ZANN’S PLACE: Tracking down the Louisiana 16


Exploring African American cemeteries with James Robinson and Al Burns.
Courtesy photo by Zann Nelson

It is a new day and one full of promise!

I returned to the farm about a month ago after a six-week expedition to Louisiana. Trip, vacation or even journey are words that do not come close to describing the experience. The Oxford English Dictionary defines expedition as a journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research, or war. Most of the description is apropos except for the war piece and a clarification of “a group of people.”

There were no traveling companions: only me. Yet, there were dozens of others involved: as financial and moral supporters, colleagues assisting with the ground work and everywhere I landed there were others seeking the same truths and more than willing to share. The expedition was transformative as I imagine it is for most who engage in such things.

The nuts and bolts of the exploration and research were to come to some level of closure on the quest for the Louisiana 16. In 1834  James Madison sold those individuals-who may or may not have been 16 in number- to William Taylor who relocated them to Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana.

The goals are to learn the identities of the enslaved, the nature of the lives that were also transformed by their journey and to connect with living descendants. Along the way, I have learned so much more!

Virginia and Louisiana laws regarding the enslaved; the financial conditions of many of the Virginia aristocracy not exclusive to Mr. Madison; and some insight into James Madison’s thinking perhaps, not unlike our own when confronted with ill health and financial distress were informative byproducts of the research and beneficial to the overall picture. But none so much as a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the Domestic Slave Trade (DST).

I do not remember studying this topic in high school or college; maybe an advanced degree with a specialization in African American history. But then again, American history lessons have bypassed much of what occurred. Sweeping under the table, glossing over, or not divulging such history is not the solution. I had the distinct privilege to address a class at So. University at New Orleans on the subject of DST, hopefully sparking a desire to know more!

A study of the DST is a study in American politics, economics. expansion, agriculture, and science. The business was in full force from the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 until 1860. Relocated to the cotton states of the deep south during this period were more than one million enslaved people from the upper South primarily Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.  Virginia was the leading exporter moving an estimated five hundred thousand people of color.

An analysis of the DST offers a grasp of the political position of the Southern states, their dependence on slave labor and their subsequent engagement the American Civil War.

It also provides a much more complete and mindful knowledge of the pain suffered at the time and the ongoing legacy that remains created by families torn asunder and lost to one another in perpetuity.

The bulk of my time in Louisiana was spent among these descendants who hold family as precious and possess a heartening faith that lifts them far beyond the terrors of the past and the trials of the present. They amply satisfied the phrase in the definition that specified “a group of people.”

Indeed, it is a new day filled with promise of a better tomorrow.

Until next week, be well.