Elvin Shields Interview

Elvin Shields sitting on the porch of the cabin.
Mr. Elvin Shields on the front porch of the cabin.


Date: 6/25/2019

Time: 10am

Place: Oakland Plantation.

Interviewed by: Sukrit Sen.

Mr. Elvin Shields is an ex-army officer and served as a Quartermaster Specialist E-5 in Germany and Vietnam. He was born in the Melrose Plantation in December 1948. He and his family moved to the Oakland Plantation in 1954 for two main reasons:

He and his family were tenant farmers/share croppers and worked in the pecan orchards cotton and hay fields.

The ladies in the family also worked part time in the main house of the plantation as domestic workers.

Two of the cabins that still exist in the southern end of the plantation were used by him and his siblings. They lived in them until 1962 until the introduction of mechanization. They were asked to vacate the plot after which they moved down to Natchitoches.

Q) How many cabins were there in the past and how were they built?

A) In the past, there were around 20-25 similarly designed cabins in the Oakland Plantation. However there existed almost 800 cabins in between the Bermuda Bridge to Melrose Plantation and they varied in shapes and sizes.

Q) How were these cabins built?

A) A model cabin like the ones he lived in, had a standard design and would occupy a space of 550- 600sqft for 5-8 users. The Plantation owners would hire contractors to design and build them as per the French laws using slave labour prevalent in those times. The cabins were used both by the slaves and the share croppers. The original floors of the cabins were made of hardened clay dirt and it was only in the mid and late 60s that it was replaced with wood to introduce electricity into the houses. The walls were constructed of wood lath with a mixture of mud, moss and cotton, a method known as bousillage. These walls were covered with old newspaper or magazine pages to keep the cold winds from coming in through the cracks during winter.

Q) How were the cabins divided and how were the spaces in the cabins utilized?

A) As per the French Government, the houses occupied a space of almost 550-600 sqft. 6-8 men or women would occupy the space until after emancipation it was replaced by families. Initially the houses had a big front and back porch and a centrally placedroom. Later the back porch was converted into a kitchen and a second room.The front wide porch was one of the most important spaces in the cabin. It was the designated space for all social activities like weddings, prayer services and parties as it was better lit and ventilated than the spaces inside.The central room was mainly used for all the household activities, like dining and sleeping. The beds were made of iron and the mattresses were made of pillow ticking, corn shocks, cotton and moss. Most of the furniture was hand-made by the sharecroppers. There was no electricity and the houses were heated with wood fire and lit up using kerosene lamps. Some houses would have a battery powered radio that would catch a couple of channels for entertainment.

The kitchen was placed in the rear portion of the house with an access to the cistern outside,which would store the water used both for cooking and drinking. The water usually came from the Cane River flowing alongside, but during monsoons however, they collected the spill off rainwater from the roof into the cistern through connected gutters. The kitchen also had a wood burning stove, and in some cases, a chimney. Women in the family also used this space to iron clothes at night that they brought back from the plantation house to earn some extra money. The room adjacent to it was an extra one and used mainly by the children to sleep.


Q) Where did all these cabins go?

A) These cabins disappeared because of the introduction of mechanization in these farm lands around the 1960's. For example: one tractor would replace almost 25 men on the field. It was during this phase that the owners asked the majority of the tenant farmers to leave the plantation as not only was their service no longer required, they also wanted to demolish the cabins and make room for more crops. Few of the cabins that still stood, collapsed due to environmental calamities. Today only a handful of these cabins are left in the region most of which are abandoned and in very bad shape while some of them like the ones in Oakland and Magnolia are being maintained by The National Park Service.

Q) Where did all the tenant farmers go?
A) During mechanization, only the best of the farmers were allowed to stay back in order to control the machinery but the rest had to leave and figure out their own logistics. Most of them went down to Natchitoches or Alexandria and found themselves relatives to take shelter with,until they managed their own. Mr. Shields terms this incident as, "The Final Exodus of the blacks from the plantations." Today they are scattered all around the country but not too many are very keen in reviving the cabins that still exist in the Cane River Bank. The bygone era is like a holocaust to most and none of them want to step back to re-live these memories.

Q) With the disappearance of the cabins, how has the landscape changed over the years?

A) With the disappearance of the cabins, the entire landscape changed a lot since an entire Bermuda community of almost 300 people was removed from the region over night. The fruit trees, the gardens, the chicken pins and every other commodity that the tenant farmers used were all torn down to make space for more crops. The plantation store and the first black church that was built in the Oakland Plantation and used to be the congregation spaces for all these people back in the days, were left in complete desolation.

The whites did not prefer living down river due to mosquitoes and swampy conditions and the area remained deserted for almost 20 years until some families started setting up their camps and out houses in the area.


Q) What do you mean by a sharecropper or a tenant farmer?
A) Sharecropping or Tenant Farming was a terminology used for the people working in the plantations after emancipation. They had to work under certain circumstances as mentioned in the contract, they were made to sign. Accordingly, they were given a plot of land and were allowed to live and farm on it. Generally, Tenant Farmers would have their own mules and equipments while share croppers had to borrow it from the owners. At the end of the term, that is from planting to harvesting, they had to give away a percentage of the produce depending upon the services availed from the owner and the plantation store. More the services used, more was the share they had to give. Unfortunately, most of the farmers were uneducated and ended up with keeping very little or no crops forthemselves in most of the cases. However, the tenant farmers would often set aside a space for a little kitchen garden to grow their own food, raise chickens to eat or sell the eggs, fish or hunt to avoid using the plantation store for supplies.

Q) How was a sharecropper family's daily work- life?

A) The entire family of a share cropper would be on the field from sunrise to sunset. During the harvest season, they would drag a typical 9ft long cotton sack that could fit around l00lbs of cotton. Men who were 15 and above, were expected to collect around 3001bs of cotton everyday while the women collected around 200-250lbs. The women also worked part time in the plantation houses as maids after working hours. Kids on the plantation would also engage in picking up cotton just like their parents and had a similar 6ft long cotton sack. It was for the same; they would remain home with their parents and could not go to school until the end of harvest season in December.

Q) How was the social life of a sharecropper like?

A) The weekends, starting from Friday evening to Sunday were the only free time these share croppers would have. With the amount of effort the share croppers would put in throughoutthe week, they preferred to take it easy on the holidays. Men and women would sit on the porch, drink homemade wine, some cheese and relax. Kids would play baseball, shoot marble, go fishing, and often meander away to other plantations and nobody cared because everybody knowing each other in the area the kids would still be at the eyesight of someone or the other. They were generally asked and encouraged to go far away from their houses to meet the women and avoid being with the ones who were related to them.

However, Friday nights were known for the parties. In some of the cabins, the share cropper families would meet up over a gumbo, fry some fish or chicken, and at times sing and dance to blues music that they often referred to as "race music", since it was performed predominantly by the blacks .On Saturdays, the family would complete their house hold chores like gardening, washing cleaning etc. Neighbors would often send their boys to help others especially if someone had more girls in the family and were running behind schedule.

Sundays were the most relaxed, as they spent most of their day meeting and socializing with the other share cropper families at the church till the afternoon and take rest for the remaining part of the day to get ready for the next week.

Last updated: August 6, 2023

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