More than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the status of over 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the South, there were Black people in the Deep South who had no idea they were free. These people were forced to work, violently tortured, and raped.
This was revealed by historian and genealogist Antoinette Harrell who unearthed shocking stories of slaves in Southern states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Florida over hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
My mother always talked to me about our family history and the family members who had passed on. She only knew so many stories, so oftentimes she would tell the same ones over and over again. Each time she repeated a story, I felt like she was trying to give me a message. It was like she was trying to tell me that if I wanted to know more about who we were, I would have to dig deeper.
We knew our family had once been slaves in Louisiana. In 1994, I started to look into historical records and public records. I found my ancestors in the 1853 inventory belonging to Benjamin and Celia Bankston Richardson. Written down alongside other personal belongings that included spoons, forks, hogs, cows, and a sofa were my great great grandparents, Thomas and Carrie Richardson.
Carrie and her child Thomas had been appraised at $1,100. Seeing my ancestor’s perceived value written on a piece of paper changed me. It also set forth the direction of my life. It was terribly painful, but I needed to know more. What did they do after Emancipation in 1863? Where did they go? I tracked down Freedmen contracts of the Harrell side of my family that proved that they were sharecroppers. Word started spreading around New Orleans about how I was using genealogy to connect the dots of a lost history. Soon enough people started requesting that I come and speak about how I was uncovering my family’s story so they could do the same for themselves. It became a chance to find out who we were and where we came from as descendants of enslaved people. This was a chance to learn a history we were never taught in school.
One of the 20th-century Enslaved African was Mae Louise Walls Miller and she didn’t get her freedom until 1963. Her father, Cain Wall, lost his land by signing a contract he couldn’t read that enslaved his entire family.
They were not permitted to leave the land and the owners subjected them to beatings and rape. Mae and her mother were most times raped simultaneously alongside each other by white men when they go to the main house to work.
According to Harrell’s narration, Mae and her family did not know what was happening outside the land as they had no TV. Her father tried to flee the property, but was caught by other landowners who returned him to the farm where he was brutally beaten in front of his family.
When Harrell met Mae, her father was alive and he was 107 years old with a sharp memory. He beat Mae when she was 14 for attempting to flee the farm, an action whose consequence was beating of the entire family.
Mae, covered in blood, still run into the woods in the evening and hid in the bushes where a white family took her in and rescued the rest of her family later that night.
Harrell said the family suffered from PTSD as a result of their experiences. Mae died in 2014.
“I told you my story because I have no fear in my heart. What can any living person do to me? There is nothing that can be done to me that hasn’t already been done,” Mae told Harrell when they visited the property she and her family were held.
Antoinette Harrell believes “there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.”
You can read the full collected interviews with Harrell at Vice. The article also contains a short documentary that follows Harrell as she conducts her research, and includes interviews with people who were enslaved through peonage.