Mattapan resident Ines Soto-Palmarin (left) helps to load a rented truck with donations of clothes, books and many other items that she plans to distribute in an economically depressed Mississippi Delta town this week. After seeing the nightmarish conditions in which many in the Delta live during a trip that she took following the death of her husband last May, Soto-Palmarin said she felt compelled to try to help the poverty-stricken people she encountered there. (Daniela Caride photo)
|Antoinette Harrell (above) says she believes the crushing poverty and deprivation that affects many, especially blacks, living in the rural South — exemplified by the decrepit home of one Lambert, Miss., family shown below — is the result of America’s history of slavery and peonage. To shed light on the situation and try to help out, Harrell and Mattapan resident Ines Soto-Palmarin founded Gathering of Hearts. (Harrell: Walter C. Black Sr. photo; Home: Shawn Escoffery photo)
Last October, Ines Soto-Palmarin decided to go on a trip to the Mississippi Delta with a friend to take a break from the nightmare she was living in. Her husband, Jorge Palmarin Jr., had died of cancer in May. He was just 37.
When she got there, though, she found things were even worse.
She saw families living in decrepit wooden homes with trash bags for windows. They made fires outside and wore all the clothes they had to survive harsh winter nights. Children played on the dirt roads with cans, the only “toys” available.
In the town of Lambert, Miss., Main Street was a handful of beaten-up vacant stores. The few markets around sold only cigarettes, liquor and potato chips. The old railroad stop tower, where African Americans used to be lynched and hanged, was still standing, surrounded by white cotton fields that went as far as her eye could see.
“Life [with my husband] was being out there helping people and our family,” said Soto-Palmarin, her eyes welling with tears as she sat in her Mattapan home.
“So I thought helping those people would be a good way to heal and honor my husband,” she added. “I had to come back and do something.”
The 34-year-old senior planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority took vacation time and left Boston on Monday in a truck loaded with donations, accompanied by family and friends. In New Orleans, they will meet up a bus tour led by genealogist and researcher Antoinette Harrell, Soto-Palmarin’s partner in Gathering of Hearts, the organization they co-founded to help the impoverished people of the Mississippi Delta.
On Friday, the truck and the bus will lead a convoy to the Mississippi counties of Coahoma, Washington, Sunflower and Quitman. Politicians, community leaders and curious citizens on the tour will witness Harrell and Soto-Palmarin distributing clothes, books and many other items in Lambert, a Quitman County town with 1,500 inhabitants.
The tour will then visit other areas and, before going back to New Orleans on Sunday morning, stop by a local restaurant to discuss what they saw and what they think might be the next steps toward helping those communities.
Among the issues that Harrell, 48, wants to discuss in this meeting are the consequences of poverty in the Delta, which she said are devastating — 70 percent of the people that she has interviewed there could not read or write.
“There’s no poverty like rural poverty. There’s no public transportation. The nearest job may be 30, 40 miles away,” she told the Banner during a phone interview.
“The history of slavery, racism and oppression in this country [is visible] there,” added Soto-Palmarin.
Harrell agrees, tracing much of the poverty in the rural South to the legacies of slavery and peonage. Many Delta residents, whom she calls “slaves of poverty,” have been living in extreme conditions since President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Having nowhere else to go or not knowing what to do, many freed slaves isolated in deep rural areas in the South continued working against their will for their former masters, sometimes even at gunpoint, to survive and feed their families.
This system of peonage, according to Harrell’s research, continued in America until the 1970s, spread around sixteen states. In Mississippi, 27 counties practiced peonage. Searching through the National Archives, she said she found countless litigation cases of peonage in the South that date up to 1973. She even found letters that people wrote to five different U.S. presidents, beseeching them to investigate the practice of peonage in the Deep South.
“There were people who were lynched. There were murders [taking place] in the plantations,” said Harrell, who said she became aware of peonage when she met a woman who said she had not been freed until the 1970s.
“Many are afraid to talk about what they’ve been through,” she added, saying that some fear for their lives.
“Hundreds of thousands” were peons in the ’60s and ’70s, according to Harrell. Most were African Americans. Some were Native Americans, Latinos and even Europeans.
“I talked to people who didn’t get off the plantations until 1988,” said Harrell.
When Harrell traveled to the Mississippi Delta for the first time last July, she couldn’t even interview them as planned.
“They were hungry and it was cold,” she said. “So before they could talk about their life experience as former sharecroppers, I first had to give them something to eat and get them a blanket to keep them warm.”
After that experience, Harrell started collecting donations, giving lectures and spreading the word about what she saw in the Delta, in an attempt to give those families some relief. The extra push she needed came three months later, when she met Soto-Palmarin.
“Ines has done an outstanding job … I think of her as an angel that was sent,” said Harrell.
And Harrell plans to grab this opportunity with both hands. With Soto-Palmarin’s help, she intends to send videos and photographs from the trip to agencies like the Anti-Poverty Initiative that can offer help.
“This bus tour will reveal things to people that they would just not believe [are] happening in this country,” said Harrell.
They are also planning a trip to visit the 16 states where people were held against their will in the 20th century, among other endeavors. Their goal is to persuade government officials to enact new policies that will help those people overcome extreme poverty.
“The more we become educated on the foundations of poverty, [the better]. We can’t just take what we find in the history books,” Harrell said.
“We need to have congressional hearings on poverty. We need to have people who have been living without food, without heat without water to speak before Congress. They need to hear those voices.”
Soto-Palmarin said she will do everything in her power to help Harrell achieve her goals. Despite the pain she still feels in the absence of her husband, she said, Gathering of Hearts keeps her going.
“It’s a tragedy,” she said. “But there’s a lot of beautiful stuff coming out of this tragedy.”
For more information on Gathering of Hearts, visit Harrell’s Web site at http://www.american-slavery.org.
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