Skip to main content
Enslaved People in the Southeast

Sharecropping and Indenture Agreements

Indenture agreement

Indenture agreement between Angus McQueen and Ellen. Image Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved blacks had a choice: remain on the land where they had been enslaved, and work for their former slave owner, or migrate to a different location to look for work. Freed slaves that remained on the land did so for a variety of reasons, including lack of resources to move, extended family ties in and to the community, and a sense that the land was theirs, since they had worked on it for so long.

The indenture agreement from Georgia between Ellen, former slave and now freedwoman, and Angus McQueen, former slaveowner, is an example of the kinds of arrangements made by planters and their former slaves. The agreement expressly states that McQueen shall provide food, clothes and medical care for Ellen as well as for all of the “non-workers and infirm and helpless” living on the plantation, until the 25th of December, provided that Ellen agrees to remain on the plantation and “work as she has done for six days in every week.” The agreement also states that it is void if Ellen “leaves and stays away.”

The agreement, while addressing some inequalities, is still weighted heavily in the white landowner’s favor. It specifically states that Ellen must be “respectful submissive and obedient” and not leave the premises without first obtaining a “special permit” from McQueen, conditions which are effectively the same as the rules once applied to slaves. Also notable is Ellen’s signature on the agreement, an “X” and is recorded as “her mark” because (like most slaves) she had been forbidden to learn to read and write.

Another option for recently freed slaves was sharecropping, wherein they paid the landowner for the use of the land with a portion of the crop. These contracts from Florida and South Carolina, dating to 1871, were created between plantation owners, such as the Winthrop family and Thomas Green Clemson (founder of Clemson University), and multiple black sharecroppers. They show the variety of ways in which landowners made arrangements with black workers. One of the contracts specifies the amount of land to be leased and the method of payment, while the other is vague. Both of the contracts use complex legal language, and the black workers who signed them once again signed with an “X” indicating they could not read. Furthermore, their names are written in the same script as the contract.

The last item is a 1911 ‘day book’ from R. F. Van Brunt’s general store in the Lake Iamonia community outside of Tallahassee. Included are two sharecropping contracts found inside another ledger from 1911. Together, they document changes to sharecropping after reconstruction as well as local practices. The sharecropping contracts are printed with blanks to be filled in meaning they became standardized over time. The day book contains the name of one contracted sharecropper in its entries including financial balances and good purchased. The day book also evidences that local sharecroppers could purchase items on credit and pay their balance off “by cotton” or other forms of labor like “hauling."