Sisters: We Were Modern-Day Slaves

ByABC News

Dec. 20, 2003 -- As Mae Miller tells it, she spent her youth in Mississippi as a slave, "picking cotton, pulling corn, picking peas, picking butter beans, picking string beans, digging potatoes. Whatever it was, that's what you did for no money at all."

Miller and her sister Annie's tale of bondage ended in the '60s — not the 1860s, when slaves officially were freed after the Civil War, but the 1960s.

Their story, which ABCNEWS has not confirmed independently, is not unheard of. Justice Department records tell of prosecutions, well into the 20th century, of whites who continued to keep blacks in "involuntary servitude," coercing them with threats on their lives, exploiting their ignorance of life and the laws beyond the plantation where they were born.

‘Don’t Run Away — They’ll Kill Us’

The sisters say that's how it happened them. They were born in the 1930s and '40s into a world where their father, Cain Wall, now believed to be 105 years old, had already been forced into slave labor.

"It was so bad, I ran away" at age 9, Annie Miller told ABCNEWS' Nightline. "But they told my brother they better come get me. I ran to a place even worse than where I were. But the people told my brothers, they go, 'You better go get her.' They came [and] got me and they brought me back.

"So, I thought Dad could do something about that," she said. "You know, I told him, said, 'I'm gonna run away again.' He said, 'Baby, don't run away. They'll kill us.' So, I didn't try it no more."

The Millers' story came to light recently when Mae Miller walked into a workshop on the issue of slave reparations run by Antoinette Harrell-Miller, a genealogist.

"She said, 'I have to tell you my story. My dad is 104. He's still living. He has some stories that he can tell you when we were still held in slavery,' " Harrell-Miller recalled.At first, Harrell-Miller needed some convincing, but, "When I looked at the living conditions of the family, I understood very clearly how it's possible for people to live like that. Driving down to the deltas of Mississippi, looking at the house that they lived in, it was hard to believe that people would live in houses like that."

Now she not only believes the story, she has become something of a guardian angel in Mae Miller's life. The Miller sisters and their father, hospitalized for the past several months after suffering a heart attack — have joined a class action lawsuit in Chicago seeking reparations for the 35 million African-Americans who are descendants of slaves.

Ron Walters, a political scientist who's an advocate for slavery reparations, also believes the Miller sisters' story.

"I believe it because it is plausible," Walters said. "One of the things I think we know is that these letters [archived early in the 20th century by the NAACP] tell us that in a lot of these places, that they were kept in bondage or semi-bondage conditions in the 20th century — [in] out-of-the way places, certainly where the law authorities didn't pay much attention to what was going on."

‘Reckon It Had to Be Slavery’

Class action suits are always stronger when the plaintiffs include someone whose personal experience dramatically illustrates the wrong that's been done. It does not get more dramatic than the story the Miller sisters told about life as slaves in Mississippi.

"It's the worst I ever heard of, so I don't know what you name it," Annie Miller said. "It was very terrible. So, I reckon it had to be slavery for it to be as bad as it were."

"They beat us," Mae Miller said. "They didn't feed us. We had to go drink water out of the creek. We ate like hogs. We didn't eat like dogs because they do bring a dog to a certain place to feed dogs. We couldn't have that."

Mae Miller said she didn't run away because, "What could you run to?"

Annie Miller was frightened to discuss the experience her family left behind 42 years ago.

"They said, 'You better not tell because we'll kill 'em, kill all of you, you n----rs,'" Annie Miller said. "Why would you want to tell anybody that you was raped over and all that kind of mess? You don't tell. Who would you want to tell? I don't want to tell you. I don't want to tell nobody."

"We thought everybody was in the same predicament," Mae Miller said. "We didn't know everybody wasn't living the same life that we were living. We thought this was just for the black folks.

"I feel like my whole life has been taken," she said. "You know, they did so much to us."

ABCNEWS' John Donvan contributed to this report.

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