Poem: Winding Journey

Winding Journey

by Angie Mack Reilly

I’m on the winding journey
“Wine, Ding.”
“Whine. Ding!”
“Why in Ding?”
Meandering
Lingering
Wallowing
Swallowing
Opening
Preserving
Observing
Fancy-ing
Swerving
A little left
A little right
Wondering
Wandering
Wondering when wandering
Wandering when wondering
Exploring
Documenting
Winding
Sometimes tight
Sometimes loose
The winding journey
belongs to the pioneers.

Photo of our new friend “Dave’s” sailboat who apparently came from the Michigan side and was waiting for the wind to pick up.  My son made a new friend and Dave let our family on the boat for some rare photos.   Photo by Angie Mack Reilly, Port Washington, WI 2019

 

Peonage: Why it Thrived and How Some Escaped

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.

Works Cited

“Bailey v. Alabama.” Great American Court Cases. 4 vols. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. <galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/HistRC/>.

Billington, Monroe Lee. The American South. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1971

Divine, Robert A…..(et al.), America, Past and Present. NY…(et al.). Pearson Longman. 2005.

Eskridge, Greg. Interview by author. Grafton, WI, 3 May 2005. Koda, Cub.

King, George. “Letters From Mississippians, 1916-1918”. Goin’ To Chicago. PBS Online. < http://www.pbs.org/gointochicago/migrations/index.html>.

Koda, Cub. “Charley Patton Devil Sent the Rain Blues”. (Audio CD insert): La Spezia, Italy: Comet Records. 2004.

Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition. NY: American Century Series. 1976.

Rubel, David. Fannie Lou Hamer From Sharecropping to Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Silver Burdett Press, Inc. 1990

Woodson, Carter G. “From a Century of Negro Migration (1918)”. From Bondage to Liberation. New York: Faith Berry. 2001.

Being in Water

Being in Water

by Angie Mack Reilly 2019

 

Being in water is like

receiving a great big giant hug.

Being hugged all over.

A full body hug.

And I guess that’s what I need right now.

 

 

 

 

Psalms and the Blues

Psalms and the Blues

by Angie Mack Reilly (c) 2019

For some of us, you see,
music is the only friend
that we have.
Or at least the only friend
that we can trust.

Others of us?
Couple that with faith.
Without that, we are doomed
to die from the sorrow
that consumes our lives.

But the blues, you see.
The blues is emotion.
And sometimes our instrument
is the only one who will listen.
We can’t flaunt our money.
We can’t boast of piety.
Our homes are broken.
Our relationships once soared
and then crashed.
We are disadvantaged.
In some way.
Disadvantaged.
Opportunities have not been
equal for us.

Perhaps we are laden
with grief and sickness
so great that getting ahead
requires more energy
than we have.

People who have the blues
have somehow lost respect
with society.
But are we worthy of respect?
Absolutely.

Yet there seems to be an oppressor.
Or multiple oppressors
in the blues musician’s life.
Evil and oppressive controllers
who want nothing more than
to see the musician tied down.

Yes.
We are tired.
We know that fighting probably
won’t make a difference.

And so we retreat to song.
The song is where we are free.
Free to express whatever feeling
it is that we might have.

King David had feelings.

Son House had feelings.
Both had many feelings.
Authentic feelings.
Sometimes wrong feelings.
But feelings.
To be human is to have feelings.
The similarity between the Blues
and the Psalms is quite astounding.

DISCLAIMER:  Remember that the purpose of the true artist is, sometimes, to get others to think.  Writing is an art form that can be just as minimalistic or abstract as any painting or dance can be.  Most of my work is to get others to think.   Poetry is an artform.  So as you read my work, imagine sitting in a museum and listening.  Not everything needs to be literal in life.  

Audio Poetry: I Live in the Wild by Angie Mack Reilly

“I Live in the Wild”

by Angie Mack Reilly and read by Matthew Bolton

Campaign for Grafton Record Factory Site: Americana

Originally published on https://ozaukeetalent.com 10.11.17

Photo by Angie Mack Reilly

Save Americana! Save Grafton WI Record Factory Site #GoFundMe

A·mer·i·ca·na

əˌmerəˈkänə,əˌmerəˈkanə/

noun

  1. things associated with the culture and history of America, especially the United States.

“This fundraiser is a long shot. Maybe. Maybe not.

I drive past the former record factory/recording studio site several times a day.

The home was built on the property in 1961 after the record plant was demolished. I heard that it was bought and renovated by an architect who owns several Milwaukee River properties. In fact, I do believe that this same architect developed the million dollar home across the river from this one. I know his name. I have spoken with him about the importance of the music history in this area. I also believe that I gave him a Paramount Walking Tour Booklet. This was several years ago. Apparently, he is not interested in preserving the history of this property to my knowledge.

Of course, someone who works in any type of real estate is going to want to profit off of this property. And guess what? In all reality, it will probably sell quite soon.

You see, I own a home as well as a music business (Ozaukee Talent) within a few blocks of this location. I have lived in Grafton for almost 22 years now. So I understand a lot of the “inside scoop”.

Within recent years, Grafton has embraced some large scale development projects including Aurora hospital. The population of Grafton is becoming more diverse and homes are selling quite quickly with all of the new physicians and hospital staff moving in.

For many years, I tried to get a Paramount Museum in Grafton. I was part of the Grafton Historic Preservation Commission and Downtown Development Ad Hoc Committee to name a few. I worked closely with the Village President, Village Administrator, Village developers and more.

Some of the Early Articles About Our Efforts

At one point, we had a list of “museum artifacts” so that we could keep track of our inventory. We considered several destinations for a museum in Grafton, including this one. But, at the time, it was owned by a single property owner who, I assume, just wanted to live peacefully along the river without any bother of tourists. There wasn’t anything that we could do with it being owned.

So the tourists would come to Grafton. International tourists. They would go to the Grafton Chamber of Commerce to try to find out where the museum was in Grafton. The Chamber would send people TO MY HOUSE. I kid you not. Why? Because for many years, I have been known as the local historian on the matter. So I would volunteer my time and spend half of the day with visitors from Russia, Germany, France, Japan, New York, California, New Orleans, the UK and more. I have even given “the tour” to school groups which has proven to be very educational.

Anyhow. Long story short.

No Paramount museum in Grafton. LOTS of meetings and thousands of volunteer time and years on my part. Plans. Emails. You know. But in the end? Not a lot of action. So I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to preserve the music history of Grafton.

2000-2008 Leaving Legacies

Apparently, Port Washington WI is in the process of getting “The Blues Factory” which would include a museum. It seems to me that is another project with a lot of talk and very little action. Nobody has approached me from that development project to help get involved……which, to me, is a bit…..odd. It would also supposedly house a theater. I work in theater for a living.

LINK TO #GOFUNDME CAMPAIGN

Ever since the house on the former pressing plant went up for sale, I have thought to myself, “Gosh…I wish I had the money to buy that property and actually DO SOMETHING that commemorates the history.

As a business owner, music teacher, musical producer, etc…..I am quite busy. But yesterday, as I was driving around doing some errands, I thought,

“I HAVE TO AT LEAST TRY.”

There is a window of opportunity for this home to be some sort of destination that would be educational.

I can’t really claim outright what it will become. I am sure that there are zoning rules. That is why, at minimum, I think that it’s safe to say that this home could remain residential yet house a recording studio or some other type of educational facility. In all honesty, I don’t know what the Village of Grafton rules are about making the home a business.

I just know that the world of music should preserve this property to commemorate the artists who recorded here and had their records mass produced and shipped from here.

It’s Americana.

Like I said, someone with money will probably purchase the home. And the history and story of this important American landmark will be pushed into the background and eventually forgotten about. And I will still have to drive past this property on a daily basis.

1802 South Green Bay Road

People. We have an opportunity.

Yes. It’s a “long-shot”. They are asking a lot for this home. Why? Because it’s been renovated to sell big and make a nice profit.

This is the same location that PBS History Detectives filmed “Lost Musical Treasure“. You can search for the 2 episodes on YouTube. I pitched the show idea to the show producers and corresponded with and educated them for at least a year before the show was even filmed. I also worked with playwright Kevin Ramsey to ensure the historical accuracy of his musical “Grafton City Blues” which has since been renamed “Chasin’ Dem Blues”.

I am an educator. I also teach music for a living. Right now, I have about 40 private students per week. I am also producing Disney’s The Lion King for the North Shore Academy of the Arts at the Cedarburg Performing Arts Center.

Music is my life. I have been teaching and performing for at least 18 years now.

As an educator and musician, I would be a fool not to at least TRY to preserve this property.

I admit, it’s a tough time in America to give right now. With the new administration, hurricanes, threat of nuclear war, shootings and racial conflicts going on, people have more things to think about than giving to projects like this. If you can’t give, it’s OK. No judgement.

But with my connections (and your connections), maybe there are some people out there with some means who care about preserving this vital cultural history that has literally shaped popular culture around the globe.

As I used to pen, “They made history when the needle hit the wax.” (Some of the early recordings were etched into wax!) That’s why Jack White made his Grammy-award winning Paramount “box sets”…. to preserve the music history. Oh yes. I have tried talking to him as well. Not an easy guy to get a hold of. And I was told that their recent purchases and developments as a business have been quite substantial. (They created their own “record factory” for making vinyl.)

At the end of the day, I just want to say that I tried one last time. –Angie”

Grafton WI Record Factory Courtesy of Paramountshome.org

Update:  The house was purchased shortly after this writing and appears to be solely residential.  Zero dollars were given to this GoFundMe campaign.

The Artist Cries by Angie Mack Reilly

The Artist Cries

by Angie Mack Reilly* 2019

Where empathy lacks
And judgement abounds
Is where the artist lies
The artist cries
And they keep walking by
Greed is thick
So charity is sick
Money given upward
To impress CEOs with bribes
That feed their vanity and ego
I know
The money needs to flow down
Down down down like rain
Down down
Down on the people

*Feature photo also by Angie Mack Reilly

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