HOUMA, LOUISIANA-- Growing up as a African American kid in California with two parents who had spent time in the South, I knew the old stories. My mother was a teenager living in Memphis, Tennessee at the height of the civil rights movement. My father grew up in California, but would visit relatives in Louisiana; eventually registering for college at Grambling State University. Both believed it was an essential part of their children's black experience to teach them black culture and history.
Much to my irritation, often times my Saturday morning cartoons would be interrupted with conversations about race, a showing of a black history documentary, or I would be whisked away to a family elder's home who would then paint stories of the past. Eventually, my irritation of these events turned into an appreciation of the history of mankind and the overall joy of my dominant culture.
I am no stranger to the stories of slavery or pictures of slaves and one notorious picture usually comes up in the history books frequently. It is of a man sitting in a chair with his back towards the camera. His back is riddled with raised keloid scars from his run-ins with a whip. Until a recent visit to Houma's newly opened "Finding Our Roots African American Museum," I did not know his name.
"It's a story that needs to be told to see what all happened to those people," said Margie Scoby, the museum's president and founder.
Gordon was a sugarcane laborer and he was a slave from Louisiana.
Octavia Victoria Rodgers Albert, was a Georgia-born African American author who relocated to Houma, Louisiana around 1877. She interviewed the former enslaved for a book that would one day be widely known as "The House of Bondage." In one account she interviews a man named George. George bears quite a few similarities to Gordon.
After reading Octavia's book, and doing extensive study, Margie believes George and Gordon could very well be the same person. Gordon, or "Whipped Peter," and George are both from South Louisiana.
"Clearly after reading, the names tied in. In the Library of Congress, I found three slaves, named Peter, Gordon and George. Instantly I said, this must be our George!"
Dr. Clyde C. Robertson is the Director of the Center for African American Studies for Southern University of New Orleans. Dr. Clyde informed me that a tree is the word used to describe the intricate keloid markings on the backs of slaves who had been whipped.
Often the question comes up as to why slaves, who outnumbered their owners did not fight back. The truth is they did in a number of ways. Gordon's scars were meant to be a permanent badge of dishonor. Instead, they show a people who fought back. Gordon was whipped for his repeated attempts at escaping. The fight to end slavery was the country's first civil rights movement.
Margi Scoby, keeps a box of tissue her her exhibit. As people who walk through take a look at George and the many other stories of freedom, the scars of slavery are still painful.
"What we have now is something that these people risked their lives for. Freedom didn't come as easily as we thought it would."
In 1863, Gordon (or George) escaped to a union camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gaining his freedom.
The Finding our Roots African American Museum is full of other interesting artifacts. One artifact, especially worth the drive down to Houma is a book of slave baptism records acknowledged by the Houma Thibodaux Diocese.