boys. Dey went after some de slave gals. Dey have chillen by dem. Dem gals have dere cabins and dere chillen, what am half white. 

After while dem boys marry. But dey allus treat dey chillen by de slave womens good. Dey white wife treat dem good, too, most like dey dere own chillen. 

I’s seed ghosties. I talk with dem, too. Sometimes dey like people. Sometimes dey like animal, maybe white dog. I allus feel chilly when dey come round me. I talk with my wife after she dead. She tell me, ‘Don’t you forgit to pray.’ She say dis world corrupt and you got to fight it out.” Gabriel Gilbert 

La San Mire, Ex-slave of Prosper BROUSSARD

I was ten years old at the beginning of the war. I was born the 13th of May, but I do not know of what year, in the Parish of Abbeville, on M’sieu Prosper’s plantation between Abbeville and Crowley51. My parents were slaves. My father a Spaniard, who spoke Spanish and French. My mother spoke French, the old master too, all Creoles. I, as all the other slaves, spoke French.

During the war all the children had fear. I drove an old ox-cart in which I helped pick up the dead soldiers and buried them. A battle took place about 40 miles from the plantation on a bluff near a large ditch–not near the bayou, no. We were freed on July 4th. After the war I remained with my old master. I worked in the house, cooked in the kitchen. Early each morning, I made coffee and served it to my master and his family while they were in the bed. 

The old master was mean–made slaves lie on the ground and whipped them. I never saw him whip my father. He often whipped my mother. I’d hide to keep from seeing this. I was afraid. Why did he whip them? I do not remember. He did not have a prison, just ‘coups de fault’ (beatings). But not one slave from our plantation tried to escape to the north that I can remember. 

The slaves lived in little cabins. All alike, but good. One or two beds. Rooms small as a kitchen. Chimneys of dirt. Good floors. We had plenty to eat. Cornbread and grits, beef, ‘chahintes’53 (coons), des rat bois54 (possum), le couche-couche, and Irish and sweet potatoes. 

Everyone raised cotton. In the evenings the slave women and girls seeded the cotton, carded it, made thread of it on the spinning wheel. They made it into cotton for dresses and suits. No shoes or socks. In winter the men might wear them in winter. Never the women or children. 

How many slaves? I do not recall. There were so many the yard was full. They worked from sun-up to sundown, with one hour for dinner. School? I hoed cotton and drove the oxen to plow the field. 

I never went to Mass before I was twenty years old. Yes, there were churches and the others went, but I did not want to go. There were benches especially for the slaves. Yes, I was baptized a Catholic in Abbeville, when I was big. 

Sunday the Negro slaves had round dances. Formed a circle–the boys and the girls–and changed partners. They sang and danced at the same time. Rarely on Saturday they had the dances. They sang and whistled in the fields. 

The marriages of the slaves were little affairs. Before the witnesses they’d ‘sauter le balais’–the two– and they were married. No celebration, but always the little cakes. 

We had no doctor. We used ‘vingaire’ (an herb) for the fever; la ‘chaspare’ (sarsaparilla); la ‘pedecha (an herb), sometimes called L’absinthe amer, in a drink of whiskey or gin, for the fever. Des regulateurs (patent medicines). On nearly all plantations there were ‘traiteurs’, (a charm-doctor, always a Negro). 

Noel we had the little cakes and special things to eat, but no presents.  La San Mire

Amos Lincoln , Ex-slave of Ulger GUIDRY

My grandpa come from Africy. I never see my other people ’cause dey ‘longs to other masters. My grandpa die when he 115 year old. Elisha Guidry he my master in slavery. He had lots of slaves. He whip my pa lots of times. He was unwillin’ to work. He whip my ma, too. One time he cut her with the whip and cut one her big toes right off. Ma come up on the gallery and wrap it up in a piece of rag. 

Us have a dirt house. The chimney made with mud. It’s a good house. It hot in summer. The beds made with moss and shucks and the big old ticks made at the big house. Us didn’t have no chairs. Jes’ benches. In the room’s a big trough. Us sit ’round the trough and eat clabber and bread with big, wood spoon. I eat many a meal that way myself. 

Us have good food most time. Steel and log traps fo’ big game. Pit traps in the woods ’bout so long and so deep, and kivered with bresh and leaves. That cotch possum and coon and other things what come ‘long in the night. Us lace willow twigs and strings and put a cross piece on top and bottom, and little piece of wood on top edge. The trap ’bout two feet off the ground to cotch the birds. Doves, blackbirds, any kind birds you can eat. Us clean them li’l birds good and rub ’em down in lard. After they set awhile us broil ’em with plenty black pepper and salt. Us shoot plenty ducks with musket, too. 

Greens was good, too. Us eat parsley greens and shuglar weed. That big, two foot plant what have red flower on it. Us git lots of ’em in Wade’s Bayou. Us put li’l bit flour in ashes and make ashcake. Us cook pumpkin in ashes, too. 

After slavery I hoe cotton. No money at first, jes’ work on halves. The trouble that there no equal halves. The white folks pay jes’ like they wants. A man couldn’t work that way no time. I had to come over to Texas ’cause a man what want my land say I stoled a barrel from he house. He try arres’ my old woman ’cause she say she find the barrel. Now, I never have the case in lawsuit and I ‘spect to die that way. But I has to stay ‘way from Mauriceville for three year ’cause that man say I thiefed he barrel. Amos Lincoln

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My old missus promise me Shoo a la a day,
When she die she set me free Shoo a la a day. 

She live so long her head git bald, Shoo a la a day.
She give up de idea of dyin’ a-tall Shoo a la a day. 

-Old slave song  

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Historical Sidebar

Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World and only 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. 

Since the 1880s, U.S. legislation has resulted in Native Americans losing ownership and control of 90 million acres, and a total of 1.5 billion acres in total since European arrival. It is roughly estimated that about 12 million Indigenous people died in what is today the United States between 1492 and 1900.

What I’ve shared in this article about my family, Native Americans, and African Americans is by no means scholarly, or sufficient. My intention is to illuminate the sad and horrible discoveries based from my family genealogy research that has given me an overwhelming need to speak out, and to apologize for the sins of my ancestor’s.  My efforts in writing this do not begin to tell the exhaustive and painful story of slavery in our country, nor the atrocities that the Native American people endured, and the continued abuses.

_______________________________________________________________________

In 2007, the Virginia General Assembly approved a formal statement of “profound regret” for the Commonwealth’s history of slavery.

In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives made a formal apology for 246 years of institutional slavery and the subsequent discrimination of the Jim Crow laws. While the apology was primarily symbolic, by officially recognizing its role in perpetuating the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, the American government took a step forward in addressing and atoning for one of its greatest wrongs.

On December 19, 2012, Mark Charles, representing the Navajo Nation, hosted a public reading of the Apology to Native Peoples of the United States in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“This apology was buried in H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act,” wrote Charles on his Reflections from the Hogan blog. “It was signed by President Obama on Dec. 19, 2009, but was never announced, publicized or read publicly by either the White House or the 111th Congress.”

“Given the context, the appropriations sections of H.R. 3326 sounded almost nonsensical,” wrote Charles. “We were not pointing fingers, nor were we calling out our leaders by name, we were just highlighting the inappropriateness of the context and delivery of their apology.”

August 5, 2021, I feel deep sense of personal pain and sadness for the sins of my ancestors. I would like with the utmost humility and sincerity to offer my personal apology to the Native Americans and African Americans who were in any way abused, harmed, enslaved, murdered, poorly or unfairly treated by any member of my ancestral family. 

History illuminates the story of the past, but every day we have a choice of how we live, how we treat others, and our ideas shape the world. Let’s teach the past honestly, openly, and make every effort to build a nation of proud, loving, problem-solvers prepared to resolve the problems we face with imagination, dignity, and grace.

Recently in Texas politics:

According to a local news agency’s website: Senate Bill 3’s text, Greg Abbot would remove the requirement to teach things like slavery and the ways it is morally wrong, women’s suffrage and equal rights, the emancipation proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. During the regular session, lawmakers passed a House bill on critical race theory, which included several amendments that required a diverse group of literature on race to be taught. Gov. Greg Abbott signed that bill into law. This session, the governor wants lawmakers to change it back to the original bill, which is why it’s back on the call. 

I’d like to remind the governor how beautifully relevant the “I Have a Dream Speech” is today.

Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. in Washington D.C. in 1963 giving his speech, “I have a Dream.”

Excerpt from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 1963:

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. 

Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow.

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character.

I have a dream today.”

Special Thanks: Ancestry.com, 64 parishes.org, Gary Lavergne, The Cajuns.com, atlantablackstar.com, Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library (National Geographic Books, 2003), The Historical Collections of the Georgia Chapters, Daughters of the American Revolution, Volume III, Records of Elbert County Georgia, Lucy Cook Peel, Memorial Committee, 1929, Wikipedia, Constitutional Rights Foundation, Whitney Plantation, Louisiana Genealogy Trails, Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, “Free People of Color”: LSU Libraries. Slave Narratives of Louisianians living in Texas 1936-38, Compiled and prepared by Christophe Landry, Bunk History.org (Robert Lee). Zinn Education Project. Judith Lindsley, Stephen F. Austin State University. Thought Co.com, “U.S. Apology to Native Americans” by Robert Longley.

August 5, 2021
by Lane Rockford Orsak

Art

Acoma Pottery | a love story | coiled with a bittersweet past.