Showcasing Louisiana: Profiles in Black History
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Wind howls through a tattered curtain that acts as a door. It is the weathered entrance to a story that was almost lost to time.
Joseph Dunn crosses the rickety floorboards as he began to tell Edouard’s story. “We’re probably in a building that Edouard, at one point, walked through, or maybe even lived in.”
You won’t find Edouard’s name in any history book. The fact that we even know he existed is rather remarkable, yet it is one of the most important discoveries researchers at Laura Plantation in Vacherie, La have made.
“He had been born here, enslaved, in 1835.” Dunn continued. Dunn is careful to call the people enslaved here by their creole names, since almost no one in Louisiana at that time spoke English. “His mother was a creole slave named Melanie who worked in the fields, and his father was this American slave named Phillip, or Phillipe who also worked in the fields.”
As a boy, Edouard was trained as a brick mason. An accident and subsequent infection caused the Locoul family, who owned the plantation and Edouard, to amputate his thumb. Unable to lay bricks, he was then trained to make sugar. “That put him, as he rose up through the ranks in the skilled enslaved hierarchy as one of the most valuable people here on the farm.” Dunn said. Between 180 and 1862, Dunn has documented 400 slaves who passed through Laura Plantation. At the height of the plantation’s operation just before the Civil War, 186 people were enslaved here.
“Historically, when these stories were told, enslaved people were talked about as anonymous, or nameless, faceless group.” Dunn said. “We were able here, with the archives and history that we have, to restore people’s names, to restore their faces, to restore their individual, personal stories.”
Larua Plantation was the first on the Mississippi river to use the word “slave” as part of the way it tells its own story. It is not an easy task considering most of those names appear only once on a bill of sale, or in an inventory list. And no one had a last name.
Edouard’s name first appears on a list of slaves baptized in a mass baptism in the river. “When the Civil War came, and the Union occupation began here, everything changed for him.” said Dunn.
When the Union captured New Orleans, Edouard escaped. He fought with the U.S. Colored Troops at the Battle of Port Hudson. “He was in the trenches like everybody else, with these very intense bombardments coming from the river.” Dunn said.
The bombardments were so intense that Edouard’s eardrums burst, and he lost most of his hearing. “He’s biting these cartridges to get powder so he can load his musket and try to shoot back, and most of his teeth fell out.” Dunn continued.
Edouard’s story would have been lost to time, just like those of millions of other faceless slaves had Congress not agreed to offer pensions to blacks who could prove they fought for the Union during the war.
When Edouard applied for his pension, he had to testify to his story before a government panel. “You have this black man,” said Dunn, “who doesn’t speak any English, and his trying to relate his story to white bureaucrats from the northeast who are going to decide whether or not he’s going to collect a pension.”
Edouard’s name next appears at Laura Plantation beside his “X” on a contract to work in the fields as a sharecropper. It includes the last name “Gross.” a misspelled version of the French, Gros.
Dunn said that to “sign” the contract, slaves needed a last name. Many picked names of friends, owners, or the trades they performed on the plantation. He speculates people called Edouard “Big Edouard” to possibly differentiate him from another Edouard that may have worked there.
Dunn can only make an educated guess to Edouard’s reasons for returning. He spoke very limited or no English. His family, and everyone he knew was on the plantation. And his only skill was making sugar.
Edouard cooked sugar on the plantation until the day he died in 1906. Edouard would have remained just another faceless slave in the ugliness of our past had it not been for the pension board, and a newly-found picture taken on Laura Plantation in 1888. He stands just left of center, his denim shirt open, his hand held high, his history and his face restored.
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