Wesley Barrow’s as-yet unmarked grave
All kinds of landmarks events coming in today! One, this is officially my 200th post on this humble little blog. But even more importantly, Gretna City Councilman Milton Crosby reported to me that the Wesley Barrow grave marker is at last ordered and on its way!
We still have a fair ways to go to fulfilling this project — we may need a little more money for the final payment when the stone arrives, we still have to get it in the ground at New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Gretna, and we need to schedule and promote an official dedication ceremony — but at long last the ball is moving forward and, God willing, our plans and hopes will soon come to fruition with proper recognition for a New Orleans Negro League legend.
In honor of this development, I’m going to do a post about a key and fascinating part of Wesley Barrow’s life — his residence on and work at the Georgia Plantation, a massive sugar cane-growing enterprise in Lafourche Parish.
Wesley Barrow’s family traces back to a clan of sharecroppers in West Baton Rouge Parish, with Parker Barrow as the patriarch, at least after the family emerged from slavery after the Civil War. Parker, né circa 1845, had prodigious progeny — at least nine kids, by my count so far — including Wesley Barrow Sr, who eventually established his own family in the parish. That family included Wesley Barrow Jr., the man who would become the NOLA baseball guru.
This is where the story gets paradoxically both convoluted and revelatory. How did the African-American Barrows get their surname, and how did Wesley Barrow Jr. end up toiling at the Georgia sugar plantation all the way down in Lafourche Parish?
Let’s start with Wesley Barrow Jr.’s World War I draft card, which, in addition to misspelling his name as “Westley,” indicates that he is indeed a Junior. His birthdate is listed as Nov. 11, 1899, although that conflicts with existing Social Security Records, which list it as Nov. 11, 1900. That’s a quibble in relation to this tale, however.
On the draft card, dated Sept. 12, 1918, Wesley lists his address simply as “Mathews, La.,” occupation as “field laborer,” his employer as “C.S. Mathews” and his his place of employment as “Mathews, La.”
Enter the backstory …
“C.S. Mathews” would be wealthy planter Charles S. Mathews, who belonged to an aristocratic family that dated back to George Mathews (1739-1812), a general in the Revolutionary War whose son, Judge George Mathews, served first as a justice of the Superior Court of Louisiana Territory, then as a justice on the state of Louisiana Supreme Court.
Georgia Plantation token
The Mathews family was apparently held in such high esteem that it had an entire town named after it in Lafourche Parish, located on Bayou Lafourche. That’s where Wesley Barrow and his kindred dwelled in the 1910s, on a plantation overseen by the white Mathews family for generations, culminating in the early 20th century with Charles S. Mathews and his mother, Penelope.
The Mathews family owned numerous plantations, including the Butler-Greenwood in West Feliciana Parish, Coco Bend and Chaseland on the Red River in Rapides Parish, and Georgia Plantation near Raceland in Lafourche Parish. Because Raceland is adjacent to modern-day Mathews, it was most likely, then, on Georgia Plantation that Wesley Barrow’s family toiled as sharecroppers.
The 1920 federal Census — the one taken less than two years after Wesley Barrow signed his draft card — seems to document the population of the massive Georgia Plantation in Lafourche.
Fifty-seven-year-old Charles S. Mathews is listed as residing in the seventh ward of Lafourche Parish, along with his 41-year old wife, Kathleen. Charles’ occupation is listed as “owner” of a “plantation.” Living next to him is an Edward Dickinson, a white man who’s the manager of the plantation.
There’s also hints that life on the plantation was, shall we say, colorful; on the same listing page as Mathews and Dickinson. The sprawling farm business housed a carnival troupe complete with a manager and “showmen”; a wrestler and printer for a “show”; a pilot of a showboat; stenographers, engineers, teachers and a “timekeeper”; and a manager of a general store. All of those residents are white and clustered around the Mathews residence.
But the vast majority of the people listed on the plantation are laborers either in the fields or in a sugar refinery, and most of those residents are black, with all of them in effect being sharecroppers.
Scattered among these field hands are a handful of Barrow residences, although none of them list either Wesley Barrow Sr. or Jr. However, 55-year-old Wesley Senior is stated on the 1930 Census on the Lafourche plantation as a “laborer” and a “sugar planter.”
The 1910 Census, though, could be even more revelatory in terms of how the Wesley Barrow family got its surname, because the documentation of the Georgia Plantation in Lafourche Parish that year lists both Mathewses and Barrows of both races together in the same household or living close to each other. Such a condition again presents evidence that slaveowners — and, after the war, wealthy white plantation owners — produced offspring of mixed-race heritages.
Butler Greenwood Plantation house
That linking originated at the Butler Greenwood Plantation in West Feliciana Parish; while that operation was owned and managed by the Mathews family — it was, in fact, the Mathews’ family’s primary business — it apparently also featured well-off white planters springing from Robert Hilliard Sr., who was born in 1795 and died in 1823, leaving a young widow, the former Eliza Pirrie.
The bloodline continued with Robert Hilliard Barrow Jr., a colonel in the Army who lived from 1824 to 1878 in West Feliciana Parish. Col. R.H. Barrow Jr. married his cousin, Mary Eliza Barrow, who was originally from Edgecombe County in North Carolina.
The Hilliard Barrow family tree eventually led to the highly decorated Gen. Robert Hilliard Barrow, the 27th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps who died in 2008 after growing up on his own family’s plantation in West Feliciana near St. Francisville.
But way back in 1850, the Census lists Col. Robert Hilliard Barrow Jr. and family living in West Feliciana Parish. R.H. Barrow is listed as a “planter” who owns a whopping $220,000 of real estate, which, accounting for inflation, translates to more than $6 million today. Listed on the same page are two other Barrow “planters,” Bartholomew, who owns $3,000 of real estate; and David, who possesses an incredible $300,000 of land, or nearly $8.2 million today.
By the time the 1860 Census rolled around on the eve of the Civil War, the Barrows had massively expanded their economic empire near St. Francisville. R.H. Barrow owns $126,000 in real estate and a staggering $326,000 in personal property, which in all likelihood includes numerous slaves. Meanwhile, David Barrow is obscenely wealthy for his era, owning a total of more than $1.5 million in property, or a massive $38.3 million in today’s dollars.
Tangentially, later Census reports bear out the fact that the white Barrow clan mixed with their slaves and, later, women sharecroppers. For example, in 1900 in West Feliciana, a white family headed by Robert Barrow lives right next door to a black family with a James Barrow as patriarch. In the 1920 counting, West Feliciana includes two families next to each other, one a Barrow clan, the other Hilliards. Most of the members of both families are listed as mulatto. Finally, in 1930 a “Negro” family headed by one Hilliard Barrow is living in West Feliciana.
With the wealthy white Barrow men producing mixed-race children with their slaves, the black Barrow bloodline begins, resulting in, among other strains, the one starting with Parker Barrow and running through Wesley Barrow Sr. to Wesley Barrow Jr.
The clan apparently migrated to West Baton Rouge Parish, where Parker Barrow laid down what seems to be lifelong routes. However, the family of one of his offspring, Wesley Barrow Sr., then moved to the Georgia Plantation in Lafourche Parish, where Wesley Sr. stayed as late as 1930, when that Census lists him as a laborer on the sugar plantation.
Wesley Jr. worked on the plantation well into his teens, but he eventually migrated to the big city of New Orleans, perhaps in search of better employment and, hopefully, a little baseball. When he arrived in NOLA, he lived for a time as a boarder in the city of Gretna on the Westbank and toiling as a common laborer before hopping across the river to Socrates Street in New Orleans in the early 1930s.
And that, my friends, is where the story of Wesley Barrow Jr.’s long life, career and legend in NOLA began. But that is a long, lovely tale that must be told later … Perhaps when we have a grave marker dedication celebration!