Enslaved people of Airlie Plantation

This photo was taken by Russell Lee in January 1939 at the Transylvania Project Cooperative General Store. Airlie Plantation was located near Transylvania in Carroll Parish. Could these men be descended from the enslaved people at Airlie? Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress (2017781938).

James Green Carson was a slave owner. He owned at least 3 plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi with hundreds of slaves. Carson and his family supported the Confederacy and he most likely paid someone else to fight in his place when conscription was enacted. Three of his four sons fought for the Confederacy and at least one of them took a slave with him to the front lines as a man servant.

In my Master’s thesis, I pretty much ignored slavery as a part of Katherine Carson Breckinridge’s story. I was always more interested in the Russia years but as her biographer I had to do some research and genealogy of her parents and grandparents. She married a man whose father was a Confederate general and Secretary of War for the Confederacy. I never explored her beliefs or her husband’s beliefs or her parents’ beliefs about slavery. I looked at primary sources documenting the Carsons’ slave owning but I never studied them.

My white privilege and the narrative as I knew it clouded my research and my own bias allowed me to ignore the story of enslavement at Airlie and Carson’s other plantations. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020, I began following a number of historians and living history interpreters on Instagram to better understand how to write about the Carsons and their slave-owning past. I began reexamining the historiography I’d been taught when it came to slavery. I sought out (and continue to seek out) new history on slavery and how it affects everything in this country.

I started thinking about James Green Carson, the plantations, and the people he owned. I’d read Kate Stone’s diary (a contemporary and neighbor of the Carsons in Louisiana and later in Texas). I read her flip flopping opinions on the Confederacy and slavery. In her diary, Kate Stone is shocked when a slave runs away. She is appaulded when after the white families flee Carroll Parish as the Union Army advances leave the region, the group of slaves take over the “big house” and presume to act like the master and his family.

For years I thought about another project. One tracing the slaves owned by Carson. What happened to them after Emancipation? Did they stay in the region? Did they continue to work for the Carson family as sharecroppers? What happened to the descendants of Carson’s slave in the 20th century? During World War I or the Flood of 1927 or the Great Migration?

But with the murder of George Floyd and the protests throughout the country, I started reading and rereading secondary sources about slavery and the Lost Cause and how we got here – to this moment in time where change is possible. Then I received an email from a gentleman in New York. He’d seen my blog and was looking to find some of his relatives – people listed on the 1880 Census as living at a place called Airlie.

In my earlier research I’d looked at the Census to find Katherine Breckinridge but by 1880 she was married to Clifton Rodes Breckinridge and they were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I’d never looked at the census for KCB’s siblings still living in northeastern Louisiana and northwestern Mississippi let alone a place name of Airlie in the census.

It has been almost a year since George Floyd was murdered. It was taken me this long to decide to publish this post. I received another email today from a descendent of the Carson slaves looking for information on her relatives. It feels like the right time to start publishing the information I have collected.

I have a very limited platform but I don’t want to contribute to the issue by remaining silent. The narrative of American history is a white narrative. All of it – black, indigenous, immigrant – has been told through a lens of whiteness. And as happened with my interpretation of Katherine Carson Breckinridge’s life, white privilege and white bias has influenced the way American history is told.

I am by no means an authority or the definitive sources. Like with my other blog posts, I will share what I discover as I discover it. Please be patient with me as I explore this new material and adjust to this new view of history. I will probably use the wrong language at times. I will probably seem confused at times. But I will be honest about my struggles.

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