Emily Sims Motley as depicted by her grandson, Archibald John Motley, Jr., in Mending Socks.
The Motley family of Chicago has made more than its fair share of contributions to African American culture. The family includes Archibald Motley, Jr., a renowned painter of the Harlem Renaissance era; Willard Motley, a novelist; and Archibald J. “Archie” Motley, Jr., a pioneering African-American archivist. Many of this famous family’s followers associate them with the Crescent City but the family roots from the sugar-cane growing region of Assumption Parish along Bayou Lafourche.
Archibald John Motley, Jr. was one of the greatest African American portraitists and a major contributor to the body of Black art. His works deal with a wide range of subjects, from variation in skin tone, to nightlife, to the Jazz scene. He was born in New Orleans on 7 October 1891 to Archibald Motley and Mary Huff. His mother was from Plaquemine in Iberville Parish. His father was born about 1863 on Elm Hall Plantation to Archibald Motley and Emily Sims. Willard Motley, the novelist who was famous for his 1947 Knock on Any Door, was born to Florence Motley, Archibald J. Motley’s older sister, yet he was reared by his maternal grandparents. Willard and Archibald regarded each other as brothers. Shown above is a beautiful painting Archibald Motley created of his grandmother, Emily Sims Motley.
Willard Motley shown on the cover of his book Knock on Any Door.
Archibald’s grandfather and Willard’s great-grandfather, Archibald Motley, was born about 1843 in Kentucky. Along with his wife, Emily, his mother, Frances, his brothers Reuben and James “Jim,” and their wives, Christina “Chrissie” and Charlotte, respectively, they were enslaved on the Elm Hall Plantation just north of the town of Napoleonville in Assumption Parish. Elm Hall, which was beautifully captured in 1859 by the artist Marie-Adrien Persac, was owned by Dr. Ebenezer Eaton Kittredge.
As an example of the records which can be found in the National Archives, shown above is a labor contract executed by Dr. Kittredge with the ex-slaves on his plantation dated 4 February 1864. Named in the contract are Archibald “Archie,” Reuben, and James “Jim” Motley, their mother, and their wives. Labor contracts like the one presented were negotiated by agents of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. As with the Motleys, these records are often the first times that previously enslaved individuals are listed with surnames. They are also quite revelatory about the post-Civil War period, when the system of sharecropping all but replaced the slave labor of antebellum days.
The present author’s great-great-great-great-grandparents, Monroe James Rhodes and Malvina Johnson Rhodes, were enslaved on Elm Hall Plantation alongside the Motleys. As recently as 1910, when his great-grandmother, Mamie Alexander Honora, was born, his ancestors lived on Elm Hall Plantation. Rhodes descendants, most notably labor activist Gustave Rhodes, still worked and lived on Elm Hall as recently as the 1970s.
Sources: Records of the Field Offices for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (RG 105, Reel 40), Labor Contracts, Ascension and Assumption Parishes 1864-1868.
Jari C. Honora