Valley Voices

Touring a former home of slaves leads to appreciation for freedom

A single-room home that remains at a plantation near New Orleans.
A single-room home that remains at a plantation near New Orleans. Contributed

Looking for reading material to fill time while we waited for our flight during our vacation, I dusted off the box of books in the corner of the garage. It was hot, so I quickly shuffled through the dozen or so books I had accumulated over the years. One caught my eye and I pulled it out. Catherine Morison Rehart’s, “The Valley’s Legends and Legacies,” Volume V. History fascinates me and so it was perfect for the occasion. Besides, we were headed to New Orleans for fun at night and to learn about the rich history of that city during the day. The French, Spanish and Americans all controlled it during various times.

My wife suggested we visit a plantation on our trip and see how life was back then. I too was curious about how life was at the early stages of what would become America. The following day after arriving in New Orleans, we toured two plantations: Evergreen and Oak Alley. Both locations have been used in movies.

sevag slave
Sevag Tateosian Fresno Bee file

As we began to walk around, sweat poured down our faces. It was hot and humid. The mansions were beautiful, built with attention to detail. As we got out of the mansions, we visited the slave quarters, which were nothing like the mansions we had just viewed. Both plantations have well intact slave quarters. At Evergreen, we actually got to go inside these quarters. While we thought outside was hot, inside the quarters were even hotter. There was no breeze to cool us down.

I stood there and began to envision what life would be like in that tight atmosphere. I imagined finally being able to rest after a tough day at work, especially for those harvesting the sugar cane. Coming home to a tight area where bedroom, dining room and fireplace are all in one area would surely add to the difficult times the slaves endured. It was a surreal moment, being in the actual place that people once lived.

On the flight back I wondered if our Valley had a connection to slaves. Specifically, I wondered if any slaves found their way here. It’s a touchy subject and one that is not easily talked about. I didn’t have to go far to find out. The answer to my question was in Ms. Morison Rehart’s book. On Page 132, under the title “A Great Document Is Celebrated,” Ms. Morison Rehart writes about a gathering to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The story goes that about 150 people attended the celebration at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, then located at Tuolumne and G Streets. According to Ms. Morison Rehart, at the end of the service, in his closing remarks, Dr. Thomas Boyd of the First Presbyterian Church asked the audience if any had been slaves. Twelve elderly men and women stood up.

After reading that section, I thought of those 12 men and women. What an incredible story of resilience they must have had. I wondered what went through their minds the moment they learned they were free men and women, and not the “chattel” of others (as slaves were referred to back then).

Curious about the location of the church, I walked down Fulton and headed west on Tuolumne. Past Broadway I began to climb the recently renovated bridge. As I looked down, I didn’t see any evidence of a church. Just commercial properties and vacant, dirt lots. From the top of the Tuolumne bridge, I envisioned the 12 men and women walking out of the church, free. No longer were they being directed to work against their will in harsh conditions. Once the property of others, these free men and women ended up here and their stories are added to the fabric of Fresno’s story.

Sevag Tateosian is host and producer of Central Valley Ledger on 90.7 FM KFSR Fresno, and CMAC Comcast 93 and Att 99.