September 26, 2007

Chapter 1: King Cotton

Chapter 1: King Cotton: Pre-1889
Roque House, Natchitoches, LA. Circa 1790.

The cotton business received a tremendous lift from the invention of the cotton gin, a simple, yet efficient machine which separated the seeds from the fluffy white part. The gin was invented in 1793 by an American named Eli Whitney. The invention led to the clearing of millions of acres of forest lands, lands which were turned over to the growing of cotton. The Cotton Kingdom was thus established in the states bordering on the Gulf Coast, and the institution of slavery was revived during the first half of the Nineteenth century. As late as 1808, when slave importation into the United States was outlawed, popular wisdom said there was no need for any more slaves. It is estimated that 250,000 slaves were imported between 1808 and 1860, and had the practice not been illegal, there may have been many more. Slave labor made the Cotton Kingdom possible.
Caddo Parish, Louisiana, became a leader in cotton production in the years leading up to the Civil War. The population of the parish in the latter part of the nineteenth century was overwhelmingly black, particularly in rural areas like Mooringsport on the southern shore of Caddo Lake. The reason for this is simple: many of the white settlers who arrived from the Southeastern states prior to the Civil War came with their slaves. Thus a family made up of four or five white members might typically be accompanied by four or five times that many black people. Not all the white settlers were slave owners, of course, but there were enough to account for the population ratio.

"The early settlers were nearly all rich men with many slaves and some fine cattle." (O'Pry 141). “A man named Erwin, founder of Erwin's Bluff in Shreveport (circa 1836), brought 100 negroes with him and a quantity of fine Kentucky stock.” (O'Pry 144) The 1870 census, the first to enumerate blacks as people rather than slaves, shows 15,799 blacks and 5,913 whites in Caddo. The 1880 census shows 19,283 blacks out of a total parish population of 26,303. That's a ratio of roughly three blacks to each white in the years following emancipation. The ratio actually widened during the 1860's, possibly reflecting the westward exodus of slave owners, and their possessions, to safer environs. [The decade of the Civil War.] It was 1920 before the census showed a majority of white residents in Caddo parish, and in the late Twentieth century, the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

There were two ways of getting to northwest Louisiana from the Atlantic states. Some families traveled overland in wagons, while their slaves were linked together in "coffles," like chain gangs, and made to walk the thousand miles to their new homes. Other families went by ship to New Orleans; there they transferred to riverboats which, after the clearing of the Great Raft, went all the way to Shreveport and beyond, to the town of Jefferson, Texas, on Caddo Lake.

The city of Shreveport, Louisiana, was founded on the Red River; it lies about twenty miles east of the Texas border, and thirty-five miles south of Arkansas. Shreveport calls itself the hub of a region known as the Ark-La-Tex. To the north and west of Shreveport lies Caddo Lake, half of which is in Texas, and half in Louisiana. The Texas half features cypress trees, cypress knees, and Spanish moss, peculiarities more often associated with Louisiana. The northwest part of Louisiana, with its non-Catholic and non-French population, has always felt an affinity for East Texas.

Shreveport is named for Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army engineers. He arrived in 1833 to survey the Red River and see what could be done about the massive logjam which blocked navigation for two hundred miles upstream. He and his men set about clearing the jam, known as the Great Raft, and by the middle 1830's the Red was navigable to the Mississippi. Settlers started to pour in. The Caddo Indians, guardians of the land since time immemorial, were overwhelmed by the flood of immigrants. They "sold out" in 1835 and moved to the temporary safety of Oklahoma.

Among the antebellum white settlers in the region were the Jeter brothers from Virginia, William and James. They came as part of that historical western migration which opened up millions of acres of land to the cultivation of cotton in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and, finally, Texas; they came to help establish the Cotton Kingdom. The Jeters were from an affluent family; they brought money and possessions, including some slaves, and bought land in northwestern Louisiana. Their slaves cleared the land, planted cotton, built a large house for the owners and small houses for themselves.
William Nathaniel Jeter, born in 1824, first purchased property in Caddo Parish in 1849. This was a tract of three hundred and twenty acres of wooded land northeast of Caddo Lake; the seller was Richard T. Noel.

During the next three years, William got himself situated and then returned to Virginia in 1852 to marry Lucinda Ford. Later that year, William came back to Louisiana with his new bride and his younger brother, James, who had just turned twenty-one. For the sum of $1,500, James bought four hundred and eighty acres from one Randolph Martin. This land was to the west of the village of Blanchard, which is halfway between Shreveport and Mooringsport. "James Addison Jeter was a surveyor and many maps of this area are based on Jeter's Country Plat." (A. Moore 32)

In May, 1860, William bought 160 acres to the south of Caddo Lake. This appears to be the beginning of what was to become the Jeter Plantation, or the Jeter Place. A near neighbor of the Jeters, at the time, was seventy-five year old John Lowe, also a native Virginian. Lowe possessed fifty slaves and eleven slave dwellings; his real estate was valued at $50,000. By this time, a mere twenty-five years since the clearing of the Red River, Caddo parish was shipping record quantities of cotton to the international market in New Orleans.

When the Civil War began, both Jeter brothers went off to defend the Confederacy. James was Captain of an outfit known as the Caddo Lake Boys, who marched a hundred miles east to Monroe, Louisiana, in 1861. Both brothers were captured and then later sent back home in an exchange of prisoners. (A. Moore 32)

Shreveport had not been ravaged by the Civil War, had not been captured by theUnion, and for that reason, it became the capital of wartime Louisiana. By early 1865, the town was home to a substantial Confederate force and surrounded by forts, barricades, trenchs and earthworks, in readiness for a state of seige. The most famous remaining Civil War landmark is known as Fort Humbug, where, for lack of the real thing, wooden cannons were placed in hope of fooling the Yankees. The Rebel commander at Shreveport was General E. Kirby Smith. He described it as "a miserable place with a miserable population — swarming with refugees, slave coffles, state legislators, and surplus colonels." (Stuck 4)

The southern part of the state, particularly strategic New Orleans with its command of the Mississippi River mouth, had been secured by Union forces early in the war. Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Louisiana's eastern border, eventually toppled to General Grant's forces after being under seige for more than a year. Alexandria, in the center of the state, had been torched during a battle with Union forces. The nearest actual battleground to Shreveport was twenty-five miles away.
General Nathaniel P. Banks

In the spring of 1864, Union forces under the command of General Nathaniel P. Banks forged northward from Alexandria to mount an assault on Shreveport, now a busy depot for men and supplies. Banks was a former governor of Massachussetts, a Republican political appointee who was not highly rated as a military commander. In retrospect, his Red River Campaign might have been more successful had it been waged by a soldier, but in fact it made little difference to the eventual outcome of the Civil War, and Banks's style may have spared a few lives.

At the Battle of Mansfield, the Union forces were met and held off by a smaller, more mobile Rebel force under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of (former U.S. President) Zachary Taylor. At the Battle of Pleasant Hill, a day or two later, the Union forces staged a comeback, but General Banks failed to follow up his advantage. He retreated to the south and Shreveport was left unscathed.

During the postwar Reconstruction era, racial tensions were extremely high. Black troops were included in the garrison of Federal troops which arrived in Shreveport, in 1865, to begin a ten-and-a-half year occupation. When the troops first arrived they restored order where there had been anarchy, looting, and random violence; they were welcomed by law abiding citizens. But once order was restored, stories of black demons lording it over white men and raping and insulting white women became part of the popular mythology. There is little evidence of such behaviour in reality. In fact, blacks seem to have behaved with restraint; they had, after all, been subjected to considerable violence and humiliation during slavery.

Most of the documented postwar violence continued to be commited by whites against blacks. John Johnson, the son of a white plantation owner, apparently murdered a black woman in August, 1865. He escaped arrest and was never brought to trial. Two white men in Shreveport were found guilty of the murder of a freedman and sentenced to ninety-nine years each. However, after sentencing the two rose from the prisoners' dock and strolled out of the courtroom unhindered. They were simply allowed to go free. In October, 1868, two whites were killed in a dispute with freedmen, which is what former slaves were called, and Shreveport's white citizenry retaliated by going on a rampage, killing nineteen blacks.
Blacks were not only saddled with the reputation of being violent and insolent; they were also thought of as too ignorant to vote intelligently. And as for taking over the reigns of government? To a loyal white Southerner, nothing could be more ludicrous!

As members of Republican administrations, blacks generally attempted to enact progressive legislation such as unsegregated public education, and distribution of land to former slaves. The Republican party in Louisiana, the party of Lincoln, was a coalition of blacks, a handful of white progressives, and white Northerners who came to carry out the policies of the Federal government. Supporters of the Confederacy referred to this latter group as "carpetbaggers." The name derived from their luggage, a large bag made from carpet material. The white progressives were called "scalawags." The blacks were simply "niggers." In fact, most Louisiana black legislators, men like Caesar C. Antoine, were from an educated class of free men or creoles of color. Antoine, who became a Shreveporter, was elected lieutenant governor in 1873.

Caesar Carpenter Antoine
CC Antoine circa 1873
Born September 10, 1836 in New Orleans; C. C. Antoine served as a Captain in the Union Army – Louisiana, during the Civil War.  However, his most impressive accomplishments came in the arena of politics.  In 1868, during the period of Reconstruction, Antoine was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature as a State Senator, and served until 1872.  In 1871, he sponsored CHARTER legislation that granted the unincorporated town of Shreveport  the legal status of CITY.  Additionally, in 1873 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, and served in that capacity until 1877.  He was Louisiana’s 3rd Black Lieutenant Governor, and also served as Interim Governor in 1876.  Antoine was also an entrepreneur, property owner, human rights advocate, and newspaper publisher/editor.  At the end of the Civil War, Antoine moved to Shreveport, purchased land, opened a family grocery store, and became a farmer. C. C. Antoine died of natural causes on September 12, 1921, at his home in Shreveport.

The newly enfranchised black male population was large, and this caused the whites to resort to violence and intimidation to maintain the pre-war power structure. Any white male citizen of Louisiana could regain the right to vote by recanting his support for the Confederate cause, but those who did so were socially ostracized and classified as scalawags, no better than niggers and carpetbaggers. Racist organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellias and the Ku Klux Klan broke up mass political meetings of blacks and used intimidation at polling booths (McLure and Howe 60).

The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans, 1874.
By Edgar Degas.
The Camellias were formed in New Orleans in the 1860's. They were avowedly white supremacist but not as openly violent as the Klan. The Camellias were opposed to the aims of Reconstruction, and they represented the views of the majority of white Louisianians. They obstructed all attempts to accomodate the blacks as full and equal citizens of the state, and thus laid the groundwork for the racial disharmony and bitterness which continues to this day. There was no acceptance of defeat by the whites of Louisiana, and the only way for Northern liberals to impose their progressive views was by continued use of force. Time was on the side of the whites in Louisiana, and the rest of the South.

In 1873 Caddo, along with the neighboring parishes of Bossier to the east, and DeSoto to the south, and with the approval of the state Democratic convention, applied for annexation to Texas. One Shreveport historian explains the attempt: "Doubtless these parishes sought to alleviate their sufferings under the Republican rule and negro troubles caused by the carpetbaggers in this manner" (O'Pry 145). Which only shows that even in the 1920's, "historians" were following the white racist line. If the whites in these parishes were suffering, it was through their stubborn resistance to Republican rule; and if there were "negro troubles," the whites had themselves to blame. The Republican government of Louisiana naturally rejected the white parishioners' plan to join the state of Texas (McLure and Howe 60).

On 1 May, 1875 the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which gave equal rights to blacks in public accomodations and extended the right to jury duty. For the time, this was a progressive piece of legislation; too progressive for the U.S. Supreme Court, which invalidated the Act in 1883.

After the election of 1876 a national political compromise led to the selection of a Republican president in return for the installation of a Democratic governor in Louisiana. Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate for president, received a majority of the popular vote, but a dispute developed over twenty-two electoral votes, Louisiana's amongst them. After much wrangling in Congress, the election was awarded to Republican Rutherford Hayes when his party agreed to end Reconstruction. Occupation forces were withdrawn, and with their withdrawal came an increase in terrorism against blacks. Louisiana's government, right down to the parish and municipal levels, returned to the control of the tired old racial plutocracy which is still, as of this writing, largely intact. In order to maintain their power, whites created a virtual police state, and any black who wished to remain healthy stayed "in his place." African Americans in Louisiana and the other southern states were effectively barred from holding political office and, as far as possible, denied the right to vote. It wasn't until the late 1890's that laws prohibiting most blacks from voting were actually put on the books in Louisiana, but the terror had been in effect long before that. The country blacks, in particular, generally retreated to a position of passive acceptance of white hegemony.

The Jeter Plantation.
The Jeters were farmers and businessmen, and they were among the white leaders in their isolated part of the country. They may have been members of the White Camellias. After the defeat in 1865, they returned to raising cotton and dealing land. William and Lucinda Jeter gave birth to nine children, though only four survived to maturity. The eldest was Alice, who was born in 1853; one of her sons, Sam Caldwell, was to serve twelve years as mayor of Shreveport. Virgil Jeter would become a physician and move to Atlanta, Texas, and the second son, Frank, was to take over and operate the Plantation. The youngest of the four Jeter children was Hulda who married locally and stayed in the area all her life.
Like most planters in the region, the Jeter's livliehood had been barely affected by the war. Their slaves were "freed," but most of them "knew their place" and continued to live on the land and work for the Jeter family. Those freedmen who preferred to leave the plantation but couldn't afford to buy land "farmed for halves." Landowners supplied land, seed, and perhaps mules, housing and tools; in return they took half of the crop in lieu of rent. The Jeter holdings grew considerably during the twenty-five years which followed the Civil War. The number of workers increased until the area occupied by blacks on their plantation became known as "the quarter." In the 1880's, the residents of the quarter included Wes and Annie Ledbetter and at least two of their married sons, Wes, Jr., and Bob.

Wes and Annie came to Louisiana as slaves just before the outbreak of the Civil War. The name "Ledbetter" was taken on after emancipation; perhaps, as was often the case, it came from a white Ledbetter who had been their owner. They were born and wed in North Carolina and their eldest son, Wes, Jr., was born in 1857, also in North Carolina. Wes and Annie were moved west between 1857 and 1860; from that time on, all their children were born in Louisiana: Robert (Bob) in 1860, William Tell (Terril) in 1864, and Mary in 1869. These four are the only ones recognized by family members. There is also an older child, Julia, who lived to a ripe old age as Julia Miller, but for some reason was never considered one of the Ledbetters.

The 1870 census, the first after the War and the first to include blacks by name as individuals, reports quite a large household for Wes and Annie; it could be that two of the children, Delia and John, simply didn't survive to adulthood. There are two adult black men listed in the household: Frank Kelly, aged 22, and Boston Powell, 20. Powell may have been the "Bud" Powell who figures as a musical influence on Huddie Ledbetter. Oddly, there is also a white family listed in the Ledbetter household, a family consisting of Ann Fly and her three children. One can only surmise that the turmoil caused by the Civil War may have led to a variety of living arrangements amongst the poorer classes. Also, census takers obviously weren't infallible.

Though Wes and Annie never learned to read and write, their children got some kind of rudimentary schooling. Wes, Jr., was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. According to one of his granddaughters, Irene Campbell,
“Whenever he'd go into the store in Leigh, they'd have all the papers saved for him to read. Daily or weekly or however it came. They'd have a stack of them when he'd come in and he'd read every one of them. He remembered, too; remembered everything he read. Couldn't read fluently, but what he read, he understood it. Self-educated, that's my grandfather; he didn't have no school. Now if he went to school, I don't remember him saying where. But if he did, it wasn't like it was in our day, when we came along. But he could read.”
Wes Ledbetter, Jr., got married in 1880 to Sallie Brown; it was his first marriage and her second. She had a son, Alonzo Batts, who was born about 1875. After the wedding, Wes and Sallie took up residence in "the quarter" on the Jeter Plantation and they became members of the Shiloh Baptist Church, which was just down the road.
The other three Ledbetter children got married in the later 1880's. Bob, the second son, also settled down near the Shiloh Church with his wife, Ada. By 1900, Terril and his wife Mattie were living near Terrell, Texas, twenty miles east of Dallas. The rest of the family stayed pretty close to home. Mary, the youngest, married a neighbor named Ken Pugh, son of Allen and Barbary Pugh who were also brought from North Carolina. There was a strong North Carolina connection among the ex-slaves of the area, though we have seen that the Jeters, and several other local planters, were originally from Virginia.
All of the Ledbetters were musically-inclined. Young Wes, Bob and Tell all played the guitar, though it became clear quite early on that Wes was going to channel his music towards the church. Like many church-going blacks, he recognized a spiritual chasm between sacred music and secular music. There was no mixing of the two in his way of thinking. His sister Mary seems to have been of the same mind, while Bob and Tell were more middle of the road; they were able to go out dancing to the devil's music on Saturday night and shouting to the Lord's music on Sunday morning. Both the Lord's music and the devil's music showed the influences of Africa, influences which tended to reassert themselves as blacks and whites increasingly kept out of each others' way.

Huddie Ledbetter was born into the black side of this fractured society in January, 1889.

Posted by Monty and Marsha at 9:25 PM

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