Genealogist sounds alarm for child safety
26th December 2012 · 0 Comments
By J. Kojo Livingston
Last week an internationally renowned Black genealogist and poverty activist put out a national call for a major change in how the USA and the world values children. The call followed a report from Florida detailing abuses and cover ups at a Florida reform school which was closed in 2011 after years of allegations of abuse. Two days later a school was attacked in Connecticut.
Antoinette Harrell has been featured on the covers of national publications such as Time magazine and has traveled the world speaking, teaching and doing research on genealogy and peonage. Her research in genealogy led her to become involved in work to help poor families in rural Louisiana and Mississippi.
The recent discovery of 96 graves at a Florida reform school caused her to issue a national call to action just days before the Connecticut shootings in which one man took the lives of 20 children and six adults. Many of the boys who died at the Dozier Reform School in Marianna, Florida had been beaten, tortured and sexually abused. The University of South Florida is using imaging technology to locate graves that were never reported. Nearly 100 were located on the African-American side and more are expected to be found.
Harrell said she was outraged but not surprised at what was discovered at the school, “It revealed what I knew already; that things that are taking place in these system that are consistent with slavery, peonage and sharecropping. When you do genealogical research you always come across stories of rape, abuse and incest that families don’t like to talk about openly. Children have been under attack for a long time, without anyone to advocate for them. They are the most vulnerable targets.”
Mary Joseph, the state Director for the Children’s Defense Fund, a national child advocacy group agrees, “Children can’t vote, so many times they are the first to be abused in so many ways. We are shocked at what happened in Connecticut and other school shootings but what the public does no know is that children are being killed every day somewhere in the United States. It’s an epidemic that must be stopped.”
Harrell says that she does not believe that Dozier is unique. “It’s not the only place like this. It may be the worst, but this is happening across the country. And it’s been happening for a long time. All through peonage and sharecropping people came up missing. Some were on chain gangs. Nobody talks about the medical farms where children were experimented on or the logging farms. These things have always been in place and research has revealed it. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if other places like that come up.”
The Dozier school was exposed when former students began writing books about their experiences. They called themselves “The White House Boys” because that was the name of the building where much of the beating and abuse took place. They filed lawsuits and took other actions to expose the school. Finally in 2009 former student Roger Kiser published a book entitled, The White House Boys, an American Tragedy. There is now a documentary and a website. The book details the horrors these children endured, including beatings with leather straps that left many soaked in their own blood and unconscious. Others did not survive.
According to Harrell, “The documentary talks about sexual abuse and what happened to African-American children but you don’t really see a large percentage of them in the documentary. There were all nationalities.”
Riser, who is white, says that the Black children suffered worse abuse. Like the others he describes the experience as hell, and recounts hearing the screams of children asking God to save them. Harrell has interviewed Riser on her “Nurturing Our Roots” Internet radio and cable TV programs. They can be accessed through her Nurturing Our Roots webpage.
Both Harrell and Joseph agree that everyone must get involved on some level to create a society that is safe for children. “There are so many ways our children are being attacked,” says Joseph, “The elimination of health care and public education, the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline, other forms of neglect and abuse are all part of the crisis that threatens our children.” CDF has a number of local and national initiatives to address the well-being of children and a website with information.
Harrell, who had a leg amputated earlier this year, started a gallery which features children’s art and continues to do outreach work to address poverty and peonage. Her genealogical research has led her to speak to numerous people who were victimized as children but never spoke out for fear that no one would believe them or care. “First the community has to hear and listen to what is being taught to them and said. I have put a lot of information about this case on Facebook and only a few have even looked at it. It’s the same thing that happens to abused and missing children; no one says anything. Where is the concern for children? What happened in Dozier should never have happened.”
Harrell says the solution begins with taking the problem more seriously, “I think that for M. L. King Day we should not be thinking about parades. We have the mass destruction of our children, which is a serious crisis that we should be dealing with. If Dr. King could speak to us he would say ‘Not another parade. See how much work can be done to protect the children.’ It could be my child; it could be your child. Each one is all of our responsibility.”
This article was originally published in the December 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper