Louisiana: The last slave state in America

This scene of Black prisoners being marched to work in the fields on the Louisiana plantation-now-prison at Angola by an armed white guard on horseback has been enacted daily for more than 100 years. As of 2016, the ACLU determined Louisiana has the highest rate of prison deaths per capita in the whole US – a genocidal fact owed to the 1898 ratification to the state’s Constitution allowing non-unanimous juries that sentence Blacks to die in prison.

by Anthony Boult

In the year 1619, more than 300 kidnapped Africans were forced onto the slave ship, Sao Joao Bautista, in Luanda, a slave trading port in the Portuguese colony of Angola. Their transatlantic journey to the New World was filled with terror and death as nearly a third of those on board died before the ship docked in Jamaica to purchase medicine and supplies. 

As the Bautista continued sailing to its final destination of Veracruz, Mexico, it was captured by the Treasure and the White Lion, two heavily armed privateer English warships in search of gold and other valuables. Since there was no gold, the privateers seized as many healthy slaves as they could. 

Twenty of those captives – 17 men and three women – landed in Jamestown, Va., making them the first generation of Africans to land in North America. Those slaves and millions of others would remain enslaved until 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation freed most slaves. 

Although the state of Louisiana approved the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves the following year, there are presently 1,600 men and women in the state of Louisiana who remain illegally enslaved today.

To substantiate this assertion, we must first look at the period after 1867, the Reconstruction Era, when the radical Republicans in Congress passed civil rights acts and constitutional amendments which called for civil and voting rights for freed African slaves. For a decade, Reconstruction allowed freed slaves to thrive as elected officials, businessmen, editors and more. 

It was against this backdrop that whites across the South – Louisiana in particular – waged a bloody campaign of murder and terrorism against Blacks because of the fundamental rights they had been afforded. In an effort to restore order and to protect those rights, Congress passed the Forces Acts. Nevertheless, the violence against Blacks would only get worse. 

The United States Supreme Court began to create laws that sanctioned discrimination. Most notably was the court’s 1896 separate but equal ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The court’s decision would protect segregation for a half century while also promoting the passage of new, more comprehensive Jim Crow laws. 

In 1873, during a disputed election, a heavily armed group of whites used cannons and rifles to disband a group of armed freedmen who were attempting to maintain Republican control of the town of Colfax, La. As a result, 280 Blacks were massacred, 50 of whom had surrendered. 

Weary of crusading for the rights of Blacks, the federal government and the Republicans accepted the ex-confederates’ ascendancy back to political and economic power. This event led to the reestablishment of white supremacy in Louisiana. The betrayal was assisted by every institution in the country, including the white church who blessed the oppression and the academic communities whose studies suggested that Blacks were at the bottom of the evolutionary scale.

Moreover, the United States Supreme Court began to create laws that sanctioned discrimination. Most notably was the court’s 1896 separate but equal ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The court’s decision would protect segregation for a half century while also promoting the passage of new, more comprehensive Jim Crow laws. 

Consequently, two years later an all-white group of Louisiana delegates during the constitutional convention of 1898 sought to legally re-institute slavery by ratifying the state’s constitution to allow non-unanimous juries for the first time in Louisiana history.

Despite the unconstitutionality of the state’s amendment to its constitution and the racial animus in which it was crafted, the law passed with great fanfare. The law worked just as designed, rendering the African American vote meaningless while also making it easier to convict African American defendants. The law also created alarming disparities in the rate of arrests, severity of prosecutions and length of sentences between Black and whites that have continued for more than 121 years. 

Today, African Americans comprise 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but make up 70 percent of the state’s prisoners. These numbers clearly establish that Louisiana’s diabolical plan to reinstitute a new form of slavery is not simply racism – but a systematic strategy to destroy the dignity of the Black family and suppress the legal, political and socioeconomic rights of African Americans.

This is Angola Prison in 1934. That’s Leadbelly in the foreground.

However, in 2018, Louisiana’s citizens voted to amend its Constitution, requiring jury unanimity in all felony cases committed after Jan. 1, 2019. The following year, the United Sates Supreme Court, in the case of Ramos v. Louisiana, declared non-unanimous juries unconstitutional. 

In spite of this landmark decision, there are more than 1,600 prisoners who remain subjected to the previous law’s racist history. The majority of these prisoners were sentenced to life in the infamous Louisiana State Prison at Angola, a former slave plantation named after the country from where those first North American slaves departed more than 400 years ago. 

However, on Dec. 2, 2020, the nation’s highest court heard arguments in the case of Thedrick Edwards v. Louisiana. After some time, the Court will determine if Edwards’ conviction by a non-unanimous jury should be applied retroactively to defendants whose convictions are final. However, most historians, legal scholars and even Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson agree: The history of Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury scheme acts as its own advocate for the retroactive application of the court’s decision in Ramos. 

Anthony Boult is a published author.

After all, to correct a historical injustice via the Constitution yet deny those same constitutional rights to defendants who have been convicted and sentenced to die in prison is beyond reproach. Laws are not the same as justice as such; it is the duty of the nation’s highest court to purge the legalized and state sanctioned discrimination in which 1,600 Louisiana slaves remain incarcerated.

Anthony Boult has served nearly 27 years of a life sentence. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry and is a gang interventionist and published author of “The Beauty of Change.” Send our brother some love and light: Anthony Boult, 279530, Louisiana State Prison MP, Angola LA 70712.