In 1937, Chester, Charles, and Morgan Jones were stuck in a Louisiana jail, charged with theft. But from their perspective, they were the victims. They’d been hired by Dewey Helms, a nightclub owner from El Dorado, Arkansas. Meeting Helms must have felt like a stroke of luck—they were musicians, and he had a club. Instead, they found themselves trapped. The “contract” they’d entered into was actually debt peonage. Helms gave the brothers advances on their salaries and paid for some of their instruments, until eventually they were just working to pay off their debt. As historian Amy Absher explains, “The individuals held in this form of bondage receive no pay because their earnings are supposedly being applied to a debt.” But the debt never gets smaller and, in fact, it often increases as “the owner adds to the debt to accommodate the expenses of food, housing, or missed days of work.”
Debt peonage was a common form of forced labor, often associated with farm labor, but, as Absher notes, it can be a part of any labor relationship. And in the early twentieth century, Black musicians, like many other types of workers, found themselves trapped in its cycle.
This exploitative cycle was a common occurrence in the South following slavery’s abolition. As historian N. Gordon Carper points out, by 1915 “at least six former slave-holding states had statutes which made it possible to compel men to labor for others against their will.” Peonage “levee camps” were set up in the 1920s to rebuild after catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River. Phosphate mines, turpentine farms, and lumber mills were also frequent peonage sites. Black musicians found themselves “working without any kind of union or legal protections,” making them easy targets for economic coercion, Absher writes.
By most accounts, when the Jones brothers left home, they were in search of orchestra work. They each played an instrument—trumpet, saxophone, and trombone—and Helms, who owned several businesses and a nightclub in or on the edge of the city’s Black neighborhood, had a touring orchestra. He staffed it with Black musicians “so his establishments would seem ‘authentic.’”
At first, it seemed like a good arrangement. They played on the road and for two nights a week at Helms’s club. They earned $2.50 a night, but as Helms told the FBI, who were investigating the arrests on charges of violating the brothers’ Thirteenth Amendment rights, “they regularly drank and gambled their earnings away.” According to Helms, they were also frequently late on their rent payments, accommodations that, presumably, were also part of their debt. They were working without pay with a steadily mounting debt. All they had of value that belonged to them were their instruments.
Though they’d had some instruments of their own, Helms bought more, including a gold-plated tenor saxophone. At some point, however, the brothers pawned their instruments along with some of their personal items. According to Absher, the one item that wasn’t pawned was the gold saxophone. Helms found out and claimed their instruments from the pawn shop—but not without telling the pawn shop owner not to “trade with these boys any more.” This last move, Absher explains, further doomed the brothers, as “Helms was guaranteeing that if they needed money, they would have to ask him for it.” Helms then accused them of theft and leaving without his permission, and he had them arrested. Morgan Jones admitted he took the gold saxophone, only “because it represented the amount Helms owed them.”
The trio was eventually released into Helms’s custody, and because he’d paid for their instruments and their fines, their debt increased. They again agreed to play in his’ orchestra until their debt was paid, but “one night, in an automobile Helms had stolen from them, they again escaped.” The FBI investigated again after this second escape, but no additional charges were filed against the Jones brothers or Helms. As Absher puts it, “The only element that received significance was the maintenance of the status quo.”