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Historic Black-owned town near Amite remembered over a century later

3 months 6 days 16 hours ago Sunday, February 13 2022 Feb 13, 2022 February 13, 2022 10:55 PM February 13, 2022 in Black History Month
Source: WBRZ

For decades and longer in Louisiana, all thingsincluding funeral homeswere segregated.

Those spaces hold information that would remain unknown if it was not for the people whose lives are documented in the records of funeral programs, which gained popularity in the 1970s.

In Tangipahoa Parish, there stands a little-known community and a man being remembered thanks to those funeral programs. A family-owned funeral home in the town of Amite has served the community for generations, saving decades of information in that time.

“One day I sat down and started looking at them, and I said, ‘oh look at the history I didn't know about the Amite colored school.' The Black experience in the Florida parishes has been undocumented,” said Dr. Antoinette Harrell, local historian and genealogist.

Harrell had been doing some of her research here when she discovered a treasure trove of information, including information on the family members of other local legends like Collis Temple, the first Black basketball player at LSU.

“I’m looking at Shirley Cross Temple. She served George Washington Carver at Tuskegee University. Now who would’ve known that if it was not was not for these funeral programs?” Harrell said.

The history and documents that she uncovered goes beyond the twentieth century, to a woman named Melinda Tom and the Choctaw tribe in the Louisiana-Florida parishes.

“She lists her father’s name as Indian Tom, and he’s a full-blooded Choctaw. This document is so important to the Choctaw history right here in Amite, Louisiana,” Harrell said.

There is one story that is largely unknown but integral for much of the Black community in Amite.

“Some of these communities sort of remind me of Rosewood, like the Vernon family history, Free Bob’s family history. Free Bob was a former slave and he purchased his freedom,” she recalled.

Born enslaved in 1832, not only did Robert Vernon—known as Free Bob—purchase his freedom, he also bought nearly 3,000 acres of land to build a small, Black community with its own church, cemetery and schools. The area was once called Vernon Town.

“I am the great great granddaughter of Free Bob,” said Glyniss Vernon Gordon, an Amite resident.

After his death in 1915, Free Bob left more than one hundred acres to each of his 17 children, and the land is still in the Vernon family today.

“If he couldn't read and write and he wanted us to know the values of life through education, we grabbed a hold it. And we're still holding onto it,” Gordon said. “And we're going to task it out to each generation."

Five generations later, Free Bob’s family has established itself, passing down his legacy through their work.

“I was the first African American in the city of Amite to be elected to the city council. I served three terms,” Gordon said.

Although the story of Vernon Town is not new, there are many people in the area who have never heard it. But Gordon says that is beginning to change.

“I think the door is just beginning to crack open... I think so for the white population," she said. "They have known it in the past, but it takes the members of Free Bob’s family to bring it to existence, to bring it up to the surface. And that’s what we’re doing."

Working with the library at Southeastern University, Dr. Harrell has digitized decades of funeral programs from the Louisiana-Florida parishes

To view some of those archived programs, you can visit: http://www.southeastern.edu/acad_research/programs/csls/historical_collections/archival_collections/r_s/richardson_funeral_home/index.html

To view archived programs from East Baton Rouge, you can visit:

https://batonrougedigitalarchive.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16340coll17

To learn more about Dr. Antoinette Harrell’s work in exploring and preserving African American history in the Louisiana-Florida Parishes, you can visit: http://nurturingourroots.blogspot.com

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