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In the Shadows of History: Documenting the Activism of Antoinette Harrell

by Felicia D. Render, Archivist



Photograph of Antoinette Harrell-Miller and Gary Groesch, 2002
Photograph of Antoinette Harrell-Miller and Gary Groesch, 2002

Documentation of the life of Antoinette Harrell, a historian interested in race relations in the southern region of the United States, is currently being preserved at the Amistad Research Center. The Amistad Research Center acquired the Antoinette Harrell papers in 2002, and received additional donations in 2013 about her work as a prolific activist, historian and genealogist. Her papers primarily contain correspondence, news clippings, photographs, yearbooks, leaflets, genealogical materials and other ephemeral items. The collection is extremely rich on the subjects of African American Louisiana history; New Orleans and Louisiana city and state civil activities; genealogy; reparations; peonage; and documentation of Harrell’s career, with collected files from her civil and social activities. Of note are photographs of Harrell and her involvement with a grassroots organization, Citizens for Change.

Front cover of DVD, 'The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century', 2008
Front cover of DVD, 'The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century', 2008

As a historian, Harrell uncovered cases of illegal peonage (debt slavery) in sixteen states and revealed painful stories of African Americans from the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. Some African Americans from this region were still living enslaved well into the 1960s, including some on Mississippi plantations. Although peonage was outlawed by the United States Congress in 1867, this inhumane practice of debt servitude flourished in the South nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction era. Additionally, Harrell’s research into child labor and peonage at the Arthur G. Dozier School for boys, a reform school in Marianna, Florida, revealed horrific abuse suffered by African American boys there.


Harrell compiled over 20 years of extensive research on peonage in the southern region of the United States; her work has been highlighted in VICE and People magazines, as well as in many national and international publications and news and radio programs. Harrell unearthed many accounts of debt servitude; she documented this discovery by producing a DVD which outlined these acts in several

Mississippi counties.

Front cover of 'African Descendants Cemeteries of Amite, Louisiana, St. Helena Parish, Roseland, Louisiana' 2002
Front cover of 'African Descendants Cemeteries of Amite, Louisiana, St. Helena Parish, Roseland, Louisiana' 2002

Many of Harrell’s contributions to African American women’s history, activism and race relations centered around her genealogy research. Harrell serves as a genealogist, historian and producer of the genealogical television program Nurturing Our Roots. She wrote several books including Department of Justice: Slavery, Involuntary Servitude and Peonage (2014), Images of America: African Americans in Tangipahoa and St. Helena Parishes (2019) and Nurturing My Family Tree: Genealogy for Children (2010).


In 2003, Harrell was appointed Honorary Assistant Attorney General for the state of Louisiana for her work in the study of genealogy. She also cofounded a genealogy camp for children in New Orleans. Presently she is preserving oral histories and documenting prominent and influential African American families and leaders of Tangipahoa and St. Helena Parishes in Louisiana.


Amistad is honored to preserve and provide access to Antoinette Harrell’s contributions to studying, documenting and preserving African American history. Her emphasis on genealogy and ancestry research of two Louisiana parishes is well-documented within her papers and are detailed within her recordings of over nine African American cemeteries in those parishes. Harrell’s life proved activism and her passion for helping people research their family history coincides with her belief that “everyone’s history should be documented.” In essence, Harrell examines the lives of African American Louisiana families and furnishes perspectives on their rich, collective past while disclosing to the world the untold stories deeply embedded within the shadows of history.

Institute of Museum and Library Services

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.


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