Thank you Dustin Pickering and Mutiu Olawuyi for listening. Hence caring. We need more like you in this world of ours.
by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman Dec. 5, 2020
As an internationally recognized/touring blues musician/composer/educator/historian I can assure you that blues historians, blues aficionados, and blues music fans around the world are aware of the great importance that Paramount Records and Grafton, WI holds in the history of blues music recording and the influence on US music and world cultures.
Sadly, that information was lost to the people of Wisconsin, and especially in the immediate Grafton area for over 75 years, until Grafton resident musician/educator Angie Reilly started digging into the Paramount history in hopes of elevating the awareness of Grafton and Wisconsin area residents.
Angie Reilly and I initially connected via an online blues related forum back about 16/17 years ago. She informed me of her very proactive efforts in raising awareness in Grafton and WI, in general, of the importance of Paramount Records. The history, influence and ONGOING impact and legacy of Paramount Records was lost to the people of the Grafton area.
Ms. Reilly is very much responsible for the raising of the awareness of the people of the Grafton area regarding the world renown influence and legacy of Paramount Records, as well as her initiating and influencing the Village of Grafton administration/city council in the creation of the Paramount Walk of Fame that is the now centerpiece of downtown Grafton.
In her efforts to raise awareness of the ‘city fathers’ and the citizens, young and old, regarding Paramount’s worldwide fame amongst blues music fans she arranged to bring me to Grafton to meet with the city council and inform them, as an ‘outsider’, of the important culturally legacy and esteem that Grafton’s Paramount Records is held by the international blues community.
At that time, Ms. Reilly also arranged for me to present blues music and Grafton/Paramount history presentations/programs to in the schools to ALL of the public school students in Grafton. I was happy to oblige her request to come to Grafton and help her with her most worthwhile efforts in honoring Paramount Records, Grafton, and the many iconic blues musicians who recorded in Grafton.
The positive and enduring results of her/our efforts are quite obvious: Grafton honors its Paramount blues music legacy with a permanent Paramount Walk of Fame as the featured aspect of the Grafton City Center, and an annual blues music, The Paramount Blues Festival, festival grew out of the ‘rediscovered’ legacy of Paramount Records in Grafton, WI.
You will find my personal article documenting our efforts to raise the citizens of the Grafton area’s awareness about the important and eternal legacy of Paramount Records in Grafton … as well as a link to my article documenting our mutual work in bringing the Paramount Walk of Fame into reality:
“Embracing The Legacy Of The Blues / From the South To The North – Part 2. Grafton, WI and Paramount Records”By Michael “Hawkeye” Herman
http://www.hawkeyeherman.com/pdf/14_EmbracingTheLegacy_Pt.2.pdf to raise the citizens of the Grafton area’s awareness about the important and eternal legacy of Paramount Records in Grafton.
Photo Slide Show Images Provided by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman’s Large Collection of Photos
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Chasin’ Dem Blues Examines Forgotten History
by Livia Peterson, Cream City Arts (January 17, 2020)
Grafton City Blues initially premiered at the Rep in 2008. Musician Angela M. Reilly collaborated with the playwright Kevin Ramsey. “Kevin reached out to me as he was doing research for the musical,” she says. “He had found out about the record label around the time that PBS History Detectives aired a nationally televised segment about the rare record label based out of southeastern Wisconsin.”
Embracing The Legacy Of The Blues / From the South To The North by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman Part 2. Grafton, WI and Paramount Records
Embracing The Legacy Of The Blues / From the South To The North
By Michael “Hawkeye” Herman
Part 2. Grafton, WI and Paramount Records
originally published in the international BLUES FESTIVAL GUIDE 2006
also published at http://www.hawkeyeherman.com/articles.htm
History, dreams, meaningful coincidences, timing, synchronicity, networking, and the blues, can come together to transform a community.
Grafton, Wisconsin is a town of 11,000 inhabitants approximately 25 north of Milwaukee on US 43. In recent years, the town has struggled with its identity in the shadow of nearby communities that had achieved status, economic growth, and recognition as tourist destinations as a result of capitalizing on their local history. Port Washington, a few miles to the northeast, has a long, colorful history as a Great Lakes port and has a restored downtown nestled against a lovely harbor. Cedarburg, just a few miles to the southeast, draws throngs of weekend tourists who walk the main street spending their dollars in shops, restaurants, and galleries that are housed in carefully maintained 19th Century Americana buildings. Grafton has long been considered an anonymous working class town that you have to drive through in order to get to and from Port Washington and Cedarburg. How could Grafton, with seemingly little local history to promote beyond the legacy of the lime kilns in Grafton’s Lime Kiln Park, find its identity, capitalize on it, and step out into the sunlight with its own sense of civic pride?
Angela Mack is a musician/music teacher who moved with her family to Grafton from Madison, WI in 1996. She has a passion for African American culture, music history, and a desire to bring arts to her new home community. A few years ago, she received a letter from a record collector. The letter had been sent to many Grafton residents. It was from a record collector who was in the area looking for old Paramount 78 rpm records. This was the first time she had heard about the Paramount Records that were produced and recorded in Grafton. She didn’t believe it, thought it was a chain letter, and threw it away. Later, she was researching Grafton history on the Internet, and sure enough, it was true. There had been a very important and influential record production plant, Paramount Records, in Grafton.
Angela became obsessed with knowing more about the history and importance of Paramount. The more she learned, the more confused she got. “Why wasn’t this a big deal in Grafton?” She became intrigued with finding out the history of Paramount Records. Embracing The Legacy Of The Blues / From the South To The North Angela found that Grafton was more than just a footnote in America’s musical history. In the early 20th Century The Wisconsin Chair Company in nearby Port Washington manufactured furniture. The manufacturing of wooden furniture led the company into the production of wood cabinets for record players. The production of the record cabinets led them to produce Paramount Records in cooperation with New York Recording Laboratories (NYRL). Under the Paramount label, they released a continuous flow of jazz, gospel, and outstanding blues recordings. The blues recordings were marketed under the Paramount 12000/13000 “race” series. Between 1929 and 1932, NYRL operated a recording studio in Grafton. The host of seminal blues artists whose music was released on the Paramount label includes Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Willie Brown, Louise Johnson, King Solomon Hill, The Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Henry Townsend, and many others. Paramount released twenty-five percent of the blues recordings that were marketed during this era, and dominated the blues marketplace. Due to the stock market crash and failing economy during the Great Depression, Paramount began to decline. They ceased recording studio activities in mid 1932, although they were able to ship records until late 1933. Paramount then went out of business.
Now Angela understood why she had received a mass-mailed letter from a record collector seeking old Paramount 78s. Vintage blues enthusiasts and collectors get very excited at the prospect of acquiring old Paramount recordings. Those old 78s are the most sought after of blues recordings. They can be sold at auction for large sums of money. Finding a previously thought to be ‘lost’ Paramount record is a milestone in the life of a record collector, as well as a milestone in the documentation of American music history. In the words of Paramount Records historian, Alex van der Tuuk, “The importance of the record company and its studio cannot be underestimated. Charley Patton is considered King of the Delta Blues, partially based on his recorded output recorded in Grafton.”
The flames of Angela’s passion for African American culture, music, and history were fanned and the Grafton link to Paramount was just the catalyst that was needed to put her interests into action. She spent time at the old Paramount factory location watching the Milwaukee River tumble over the rocks, musing over the last few brick remains of the foundation of the building, and re-read the small roadside sign that marked the historic site. Later, the idea that there should be a blues festival in Grafton at Lime Kiln Park to honor the legacy of Grafton and the blues came to her in a dream.
She took her idea for a blues festival to the Village officials. Village President, Jim Brunnquell, says, “It took several more communications from Angela before I truly realized what a historical treasure the Village possessed.” He was now intrigued by the idea. Grafton was in the middle of a major downtown redevelopment effort. In addition, they were looking at marketing tools to attract and retain business. One quality that was needed was an identity, a hook, or concept that they could build their presence. The ‘lost’ legacy of Paramount Records just might be the keystone that was needed to achieve all of these municipal goals. Brunnquell pursued the concept with Village officials, and he pointed Angela to the Grafton Jaycees for the possible production of a blues festival.
In early 2005, she got in touch with Alex van der Tuuk, author of “Paramount’s Rise and Fall, A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company and its Recording Activities.” Via very long distance, (van der Tuuk lives in the Netherlands), he offered Angela input, information, and moral support. Alex suggested that Angela’s husband, Patrick, start a Paramount web site to gain support from others and to begin networking. They got the web site up and running, and Alex and Angela doggedly started doing outreach to everyone they knew.
At this point, Angela posted a message online at The Blindman’s Blues Forum seeking advice, guidance, and support for her efforts to raise the Paramount/blues consciousness in Grafton. This writer saw her post on that forum, took a great deal of interest in her cause, and responded. I began advising and mentoring her toward her goals. Little did I know at that time how involved I would be in the Grafton/Paramount process, and how far all of these projects would progress in less than a year.
Meanwhile, local chef/restaurateur, Joe Krupski, was planning for a restaurant somewhere in the downtown area of Grafton. He was aware that there was a market need for dining in that area. His eyes kept turning towards a building sitting on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue/12th Street and Bridge Street–right in the heart of downtown Grafton. The building at 1304 – 12th Avenue had been vacant for quite some time, so he figured the owner would be very open to any idea that might work. He began constructing a business plan around this building in November 2004. He learned from the owner that the building was the first county courthouse and that it was nearly 160 years old–the oldest commercial building still standing in Grafton. He became interested in learning more about the building so that he could incorporate that into his business plan. He visited the public library in Grafton to do research. While looking through the Grafton archives, he noticed a few statements about a record company that existed in Grafton. He had an idea of incorporating some of Grafton’s musical history into the restaurant to make it a more interesting place to visit. (A Hard Rock style café concept with a Paramount Records theme.) He was learning more and more about Paramount/NYRL and had started collecting 78s and other memorabilia to incorporate into the restaurant. He read Alex van der Tuuk’s book on the history of Paramount. Krupski got excited about bringing Grafton’s heritage back in a venue that could also help educate the local population about an important part of their hometown history. His restaurant would definitely have a Paramount theme and to get the Village onboard, he needed to educate them on this wonderful history that was being ignored. He purchased more copies of van der Tuuk’s book and gave them to the Village President and Planner along with a CD set of all of the blues music recorded in Grafton by Paramount, as well as a full copy of his business plan. Since he was searching for capital to fund the restaurant, he also gave out copies of the book to local bankers. He approached the Grafton Chamber of Commerce where he was told that another person, Angela Mack, was e-mailing the Village asking them why they hadn’t done anything with their musical heritage and was insisting that they do something about it. He was given Angela’s phone number and e-mail address, but he did not contact her immediately due to so many other concerns regarding his business plan.
Finally, Krupski locked in an offer with the owner of the building and found funding to begin construction of the Paramount Restaurant. It was during the period of time that he officially approached the Village about doing the project was when he first met Angela Mack and her husband, Patrick. As they talked about the Paramount Records history, they knew the Village was starting to also have their share of thoughts on the Paramount concept since the Village officials had always fielded complaints that “Grafton doesn’t have a theme like Cedarburg or Port Washington.”
While Krupski was pushing forward with his Paramount-themed restaurant concept, Angela connected the Grafton Area Live Arts (GALA) to bring an “Embrace the Legacy” concert series to the GALA concert hall venue. The concert series would focus on performers who could educate on Paramount history and perform songs recorded by Paramount artists. She approached Scott Oftedahl, former Grafton High School band director and current principal of Kennedy Elementary School, about bringing a blues educator to Grafton to raise the awareness of school children regarding the history of blues music and Grafton’s blues legacy. Oftedahl was more than receptive to the idea. While Angela made arrangements with GALA for the first “Embracing The Legacy” concert, Oftedahl organized plans for a combined blues education presentation/concert for all of Grafton’s elementary school children. Over 500 elementary students would be bussed to the high school auditorium for the one-hour morning blues presentation/concert on Sept. 30th, 2005. In the afternoon, the 4th grade students at Oftedahl’s Kennedy Elementary School would have a private one-hour session with the blues educator. The concert at the GALA venue would be that same evening. A Paramount history discussion panel was scheduled for Oct. 30th at the Cedarburg Arts Council. Participants in the panel discussion would include Paramount historian, van der Tuuk, and other knowledgeable Paramount Records devotees.
I was pleasantly surprised and most grateful when Angela Mack and school Principal, Scott Oftehdahl, requested that I participate in their plans by being the blues educational presenter, as well as the performer for the first GALA “Embracing The Legacy” concert. I eagerly anticipated my visit to Grafton, the school presentation, the concert, and to visiting the Paramount historic site.
Steve Ostermann of the local Ozaukee Press staff did a superb job of publicizing all of the Paramount ‘resurrection’ efforts, including covering my visit to Grafton. “Michael “Hawkeye” Herman had Grafton school kids bouncing in their seats. In between the boogie beat, he also taught them a few things about the blues — the profound influence it has had on music they listen to every day and the vehicle it offers for expressing their emotions. Herman’s hour-long program drew praise from students, parents and educators alike. Scott Oftedahl, Kennedy Elementary School principal, said Herman’s appearance introduced students to historically important American music and showed them how relevant it remains today. We’re very fortunate to have him come here.”
The evening GALA concert was a sell out. The audience was superb. During the concert I explained to the crowd, “Grafton and Paramount Records are responsible for much of the American blues music that came out of the 1920s and 1930s. You have a great opportunity here to show people what this history is and why it’s so important. It’s not only important for students to learn about, it’s important for the community to realize what they have. You have a sleeping giant, and it’s finally starting to wake up.” An enthusiastic full house of local residents showed up at the Cedarburg Cultural Center the following day for the afternoon Paramount panel discussion.
At about this time, local Jaycees members, Kris Marshall, Ellen Zacharias, and Peter Raymond were instrumental in founding a blues society. The group used the “Let’s Get Started/How To Create A Blues Society,” article that appeared in the 2005 issue of the Blues Festival Guide as an aid in founding the Grafton Blues Association. They immediately undertook responsibility for producing the first annual Paramount Blues Festival in cooperation with the Grafton Area Jaycees. The festival will be held on Sept. 23rd, 2006 at Lime Kiln Park, in Grafton. Marshall and her committee have pulled out all the stops in planning the all day event. The festival will feature nationally recognized blues artists and local bands, including: Albert Cummings, Nora Jean Bruso, Hawkeye Herman, David Evans and Joe Filisko, Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys, and The Steve Cohen Blues Band with Greg Koch. Educational workshops will be presented by well known blues historian/author Gayle Dean Wardlow, and fellow historian/musicians, David Evans and Joe Filisko. Alex van der Tuuk will be on hand to sign copies of his book and discuss the history of Paramount Records.
Angela and Patrick Mack, Jim Brunquell, Joe Krupski, Melissa Schmitz, and others, founded GIG (Grooves In Grafton), to further support and retain the history of all of the genres of music that Paramount recorded in Grafton. GIGS will present exhibits, park history displays, and educational programs “to educate, increase the awareness of, and preserve the music recorded and pressed in Grafton, Wisconsin by the New York Recording Laboratories.”
Grafton city officials, including Village President Brunquell, had been planning to spur development in the center of downtown by providing tax-incentive financing packages to businesses locating in the downtown area. They already had their eyes on plans for the construction of a downtown plaza which would help bring people back to the area. With the newfound interest in Paramount and the possibility of the Paramount-themed restaurant going in, city officials embraced the Paramount concept for the downtown Paramount Plaza. Paramount Plaza will include a saxophone-shaped fountain spewing water from the horn, and sidewalk decor inlayed to resemble piano keys that will create a Paramount Recording Artists’ Walk Of Fame, featuring the names of artists who recorded in Grafton and the approximate recording date.
Joe Krupski is in the midst of refurbishing the old courthouse building, near the future Paramount Plaza, into The Paramount Restaurant. The building was the Bienlein Hotel in the 1920s where Paramount’s artists may have stayed the night while recording in Grafton. Krupski hopes to have the restaurant up and running before the Sept. 23rd date of the Paramount Blues Festival.
Beginning March 1, 2006, the Ozaukee Bank in Grafton, a major sponsor for the Paramount Blues Festival, will host monthly exhibits presented by Grooves In Grafton (GIG) to enhance visibility for the festival and inform the community about their Paramount Records heritage. The fire of interest in local history and Paramount Records is now lit and beginning to grow. People are excited that Grafton is, at long last, getting an identity and has something to be proud of. Local folks are coming forward begging to get involved. They are excited about the opportunity to participate in something bigger than themselves that educates, entertains, and brings a sense of identity and pride to the community.
The efforts of numerous individuals interested in educating the town about their unique contribution to America’s musical history opened the eyes of many others who immediately recognized the potential to build a theme for Grafton around this important legacy. Within the next year, the face of Grafton will dramatically change. Paramount’s long kept secret legacy will finally have its chance to shine. Coming out of anonymity, the town of Grafton is embracing this legacy and is now passionate about Paramount.
In the March 2 edition of the Ozaukee Press, Steve Ostermann reported, “When blues musician and educator, Michael “Hawkeye” Herman, came to Grafton last fall to perform at schools and in concert, he spoke to local residents about their community as “a sleeping giant.” ‘Grafton,’ Herman told his audiences, ‘has chance to acknowledge its place in American music history and let the rest of the world know about a rich legacy that has long been overlooked by the general public.’ Herman’s words–which echoed the sentiments of area educators who invited him to appear locally–have not fallen on deaf ears. Since his visit last September, a growing number of residents have embraced missions publicizing Grafton’s musical heritage. The result of their efforts is the formation of groups that are organizing a blues festival, park history displays, educational programs, and a variety of other activities they hope will teach, enlighten, and entertain. The collective goal, volunteers said, is to pay tribute to the Paramount blues artists and other musicians who recorded for the former Wisconsin Chair Co.’s music division.”
History, dreams, meaningful coincidences, timing, synchronicity, networking, and the blues, came together to transform a community. For information on Grafton’s Paramount Blues Festival:
For information on Paramount Records history:
Much thanks to Michael “Hawkeye” Herman and the Blues Festival Guide for allowing Ozaukee Talent to re-publish this article. Angela Mack (now Angie Mack Reilly) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Angie Mack Reilly 5.27.20
What is the antonym for dishonor?
Murder a life?
Value a life.
Your cultural contributions matter.
By that, I am saying that YOU matter.
You built this nation as did I.
Ignoring, dismissing and burying
your pioneering work
Ignoring, dismissing and burying
anyone’s pioneering work
is piracy and theft.
We both built this nation.
That is our common bond.
It is time for the authors to receive
their due respect.
Rock and roll began with the blues.
You are just as much American
as am I.
I see the injustice of your history
Please forgive me.
But they never taught me
about your writers and inventors.
Huge chunks of history were ignored.
Perhaps we need to back up.
Begin educating our children
about the diverse contributions
and experiences and songs.
As an educator, I am committed
to telling your story.
As a believer, I am committed
to honoring your life.
As your sister, I am committed
to stand with you against injustice.
I will continue to be an advocate
because it is the right thing to do.
Angie is a lifetime arts advocate and leader with proven and documented success who is looking for benefactors to help her keep launching forward. Contact email@example.com
Some of the podcasts, television appearances, radio interviews, articles and videos that feature Angie and her work:
- World Music Foundation
- Parrot TV (New York)
- TMJ4 Milwaukee
- Grafton Chamber of Commerce
- Riverwest Radio
- Milwaukee Rep
- Paramount Records: The Key to Understanding Black History and the Foundation of American Music
- Sessions with Sandy
- Grave Stories with TR Rongstad
- Music Interview with Z.M. Wise
- Delta Download Mississippi Blog
- Livia Peterson Feature Story
- Creativity Portal
- Women as Visionaries
- Amerika’s Addiction
Follow Ozaukee Talent on Facebook to see samples of work
Follow Ozaukee Talent on Instagram to see samples of work
Chairperson of International Committee: Angie Mack Reilly
(Patriarch of St. Louis Blues) Henry “The Mule” Townsend
(Father of the Delta Blues) Charlie Patton
(Mother of the Blues) “Ma” Rainey
(First Country Blues Star) Blind Lemon Jefferson
(Mississippi Blues Legend) “Skip” James
(Father of Gospel Music) Thomas A. Dorsey
(America’s Jazz Ambassador) Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
(Preeminent Mississippi Bluesman) Eddie James “Son” House Jr.
(American Jazz Pioneer) Joe “King” Oliver
(King of Ragtime Guitar) Arthur “Blind” Blake
Peonage: Why it Thrived and How Some Escaped
(C) 05/2005 Angela K. Mack
Many people currently and ignorantly believe that the African American was set free with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Yet, the truth is that the lives of many African Americans in the south were trapped in a system of peonage or debt servitude which was just as bad if not worse than slavery. So why didn’t they just run away and head north the moment they heard of their so-called “freedom”? Why on earth did they stay in the south? Why did so many remain on their plantations, on the very land that they were slaves on? At a first glance, it doesn’t seem logical. These questions can be answered as I expand upon the conditions of and reasons for peonage in the south as well as give examples of how some African Americans were able to escape this system of bondage in the post Civil War era.
Peonage is defined by the Encarta Dictionary: English (North America) as “a former system used in Latin America and the southern United States under which a debtor was forced to work for a creditor until a debt was paid”. It actually evolved during the Civil War as the systems of sharecropping and crop-lien began. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 166). Sharecropping meant that a landowner would give the laborer a “share” of the crop in exchange for labor of the land. After the Civil War, it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time for both parties. Labor was needed to restore a war torn south and there was a lack of cash. Immediately after the war, landowners tried to operate the farms with hired laborers, but they did not have enough cash to pay the workers. So sharecropping seemed like the perfect system to have the new freedmen work for. “The system not only overcame the disruption of the labor supply but it also helped solve problems resulting from a lack of cash…” (Monroe Lee Billington 228).
Many ex-slaves did not choose to be a part of this system, however. After the Emancipation Proclamation, General Nathaniel P. Banks issued regulations that required freedmen to return to their plantations and work. They could not leave without a pass and received low wages. “The absence of ‘perfect subordination’ could result in freedmen losing pay or food rations”. Furthermore, in 1865 and 1866 southern lawmakers enacted the Black Codes. This system of social control kept the Negro in a subordinate place within society. They were required to provide cheap labor. An unemployed black man without a permanent residence was considered a vagrant. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 168, 170).
This system was able to thrive in the south despite Amendment XIII of the U.S. Constitution Section 1 which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Robert A. Divine..et al. Appendix A-15). Yet it contained unjust components which kept African Americans in an even greater bondage than slavery. The term “involuntary servitude” was not clearly defined for a very long time after Amendment XIII. “It was not until United States v. Kozminski (1988) that slavery, in its derivative form, involuntary servitude, was formally outlawed.” (Gale Group Bailey v. Alabama).
But even still, “Negroes preferred to be renters rather than hired laborers. Renting was desirable, even under a sharecropping rather than a cash arrangement, because tenants could organize their own time and be more independent than a hired laborer. Moreover, they could raise their own food.” (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 172). The fact that they had strong family, friendship, and community ties was incentive enough for them to remain stagnant in the south as well.
However, it did not take long for the African American sharecroppers to realize that they were being taken advantage of and controlled. They needed to purchase items from the store to survive on such as food and clothing. Having no money, they had to purchase things on credit. The crop was the lien. But because of the heavy racism that still existed in the south, merchants charged them unfair and outrageous prices for such items. High interest rates were tagged onto the charges and they didn’t have control or knowledge of the accounts. When the harvest came and the crop was sold, they found themselves in debt to the landowner and merchant. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 173)
Because they were in debt, they were forced to stay on the plantation another year to work off their debt. They could not leave. If they did, they could possibly be lynched. The system of peonage offered little, if any, hope.
Founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Carter G. Woodson, describes in 1918 a lack of ambition as being another reason why African Americans remained in bondage to the system of peonage:
“Generally speaking, the Negroes are still dependent on the white people for food and shelter. Although not exactly slaves, they are yet attached to the white people as tenants, servants, or dependents. Accepting this as their lot, they have been content to wear their lord’s cast-off clothing, and live in his ramshackled barn or cellar. In this unhappy state so many have settled down, losing all ambition to attain a higher station. The world has gone on but in their sequestered sphere progress has passed them by.” (Carter G. Woodson 468).
But some were ambitious and did rise above. Former vice-chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer, was able to escape the sharecropping system despite the hopelessness she felt about it in her childhood. She longed for change yet it seemed impossible. “The weight of the system was too great”. (David Rubel 29). It was her faith in God that carried her through the hopeless times. (13).
Fanny Lou Hamer tells the story about her landowner:
“I can remember very well the landowner telling me one day that if I would pick thirty pounds (of cotton), he would give me something out of the commissionary: some Crackerjacks, Daddy-Wide-Legs (a gingerbread cookie), and some sardines. These were things that I knew I loved and never had a chance to have. So I picked thirty pounds that day. Well, the next week I had to pick sixty and by the time I was thirteen, I was picking two and three hundred pounds.” (14). This “bait and switch” tactic was typical. Landowners and merchants alike took advantage of the sharecroppers by making false promises, and preying upon the uneducated ness of the freedmen. Sharecropping was an awful way for the freed slaves to live. However, because they lacked education and desperately needed work, it left them with little or no options. (David Rubel 14). Fannie Lou Hamer was a fighter, though. She watched James Meredith become the first African American student at the University of Mississippi which inspired her to remain strong. (David Rubel 63). When she tried to register to vote, she was kicked off her plantation but a new life awaited her. Although harassed and beaten in prison, she still fought. She became a worker and, later, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She began to organize townspeople politically and became an effective fundraiser even though she was making just $10 a week. Finally, she worked her way up to being the vice-chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. (David Rubel 6, 67-68).
WWII provided an escape for other sharecroppers. As American men went off to war, laborers were needed to fill jobs primarily in the northern, industrial and urban parts of the United States. “One place these laborers were found was in the kitchen, as many housewives went to work. Another place they were found was down on the plantation.” “Many southern blacks were happy to move and leave the plantation behind.” (David Rubel 27-28). PBS used excerpts from The Journal of Negro History by Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia in their documentary film, “Goin’ To Chicago”. There is an account of a letter written by a southern black from Marcel, Mississippi writing to the Chicago Defender on October 4, 1917.
“….I wants to come to Chicago to live. I am a man of a family wife and 1 child I can do just any kind of work in the line of common labor & I have for the present sufficient means to support us till I can obtain a position…..” (George King).
I conducted an interview with Mr. Greg Eskridge who is an Economic Support Specialist for the State of Wisconsin in Milwaukee County. He shared with me some stories of his parents who were sharecroppers. His dad did not have any formal schooling. His mother went to school up until 6th grade. They married when he was 19 and she was 14. His parents worked for Mr. Morgeson in Grenada, Mississippi. Mr. Morgeson gave half of the crop to Mr. Eskridge and kept a half for himself that Mr. Eskridge and his family had to raise chickens on as well as grow potatoes, leafy vegetables, wheat, and cotton. When Mr. Eskridge’s brother was lynched with no explanation, he decided to look for work in the north. He found work in 1946 as a truck mechanic at the Ford Motor Company. He went back to get his wife and spoke with Mr. Morgeson about leaving. Mr. Eskridge called him a “fair man”; an “O.K. boy”. Their ancestors had known each other and acted cordially in the past, therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Eskridge were able to leave on a handshake without any harassment. Mr. Eskridge raised six sons in the inner city of Chicago and later received an assembly line position at the Ford Motor Company. (Greg Eskridge)
Escape from the plantation oddly came through music as well. One of the great founders of the blues, Charley Patton, came off of his Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, and came to Grafton, WI (just a few blocks from my home) to record his legendary blues at Paramount Recording Studios. His music opened the doors for him to escape life in the south. He became a local celebrity and then his fame grew. He eventually ended up in New York to record shortly before he died.
“Patton would be called up to play at plantation dances, juke joints, and the like. He’d pack them in like sardines everywhere he went, and the emotional sway he held over his audiences caused him to be tossed off of more than one plantation by the ownership, simply because workers would leave crops unattended to listen to him play any time he picked up a guitar.” (Cub Koda).
Peonage was able to thrive even after the Emancipation Proclamation because it seemed to be a good solution to the economic setbacks of the Civil War. The law also enabled it to thrive through Banks regulations, the Black Codes, and the unclear definition of “involuntary servitude”. Some African Americans preferred to stay sharecroppers because of strong family ties in the south. Others accepted peonage as a way of life unable to overcome. Fannie Lou Hamer and Charley Patton were kicked off of their plantations and became famous. Others found jobs that were left vacant due to war. The fact remains; the Emancipation Proclamation did not guarantee freedom. Slavery took upon the new name, “peonage”. Thankfully, some were fortunate enough to escape.
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