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A lesson about peonage

Mae Louise Miller laughed when asked about her first car ride. The 65-year-old’s laughter resonated with a tinge of surprise because she couldn’t remember.

Not that she should, given the many other problems she has faced in her lifetime. Miller and her family weren’t slaves in the traditional sense, but they also didn’t take advantage of their freedom.

Or, as Miller put it, they couldn’t take advantage.

“Somebody called me and said, ‘Girl, they having something about picking the cotton and stuff, so you need to come down here,’” Miller said of a town hall meeting held in Amite City, La., in 2000. “So I just thought it was something about picking cotton. Then when I got out there and told my story, that’s when I knew we had been slaves. Those were the conditions we were in, and we couldn’t go nowhere.”

Miller resided in Amite County, Miss., for the majority of her young life. She says she and her family — both parents and six other siblings — were subject to labor and beatings from white landowners in a system called peonage. The system differs from sharecropping because people subject to peonage are not paid and are forced to exchange work for their debts.

This went on until 1962, when the family uprooted and got away from harsh treatment and year-round harvesting of crops, most notably cotton.

But it took Miller almost 40 years to realize that not everyone grew up the same way she did.

Genealogist Antoinette Harrell organized that meeting in eastern Louisiana after researching the plight of people like Miller.

Harrell said her research unveiled similar situations in 27 counties in Mississippi and 16 other states, as far north as New Jersey. Timber and trucking companies, for example, bailed people out after judges jailed them on phony charges. Those newly freed people then owed the companies that were responsible for getting them out of jail.

“It is financial; it is poverty. It is people that just got off plantations in the ‘70s, the ‘80s,” Harrell said. “Former sharecroppers passed down the poverty on plantations owned by ‘the boss man,’ as people in Mississippi referred to them, the plantation owners. We’re talking about deep rural areas in the countryside — one way in and one way out.”

But an apparent level of parity added to Miller’s ignorance about a civil rights movement going on as she and her family members were forced to sleep outside and kill their own food.

Black people made up the majority of laborers in peonage, but they were not alone.

“There were white people living in the same condition we were in,” Miller said. “They were getting beat like we were getting beat.”

Her father beat his children in hopes it would prepare them, maybe even shield them from their white bosses. It did not.

But Miller still called her father, Cain Wall, the family’s “legend and hero.” It was Wall that provided his body as a human pillow so his family didn’t have to sleep with their faces on the ground.

“For us he was like Jesus Christ,” Miller said. “Really, we didn’t know about Jesus Christ. We knowed about daddy. I felt like we was blessed through him. He had to know Jesus Christ to take all this stuff.”