Editor’s Note: Stories about deeply entrenched racism in our country are ever present. As a genetic genealogist, I often come across family stories of the tragedies that racism leads to and I feel compelled to share them. It is my prayer that doing so will highlight the unjust social contract under which we all live.

When researching a client’s family tree recently I became aware of the story of Joseph Hardy, a young black farmer in prohibition-era Louisiana who spent 10 years in Angola prison as an innocent man before his life sentence was commuted by the governor. It was an experience that forever ruptured his family.

Joseph Hardy’s grandson Ron Hardy set out to uncover and capture the true story of the injustice endured by his grandfather and share it with the family in 2003. He interviewed Joseph’s nephew, the last family member who was alive at the time of the event with firsthand knowledge, eventually memorializing the conversation on YouTube.

John Henry Hardy was 7 years old when his uncle Joe’s life was forever changed. What unfolds in the video in this family elder’s own words is a chilling story about the kind of radical bigotry black families in Louisiana still endured every day in the 1920’s, more than 50 years after the end of slavery.

Joseph Henry Hardy was born on April 15, 1905 in the small Louisiana town of Sibley, about 30 miles east of Shreveport. He spent most of his early life on the farm of a family named Page in Red River Parish. After marrying his sweetheart Sarah Williams, the young family set up a home on an adjacent farm overseen by John S. Glover.

According to family members, Mr. Glover was not a pleasant person. He was prominent socially and financially “but not well respected.” Joe soon realized that his family would be much happier back at his former location on the Page farm.

According to his nephew, when Joe went to tell Mr. Glover that he was moving, Glover claimed that he had made a mistake in accounting and that Hardy owed him about 5.00. The Page family then gave Joe a check to present to Glover in order to free him up financially to move next door to her farm. Glover refused the check, so Joe later returned with cash. This was likewise refused.

On Wednesday afternoon, December 23, 1925 after these unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the repayment and gain peace with Mr. Glover, 20 year old Joe Hardy began moving his wife and infant back to the farm owned by “Ole Miss” as her tenants called her.

When an armed and angry Glover arrived at the Hardy home Sarah yelled out a warning to her husband. At the time, Joe was carrying a mattress propped on his shoulder. Putting down the mattress and returning into the house, Joe grabbed his shotgun in order to defend himself.

The inevitable happened when Joseph Hardy faced an angry white landlord who attempted to punish his black tenant for wanting to have the final say about where he raised his own family. When Glover attempted to shoot him for trying to leave the farm Joe fired, killing Glover.

A posse of white men searched for several days to locate Joe Hardy. When they couldn’t find him, they ambushed his wife Sarah, chasing her into a pasture. She was subjected to electrical shocks in order to convince her to give up Joe’s location. Many of the wives of the white men in the posse eventually stood together to save her, threatening their men if they continued to hurt Sarah.

In spite of the armed, inhumane attempt to render the Hardy family powerless over their own living situation, and in spite of the fact that it was a clear case of self defense, headlines over the next few days touted how Hardy “laid in wait” for Mr. Glover. The local papers then fanned the flames of racism and bigotry with daily headlines about the “negro murderer” or “slayer.”

The actions of Red River Sheriff Floyd Jones eventually saved Joe’s life. The mob mentality had gained so much power by the time of his arrest that Joe Hardy was hidden away under a false name while he awaited his day in court. By the time of his second trial he was under the constant presence of bayonet-carrying National Guards to prevent his threatened murder.

This innocent man who had defended himself from a murderous landlord then went on to endure two separate trials that failed to convict him. His first trial in January 1926 resulted in a mistrial when jurors told the judge that they couldn’t agree on a verdict. A few days later, on February 3 jurors returned a similar message to the judge that they too couldn’t agree on a conviction.

Missing from this second trial was a defense witness who saw Glover’s own gun at his feet at the time of the event, and testified about it at the first trial. Willie Wilson, 50 was kidnapped from his home the morning before the second trial, tortured, and threatened with death if he testified a second time. The prosecution attempted to assert that Glover was unarmed and Hardy had murdered in cold blood.

A local newspaper at the time explains how the life sentence came about in spite of no conviction –

The verdict of guilty without capital punishment was reached by agreement of counsel on instruction from Judge Stephens, after the jury had reported itself unable to reach a verdict…District Attorney S.R. Thomas then asked for an instructed verdict of guilty without capital punishment and defense counsel concurred.

The judge, prosecutors, and defense counsel basically decided that in spite of the fact that two juries failed to convict him, Joseph Hardy was guilty and should spend his life in prison. It should also be noted that no black member of the community was allowed in the courthouse to witness the trial. Joseph Hardy at the tender age of 20 years old, while fighting for his life, was surrounded by white men and women, white jurors, and white lawyers.

Another newspaper account sheds light on how he must have felt –

Hardy exhibited no emotion when the verdict was rendered, but tears stood in his eyes when he was called before the judge for sentence. Asked if he had any statement to make before sentence was pronounced, he stammered out an appeal for mercy. This, the court assured him, was impossible under the verdict rendered.

Escaping repeated mob death threats, the torture of a key defense witness, and two trials that bore no legitimate fruit for the prosecution, Joseph Hardy was incarcerated, presumably for life. He spent much of the next ten years as the warden’s driver.

His prison record at Angola is telling as to who Joseph Hardy really was. “No police record” is stamped at the top. And with the sole exception of a single loss of privileges for leaving prison without permission, the page is filled with many commendations and awards for good behavior. His good service is documented for assistance with prison breaks, fire fights, cooking and in one case, “particularly loyal and valuable services during the great hurricane, June 16, 1934.”

Joseph Hardy’s official prison record from the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola)

According to John Henry, many people were behind his Uncle Joe. Those that knew him were in his corner. It was unprecedented that he had privileges that even made it possible for him to leave Angola during his time of imprisonment – with or without permission. Governor Richard W. Leche eventually commuted his sentence and had him released from Angola penitentiary on May 15, 1937.

Yet the damage was done. Joseph Hardy was barred from living in Louisiana after his release.
After ten years of incarceration from what would have been a life sentence, his family was irrevocably changed. His wife started a new life with another man. An infant daughter born after his capture was sent to live with another family in order to protect her life. (My client’s grandmother didn’t use her real last name until decades later.)

On several covert visits to Shreveport after his release – to see his love and other family members – Joe Hardy was hunted by an angry white mob that converged on the home looking for him. Thankfully he escaped each time.

An illustration of the resilient spirit of this family, one of Joseph’s great granddaughters recently told me that as unfortunate as his being kept away from his family in Louisiana was, that his Houston-based grandchildren and great grandchildren were lucky. He was a big presence in their lives in Texas.

“We got to make a lot of precious memories with Papa Joe. I still remember him in his trademark khaki pants,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to have all these times with him had he stayed in Shreveport.”

Brother Joseph Henry Hardy died in Houston in 1984. A Mason in his community, he was also a deacon, a member of the Mission Society, and the Assistant Superintendent of Sunday School at New Loyalty Baptist Church.

Unfortunately the legacy of racism and bigotry is one that none of us can escape. It is where we come from as Americans; however, learning and telling the truth about our past just might help save us from continuing to perpetuate bigotry and injustice.

Featured Photo Credit: Abandoned cellblock at Angola prison, Lee Honeycutt, Wikimedia.

Sources:

The Monroe News-Star, 4 Feb 1926, Page 1
John Henry Hardy, video interview, 2003
The (Shreveport) Times, 4 Feb 1926, Page 12
Louisiana State Penitentiary Records, 1866-1963

Learn More

The following resources shed more light on themes from this article –

“The tour leaves me weary from absorbing both the obvious human exploitation and the prison’s appalling sense of institutional pride.”
– From The Bitter Southerner’s Angola’s Angst: A Disquieting Tour Through the Largest Maximum Security Prison in the Nation

“Known throughout much of the 20th century as one of the hardest places to be incarcerated, the legend of Angola permeates deep into the dark history of American justice and racial division.”
– From New York City based photojournalist Giles Clarke’s powerful photo essay on the notorious prison.