In the town of Amite, Louisiana, a family-owned funeral home has served the Black community for generations, storing decades of information in the process through the records of funeral programs.
“One day I sat down and started looking at them, and I said, ‘oh look at the history I didn’t know about the Amite colored school.’ The Black experience in the Florida parishes has been undocumented,” Dr. Antoinette Harrell, local historian and genealogist, told WBRZ News.
Harrell was doing research when she came across history and documents including the little-known story of Robert “Free Bob” Vernon, a former slave who bought his freedom and 3,000 acres of land to carry on his legacy. On that land, he built a small, Black community with its own church, cemetery and school. The area became known as Vernon Town.
Born in 1832 in Rankin County, Mississippi as a slave, Robert Free Bob died in July 1915 in Tangipahoa Parish. He was nicknamed Free Bob in order to not to confuse him with his white father, Robert Vernon, Sr. Robert Free Bob had 17 children — Willie, Riley, Georgia, Lula, Jim, Nancy, Isaac, John, Florence, Emma, Guy, Sam, Owen, Toby Stamp, Anna, Lettie, and Robert Vernon, III, according to Harrell.
He married three times. His first wife and sons were sold off as slaves on a plantation in Mississippi. “Robert worked hard to purchase his freedom. He later moved to Louisiana where his father Robert Vernon lived. He built a cabin on one hundred and sixty acres; his father told him that if he worked hard to cultivate the land for five years, he could become the owner of the land. Robert took the challenges on and began working hard on two plots of land,” Harrell wrote.
Later, Robert Free Bob learned that his first wife who was sold away in slavery had died and their two young sons were alone in Mississippi. Robert Free Bob traveled to Mississippi and brought the two boys back to live with him in Louisiana with his new family. Over time, he purchased more land and became successful in real estate. He eventually built Vernon Town after buying 3,000 acres of land.
After his death in 1915, Robert Free Bob left more than one hundred acres to each of his 17 children. The land is still in the Vernon family today. His descendants are not doing badly, carrying on his legacy through work. Glyniss Vernon Gordon, an Amite resident and a great great granddaughter of Free Bob, was the first African American in the city of Amite to be elected to the city council. She served three terms. Others have also worked as attorneys, doctors, engineers, educators, and religious leaders.
“If he couldn’t read and write and he wanted us to know the values of life through education, we grabbed a hold it. And we’re still holding onto it,” Gordon said. “And we’re going to task it out to each generation.”
Vernon Town is an unincorporated town that many of Robert Free Bob’s descendants still describe as home. Many of the people living there do not know the town’s history and the story of Robert Free Bob but that is changing, said Gordon.
“I think the door is just beginning to crack open… I think so for the white population. They have known it in the past, but it takes the members of Free Bob’s family to bring it to existence, to bring it up to the surface. And that’s what we’re doing.”