Louisiana Rising, Ltd. News
Diane R. Irvin & Dr. Willem O’Reilly September 27, 2019
Co-Editors No. 1
You may know that Louisiana Rising, Ltd. was created to support the idea of reparations for descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were owned and sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838.
Known as the GU272, they built Georgetown University, which was managed by the Jesuits, who then sold them to Louisiana sugar cane plantations. Proceeds of the sale saved the university from closing.
Discussions as to what reparations might look like are underway by some of the descendants, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and Georgetown University. This is a summary of the needs assessment and research we conducted in Louisiana to learn how we might support the descendants in obtaining reparations. We went with a learning attitude, not expecting segregation to the degree we experienced it. The legacy of slavery is systemic racism. Justification for reparations is undeniable and overdue.
Background and Cost in the Case for Reparations
The wealthiest economy in world history was based totally on enslaved labor. The transaction for the GU272 was the largest sale of enslaved people in our American history, and the best documented. The case for reparations to their descendants is strengthened by knowing that the total sale price of $115,000 would be worth $3.3 million today, at no interest. This valid evidence supporting reparations does not calculate generations of lost wages, redlining that limited their housing options, government benefits for “all Americans” – except blacks – and other effects of discrimination.
More than 4,000 living descendants have been discovered from the 89 enslaved individuals who survived the tortuous Louisiana sugar cane plantations, as recorded in the 1870 census. See gu272.americanancestors.org.
Needs Assessment and Research —Ten Days in Louisiana, Summer 2019
Wednesday, June 26 – The Savvy Native Walking Tours, New Orleans
Guide Jonn Hankins shared the history of Congo Square and Treme, America’s oldest African American neighborhood – with passion.
In the 1800’s, New Orleans had the nation’s highest percentage of free blacks, many of whom arrived from Haiti after the only successful slave revolt in history in 1804. In Treme, they prospered as artisans and professionals. With the permission of the Vatican, they built St. Augustine Catholic Church, the first African American Catholic church in the United States. In the colony under France and Spain, enslaved blacks were not required to work on Sundays. In their market in Congo Square they bought and sold goods to raise money to buy their freedom. Here, they were permitted to sing, dance and preserve their native rhythms that evolved into jazz.
The international slave trade ended in 1808, and intra-national trading began. Enslaved people in chains were “sold down the river” and marched from Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas to New Orleans, with over fifty slave markets. Numerous slave pens confined the slaves that were to be sold. They were washed, dressed, and prepared like merchandise.
Being sold to Louisiana sugar cane plantations to labor 18 hours a day in intense sun, cutting 6-foot cane with long, razor sharp leaves, was a death sentence. Life span in these fields was five to seven years. Even today, many of the GU272 descendants remain in the River Parishes, known locally as Cancer Alley, because of the health problems in the area where the petrochemical industry dominates.
Thursday, June 27 – Nedra and Rick Alcorn at Backatown Coffee Parlour
Rick teaches ninth grade algebra and math. He has also taught technical skills and entrepreneurship through the Workforce Development Center, and the Minority Business Development Center. Nedra, former Director of Student Affairs at the Jesuit Xavier University, has worked in grant writing, service learning and community organization, professional development and diversity training. We discussed a need for an expanded directory of black-owned businesses, and growth of the black economy. We learned how we might work with them – especially in offering educational opportunities.
GU272 Descendants at Dooky Chase
Dooky Chase is the place in the black community where political discussions become decisions, based on handshakes. More than a fine restaurant, it is a social center. This was our first meeting after several calls with descendants, and our candid conversation taught us a lot. The GU272 Descendant Association’s purpose is to find Descendants. A separate group of descendants is meeting with the Maryland Jesuits and Georgetown University administration about reparations. Not all descendants advocate for reparations, but some form of reparations will likely be provided.
We discussed potential projects that Louisiana Rising might undertake to contribute to quality of life for descendants, and there are many. With this being a needs assessment, networking, and learning opportunity for us, we will discuss our projects with them, once we define them, after this trip.
Friday, June 28 – Liberty Bank & Trust Headquarters, Alden McDonald, Founder and CEO
Mr. McDonald, a gentleman and a scholar, founded the largest black-owned bank in the nation in 1972. Currently, Liberty has locations in seven states, with assets of $600 million. We greatly appreciate his generosity in talking with us for almost two hours.
We got to know him personally and professionally, along with his SVP Ann Duplessis, who was most helpful. We discussed racial and economic justice and his support of artists, as evidenced by his vast and impressive paintings, sculptures, and historic photographs. We discussed business perspectives, and he told us how he decides to whom he’ll lend money. “Black folks don’t have financial statements,” he said. he makes loans based on character. McDonald is an advocate for Historic Black Colleges and Universities, and he is out to change the world! He is a wealth of knowledge and boundless energy. He gave us several good contacts to expand our needs assessment. Consistent with our plan to patronize black-owned businesses when possible, we opened our Louisiana Rising bank account there.
About 50 minutes from Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville is on the west bank of the Mississippi and has Historic Designation on the National Registry of Historic Places. The 2000 census shows the town with a population of 7,436 that has been predominantly African American for 200 years. The main employer is the petrochemical industry, whose huge pipelines cross the highways en route to the Mississippi.
River Road Museum of African American History (africanamericanmuseum.org.)
On the African American Heritage Trail, the museum celebrates its 25th Anniversary on Oct 6, 2019. It was formerly a modest home, and is a labor of love. (History lovers: donations are greatly appreciated.) Museum Ambassador Miss Melanie Victorian guided us through historic accounts of enslavement and courageous escapees who hid in the bayous and were rescued by Native Americans.
French influence remains in the local language, geography, population, and agrarian economy. In 1803, Donaldsonville was part of the Louisiana Purchase from the French. That added sugarcane plantations, worked by French-owned African slaves, as part of the free labor system that built our nation’s economy – from which we all benefit today.
In 1838, Henry L. Johnson bought the GU272 enslaved who were delivered to Chatham Plantation, just up the River Road, which is bordered by dozens of plantations along the Mississippi River. Johnson was an attorney who later became governor of Louisiana. The first black mayor in the country was elected in Donaldsonville in 1868. Pierre Caliste Landry was a former slave who became an attorney, and later served in both houses of the state legislature.
Not far from the museum, we found this black-owned café at 206 Railroad Ave. We had delicious catfish with crawfish etouffee, served with the finest Southern hospitality. We highly recommend it.
Whitney Plantation – The German Coast
Habitat Heidel began in 1752 and had 354 enslaved people before 1820. In 1867, it became the Whitney Plantation. It is the only plantation that shows this period of history from an enslaved person’s point of view. There is heart-wrenching history to be learned on the guided tour of this plantation. It is not the lovely antebellum South, and it is not among the plantations on the Louisiana Dept. of Tourism website.
We entered a small wooden church, and throughout the sanctuary were breathtakingly beautiful clay children, realistically posed. The Wall of Honor, listing the enslaved who died at Whitney, seemed endless. Women breeders were 24%; the rest were the bucks or men, and children. Of the children born in St. John the Baptist Parish 33% died annually.
A huge bell in the yard near the slave cabins summoned the enslaved from the fields for role call and dinner. Food was prepared over an open fire in massive saucer-like iron bowls, from which all filled their stomachs.
Saturday, June 29 — Laura Plantation in Vacherie
Built in 1804, the “big house,” its detached kitchen and outbuildings are well appointed. When the first owner died in 1808, there were only 17 slaves. Run by four generations of Creole women with enslaved African labor, Laura Plantation is a Southern showplace. When the first woman recognized the potential for developing the plantation, with sufficient labor, she went to the New Orleans slave markets and bought thirty young women breeders to grow her labor force. Slave quarters were remote from the “big house,” and had two families per cabin, plus a chicken coop.
After Emancipation in 1863, slave owners were compensated for their lost property, i.e., slaves. The enslaved were not compensated for their labor; they were illiterate, and earned shelter and food by staying on the plantation and sharecropping. In 1877, when plantations were required to pay them, they earned plantation tokens, which could only be spent at the plantation store. Legally free, they were economically enslaved. From the 1880’s into the 1900’s, they were paid partly in free rent and in US currency. Running water was installed in the 1920’s, and in 1975, the last descendant of the enslaved people left the cabin where generations of his ancestors had lived. By 1977, sugar cane harvesting by people was replaced by machines.
Sunday, June 30 — The Innocence Project – New Orleans
The IP-NO, regional office provides legal representation for the wrongly imprisoned in Louisiana and Mississippi. Most were counseled to plea bargain, fearing that in a trial, they might receive the maximum sentence. Those who opt for a trial can be held as long as three years awaiting legal representation. Many are on death row.
The IP-NO has had 35 Louisiana prisoners exonerated and released, and they have been primarily people of color. Although exonerated, they are virtually unemployable, not eligible for Food Stamps or public housing, and have difficulty qualifying for housing. How many of these vulnerable people, we wondered, might be unidentified GU272 descendants who, coming from isolation, could learn their family history, and belong to a larger pool of supportive people? We will research opportunities here for Louisiana Rising.
Monday, July 1 – Maringouin, Louisiana
Just 28 miles west of Baton Rouge, this town has some 1100 residents, including about 900 GU272 descendants who were sold to what was the West Oak Plantation nearby. At the Town Hall, at our request, an alderwoman gladly took us to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church cemetery. A walkway through the middle divides the gravestones of whites and blacks, some of whom were the original GU272 enslaved people..
Rochell Prater, also a descendant, drove from Cincinnati to Maringouin to show us her hometown. Still standing is the first school for African Americans in Maringouin, with nine classrooms, built in the late 1800’s, and now used by the West Oak Benevolent Society Association.
We went to the home of Rochell’s brother, Ray Sanders, where, after two hours and lots of pizza from Jr. Food Market (the one place to buy prepared food), we knew each other well. After graduating from the black high school in the 1960’s, Ray moved to California and got a union job. He retired and built his home with a generator in case of hurricanes, plus a fully equipped party room. Rochell’s niece, Rubea Handy, joined us. Maringouin closed its high school in the 1970s rather than integrate, so Rubea takes a bus to high school in Baton Rouge, and works at Southern University. The Sanders family, with nine children, have made their own opportunities through hard work, education, and savings.
Here’s what they said reparations might look like to them: education, help for seniors to pay for prescriptions, Wi-Fi, and housing. Some people don’t have electricity or toilets, and there are lots of needs for new businesses. They are community-focused people, not individuals expecting handouts. They want racial equity in the form of the 21st century basics that white Americans take for granted.
We stayed in an AirBnB managed by a graduate of Grambling University. She leased the condo for extra income and has the do-what-you-can attitude that we have often seen in Southern black culture.
The West Baton Rouge Museum is funded by the sugar industry. Cane, with its razor-sharp leaves, was harvested for generations by African Americans until cutting machines replaced them in 1977. Mexican migrants who earn less than local blacks, now bury the stalks to sprout the next cane crop. I asked, “What do local blacks do for work since they’ve been replaced?” Our guide had no idea.
Eliminating work they subsisted on for generations, and closing schools rather than integrate, has purposely kept Southern blacks poor. Dependent on the economic system whites created, their captive labor built Louisiana’s three billion dollar sugar industry for the cost of cheap food, clothing, and substandard shelter.
The museum grounds include two-room slave cabins, with wide porches for sleeping. Built by enslaved people for their families, their descendants occupied them for generations as sharecroppers, who were economically enslaved from 1863 until the last resident descendant died in 1975. In the cabins were recorded interviews of the last former slaves. Their language was akin to English, learned by hearing their masters speak. Slaves were severely punished, even hung, for learning to read or write.
Wednesday to Friday July 3-5: Return to New Orleans
In our Treme hotel, we asked a clerk to recommend a place to hear jazz. The hotel owner advised the clerk to send us to the French Quarter. The clerk said we had asked for a black-owned bar, and the owner told us, sweetly, “We want you to have the right sort of experience” – out of Treme to the white French Quarter.
At Snug Harbor, the locally grown, nationally known Uptown Jazz Orchestra, led by Delfeayo Marsalis, played to a diverse crowd, linked by a love of musical artistry found only in New Orleans.
We did go to the Quarter to the iconic Antoine’s, established 1840. It boasts French Creole cuisine, and exemplifies the socioeconomic and racial divide in NOLA. After dinner, our gracious waiter took us through much of the block-long, three-story building, with secluded dining areas everywhere. It details historic Old Money and social status that is the indestructible mesh of New Orleans in framed pictures of business clubs over the last century, and I noted, “They’re all white.” He nodded, “… and all very, very rich.” Also gracing the walls are the U.S. Presidents who have dined there. I commented, “I don’t see President Obama.” Our guide replied, “No, Obama did not dine here.”
On the 4th of July in Treme, on Frenchmen Street, the clubs were jamming. A group of musicians belted out New Orleans brass for a crowd of natives and no-fear tourists, who literally filled the streets. Only in New Orleans!!!
On our last night in New Orleans, we were looking for fun and food. We found both at Morrow’s, one of the most successful new black-owned restaurants in NOLA. It was crowded with happy diners, and, of course, the food was wonderful. The positive, upbeat energy of the Essence Music Festival brought visitors from all over the country: we shared stories with people from North Carolina and California – a marvelous ending for a trip with a lot of learning and fun!