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Levi Jordan
Plantation

EVERYTHING THEY OWNED

By: Mary K. Barnes
University of Houston

Introduction to this paper, by Carol McDavid
(this introduction was written for the web site, and not delivered at the conference)
This paper details some of the very harsh conditions that African-Americans in Brazoria County had to cope with in the late 19th century. It should be noted that several
descendants of the families mentioned in this paper are very supportive of this project, despite the sometimes unflattering things about their ancestors that this research has had to reveal and discuss. They believe that social situations like the ones described in this paper should not be hidden away or masked. However, their participation in this project expresses their conviction that sometimes things DO change (as the collaborative nature of this project should illustrate). People can, and do, learn from the mistakes of the past.

One person who did learn something from his own past was, apparently, Will Martin, some of whose actions are described in this paper. I interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Holmes, whose grand-and great-grandparents lived on the plantation as slaves and, later, as tenants. They volunteered, in a very emphatic way, their personal knowledge that Will (McWillie) Martin had expressed sincere regret over the actions of his youth before he died in the 1930's. Mr. and Mrs. Holmes said that he had "repented" what he and others had done to the black people in his community; actions that are mentioned in the following paper.

 

Mary Barnes

See Maria Franklin's page on this web for her comments on this paper and the others delivered in this session.

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Since it was first reported, the unique and abundant material record and its contexts of the Levi Jordan Plantation site have begged for interpretation. Complete and functional artifacts were found within living and workspaces of the cabins that had been occupied during both slavery and tenancy. These items were found in positions relative to their use, almost as if their owners had planned to return. As discussed by Brown & Cooper in 1990, it appeared that an abrupt departure and an abandonment of the property by the African-American tenants had occurred. Indeed, at least nine cabins appear to have been suddenly abandoned. The research contained in this paper will attempt to identify a number of possible forces that may have been present within the external economic and sociopolitical community and correlate their effects with the apparent sudden exit of the residents.

The backdrop for the specific community on the Jordan plantation was the postwar economy in the war ravaged south. Emancipation created legal and economic problems for the landowners as well as the freedmen and women, after 1865. Most planters had more debts from before the war and worthless Confederate currency than cotton and bonds (Roark: 136), and in the summer of 1865 a rush to secure loans occurred. Plantation owners were faced with the elimination of the only property considered worth using as collateral, their slaves. According to Harold Woodman (1995), land without labor was not enough to secure loans to pay for supplies and wages for the production of their crops. They were faced with the task of getting their crops raised without an enslaved workforce. Initially, the enactment of crop lien laws throughout the South was utilized to secure loans for the planters and to get the agricultural economy moving forward. The pledging of the harvested crop or a portion thereof as security became the solution providing credit to the cash-short planters. Offering liens against crops in the fields for the purchase of supplies, equipment and the payment of wages became a common practice across the south. Liens could be obtained by anyone who had property to put up for collateral. However, crop liens as such were primarily given to white planters and their managers.

State and local laws put into effect in the autumn of 1865 further defined the system being developed in the south to insure a secure and dependent labor force for the planters. Beginning in 1866 laws favored white employers. They could reduce wages or fine laborers for refusing to obey orders. The African Americans could not leave the plantation or have visitors during working hours, from "can see to can’t see" or from dawn to dark (Barr and Alwyn: 56). The ‘black codes’ as they were later called, began as a systematic legal approach to regulating the freedom so recently gained by the African American workforce. Initially the reasons for these labor laws were loftily given for the protection of former enslaved men and women from the "temptations of freedom". This attitude reflected the attitude of the white planters that blacks were the "antebellum image of blacks as both immature and primitive" (140). The unstated purpose of the black codes was to limit the mobility of the African-Americans and get them back on the plantation. Once there, they would be coerced to pursue the agricultural goals of the owners. Most states made loitering or vagrancy a serious criminal act punishable with imposition of fines or imprisonment or forced labor on public projects. In Texas, according to Lawrence D. Rice (1971), no apparent racial distinction was included in the wording of the codes. However, laws on apprenticeship, vagrancy, labor contracts and the enticement of labor away from one planter by another were specifically applied to the recently emancipated population relegating them to second class citizenship (Rice: 7).

The black codes did not prevent planters from renting small plots of land outright to freedmen and women or offering shares of the crop raised in place of wages. Some landowners provided supplies, places to live (most often the slave cabins on their property), and a share of the crop in exchange for their labor. Those supplies were often obtained on credit from a merchant in the community. Accounts were paid at the end of the growing season, either with the merchant being the factor responsible for the sale of the entire crop, or the owner conducting the sale. The merchant then deducted what was owed and returned the surplus to the owner. However, the merchants were confronted with selling merchandise on account to landowners with limited resources.

In the prewar years a planter only had to orally agree to repay merchants for their line of credit. A gentleman’s word was his bond and the obvious wealth of the planter was the number of men and women that he owned and could therefore be sold readily to cover their debts. Without this property, the owners found themselves without that security and began to offer liens against the future crop when it was harvested to repay their debt to merchants as well as their workforce. At times, the value of the crop at harvest was insufficient to cover the various debts incurred by the owners and their workers. Ambiguity of judgments on crop ownership ad the division of such, and the priority of payment created increased legal activities throughout the South. Woodman (1995) examined the voluminous legal records available in the Federal Archives as well as most of the southern states’ archives. To illustrate the confusion and conflict he offers a typical example reflective of many similar cases (16). In 1866, W. Hunt and G. Driver, executor of the Driver estate in Mississippi, planned the crop for the upcoming year. They leased the plantation to Wing, Cox & Co. and officially recorded the contract. To secure the $4,000 rent agreement, Wing, Cox & Co. put up the crop raised and their animals and equipment. They hired about forty freedmen and promised both cash wages and shares for their labors at the end of the season. Merchants, White and Billingsly, provided supplies on credit also secured with a mortgage on the crop grown. The crop became burdened with liens for rent, supplies and wages.

Wing, Cox & Co. defaulted on their rent payment on October 1, 1867. Hunt and Driver then went to court and had the sheriff confiscate 24 bales of cotton, all other crops, supplies, animals and equipment and sell them to satisfy the rent debt. The sale of the crop did cover the rent, but not the merchants’ bill and the wages of forty men. With federal empowerment, the Freedmen’s Bureau stepped in to protect the wages by seizing the 24 bales of cotton and shipping them to Memphis to be sold. After receiving a court order demanding payment, the civil court in Memphis ruled in favor of White and Billingsly, the merchants. The court intended to sell the cotton in Memphis, but the proceeds would now go to the merchants instead of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s agent. Hunt and Driver then attempted to stop that sale stating their lien for rent predated the mortgage with the merchants. After much litigation the outcome was unclear and was sent to the Supreme Court of Tennessee which ruled the workers wages be paid first before either the landowner (Hunt and Driver), planters (Wing, Cox & Co.), or the merchants (White and Billingsly). The case was not resolved until 1872 in favor of the landowners; wages were not paid.

In Brazoria County, Texas, as crop shares for wages agreements were made between owners and emancipated men and women, credit became available to the laborers in two ways. If an African-American owned property or had an interest in land that he was farming, merchants began to extend credit to those individuals with means to repay their debt. Evidence of these agreements can be observed in the chattel mortgage record found in the county archives in Angleton, Texas, the county seat of Brazoria County. The majority of the entries are from merchants. This could reflect the difficulties they had with the legal quagmire of crop ownership and who had first rights to it and who did not, as illustrated above. A second, though less documented, way of obtaining credit was to deal directly with the planter. These contracts were personally held and were infrequently entered in the legal record. Levi Jordan provided agricultural supplies to tenants. Entries in the plantation journals from the early 1870’s show Jordan and later farm managers extended credit to those residing on the plantation for these items.

As planters became lessors and creditors to those working their lands, they wanted to be assured that their labor force was tied to them for the entire year. The 1874 Landlord and Tenancy Law was passed to give them yet another vehicle to control their workforce. In summary, it gave the landlord his lien on the crop, and prohibited the tenant from removing from the land anything which the landlord furnished. Further, if the tenant decided to move on, the landlord could secure a writ of attachment upon all of the tenants’ possessions (Rice: 169).

Along with these laws, according to James A. Creighton (1975), other hostile forces existed within the Brazoria County. The Ku Klux Klan had it independent beginnings in 1866. The Union Colonel in command of the occupying Union troops and responsible for protecting the newly freed men and women, when given a list of Klan members, acknowledged that they were good citizens and Masons like himself and tore up the list (262). Klan activities were not visible in the historical record, but there were organized vigilante groups like the San Bernard Rifles under Captain Calvin McNeill and the Prairie Rangers under Captain Harry Munson, active in the county. Their existence began in secret, with the purpose of keeping law and order, but was later granted legal sanction in 1880 by Governor O. M. Roberts.

With the social climate being what it was and the overall oppression and obstacles to African American economic advancement, more information was needed to interpret the abandonment event on the Levi Jordan Plantation. The discovery of an important index of chattel mortgages in Brazoria County has provided previously unknown information about specific African American tenants who were farming land on the Jordan plantation from 1870-the early 1900’s, an arbitrary date, based upon the considerable archaeological record. These mortgages could be utilized to help provide a new explanation of why the Jordan tenant community appears to have abandoned their homes and belongings.

Presently the extant explanation of when and why they left, leaving all household and personal possessions behind in situ has been developed by Kenneth Brown (1994). After investigating the legal history of the owner and his descendants, Brown discovered a lawsuit that involved a dispute between two branches of Jordan’s descendants, the McNeills and the Martins (#186). An 1892 judgment found in favor of the Martins and against the McNeills. To settle this lawsuit the McNeills gave 367 acres of land to their nephews as well as acknowledging the 1882 sale of the northern half of the property by Emily McNeill to her grandsons, the Martins. The sale was hidden until her death in 1885. At this time the Martin boys divided the 1400 plus acres of the original plantation among themselves. McWillie Martin obtained the main house and surrounding occupied cabins in the slave/tenant quarters area. The court records of the trial revealed testimonies from two of the male African American tenants, John McNeill and Promise McNeill (no relation to the family) in support of the McNeills. Brown suggests that this testimony contributed to the tenants’ hasty, possibly forced departure from the premises when the Martins divided the property.

The continuity of the Jordan black community has been demonstrated through Brown’s research. Plantation account books show that wages were paid to ex-slave heads of households, and some were renting land from the McNeills during the 1870’s and 1880’s. The 1850-1880 Federal Census was employed as well to show occupation of the buildings on the plantation by the same families in the prewar and postwar times.

A list of names garnered from the Jordan Plantation ledgers of sharecroppers and wage earners was compiled, with the addition of other African American tenants’ names who leased land, equipment and mules during the time after slavery ended and 1892 the proposed year of the abandonment. A search for these names in the five volumes of chattel mortgage records was completed in 1996-1997. The results, along with the knowledge of the external community offers new information pertaining to the financial risks taken by the heads of households to provide for their families and their attempt to achieve economic success.

The Register of Chattel Mortgages and Liens on Personal Property Books ‘1’ and A-K found in the Brazoria County Courthouse in Angleton, Texas contains the names of the grantors, the grantees, the amounts and terms of the loan. The focus of this study is the African American Tenants who borrowed money and had those loans recorded in the legal record of the county during the time period from 1879 to 1881. However chattel mortgages were also available to the white community as well. Finding known white surnames allowed a limited although revealing comparison of property described to secure the loans.

First, a description of a typical chattel mortgage is in order. On January 28, 1884 (Book B: 11), John and Jeff Greenwood borrowed $10.00 from the Smith brothers, plus advances from their store. Their collateral: "our entire crop of corn and cotton now growing and to be raised on the Jordan Place 8 miles west of Brazoria, crop of 1884. Also two mules bought from J.C. McNeill in 1883 and all other personal property that we own or may acquire during the existence of the mortgage". Lucinda Williams borrowed $10.00 plus advances from the Smith brothers on March 8, 1884. Her collateral: "entire crops year 1884 on my own land and on the Jordan place in Brazoria County, TX. Also 2 oxen branded BD and any and all personal property owned or held by said mortgagor now and at anytime during the existence of this mortgage". The wording of these two examples is reflective of the majority of the mortgages given to the African Americans and recorded therein.

The inequity of what was required of white grantees of chattel mortgage loans can be demonstrated by a mortgage procured by John Morrison on April 12, 1880. He borrowed $500 from A.B. Krause by putting up the corn and cotton crop growing on forty acres on the Jordan Place. Morrison was a 25-year-old white schoolteacher living on the plantation according to the 1880 Federal Census. He did not have to put up anything other than the crop for collateral. His personal property was not vulnerable to confiscation, as was that of the African American grantees.

It appears that the white storeowners were well represented in the recording of chattel mortgages. This could be a direct result of the overall legal confusion in the South concerning ownership of shares of crops and whether a written loan agreement has priority over a verbal rent agreement between owner and tenant. Woodman’s entire book, New South, New Laws (1995) surveys the legal history of crop lien laws throughout the South and attempts to explain the move to getting written contracts dated and registered to avoid the confiscation of crops for non-payment of bills. Some merchants were left with the debts of croppers when the landowner refused to divide the crop equitably. Others consigned to be paid with crops promised by tenants, but owned by the planter. Still others extended credit on crops that were insufficient to meet all of the debts and priority of payment became important to their solvency.

The willingness to mortgage everything that was owned demonstrates how precious the money and supplies were to the tenant community. The only way that they would achieve their goals, to own land of their own, was to enter in agreements such as these, sometimes with opportunistic merchants and oppressive land owners. Every year’s crop was vulnerable to the weather, insects, the market prices and honesty of the merchants and owners. Each season they faced the grim reality of everything that they owned being confiscated by their creditors. One example of this happening concerns two white storeowners, A.J. and G.S. Smith, who entered into numerous chattel mortgages as grantors. The examination of amounts owed and collateral given to the Smith Brothers through the years of 1879 to 1881, revealed their gradual acquisition of certain properties and possessions of their debtors.

A concrete example of this practice was demonstrated in the series of loans to Hillary Blanford, an early resident of the Jordan plantation, by the Smith Brothers. Early loans for seed and supplies were secured by crops raised upon rented lands, and later loans by the crops raised on his own land. Later, the land itself was used a collateral for equipment and a wagon. That land appears later in an entry for another loan for supplies for "crops raised on land previously known as the Blanford place" now owned by the merchants. Blanford then returns to growing crops on rented lands after attaining land ownership and losing it to his creditors.

Not all mortgages were filed at the courthouse. In reviewing the criminal and civil court cases involving the white descendants and the tenants evidence was found to support the hypothesis that white owners entered into written agreements with individuals farming their land. They were considered legally binding, but were not recorded at the courthouse. Evidence that the Jordan descendants were actively lending money and advances to their laborers can be seen in Royal Martin’s own application for a personal loan which was secured by two previously unrecorded chattel mortgages that he held and then were transferred to a third party.

Plantation stores also came in to operation, possible as a direct result to eliminate the merchants provisioning of their tenants and share croppers and the opportunity to carry over debts of the workers from one year to the next to ensure their being unable to leave. Evidence that a store on the Jordan Plantation existed on Magnolia Slough was found in a court case involving R.F. Martin in 1894 (Galveston County #16929). This is reflective of the increased pressures of economic controls being reestablished in the Brazoria area as was happening all over the south. The economic atmosphere for the tenants was tenuous and oppressive. Combined with the sociopolitical influences of their lives, the African Americans living on the Jordan plantation existed in slave-like conditions, with the paternal management of the farm securely in place. This existence was not peaceful. It was often disrupted by violence directed at them or their families and churches.

The civil and criminal court records, found in the Brazoria County Archives have demonstrated the final external pressure exerted upon the lives of the tenants. The civil court records were examined for the data provided for Brown’s initial investigation into the family’s legal history. However, the examination of the criminal court records supports the validity of narratives originating from living black descendants residing in Brazoria County and the McNeill descendants as well.

The Martin boys and their friends were often arrested as the criminal record shows. A sample of their activities follows. In 1895 Bob Martin was arrested with his friend Henry Bellow for "disturbing a religious service by firing weapons" (#1400) in January. By July, he was arrested for "wounding a horse" (#1458). In 1896, his brother Charles P. Martin was arrested in January for "unlawfully carrying a weapon on his person" (#1483). Two days later he was arrested again for "disturbing the peace and firing his weapon at the Williamson and Price Store" (#1484).

Also in January, Calvin Martin was arrested for "disturbing another religious service by firing his gun" (#1490). That entry carried the verdict of guilty, and the fine was $25.00. In September of that same year Calvin was arrested for "firing a Winchester Rifle on and across a public street in Brazoria" (#1535). In December of 1897, Calvin was arrested for "aggravated assault upon John McNeill (the black tenant who testified) and striking him in the head with a pistol" (#1614). Other criminal activities entered in by the Martin’s also included selling liquor without a license numerous times, carrying concealed weapons and murder.

In May of 1887 McWillie Martin was arrested for "killing one Arthur Williams (African American) by shooting him with a gun and a pistol and by cutting him with a knife" (#1904). Just one month earlier he was arrested for assaulting Henry McKinney "with intent to murder" (#460). Royal Martin, not to be outdone, was arrested twice in May of 1887 for "aggravated assault and carrying a weapon" (#471 & 472). These cases were either dismissed or a minimal fine of $5.00 was levied.

In comparison, one case that involved an African American female living on the Jordan Plantation in 1873 (#1002), Julia Mack [it is uncertain if there is a connection between this Julia Mack and the contemporary one who is a member of the Levi Jordan Plantation Historical Society]. After a dispute at the Stanger house on the property, she drove off in a wagon loaded with 100 pounds of sugar valued at $10.00. She was charged with theft and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. By using a two-year sentence at the penitentiary, it was discovered that the only other person in the record that received that sentence was one Oscar Meadows, who murdered his wife. He received the same sentence for murder as Mack did for theft. The absence of any jail time for the Martins for their murders and assaults reflects the overall oppressive climate in the Brazoria community.

In summary, the African American tenant population of the Levi Jordan Plantation existed under oppressive conditions created and sustained throughout the prewar and post war times. Their external community included ‘black codes’, opportunistic merchants, white supremacy, and inequity of justice. They spent their daily lives working for violent and powerful men that dictated their every movement. By the late 1880’s most of those tenants that had alternative forms of capital generation as described by Brown (1994) were able to move off of the Jordan Plantation to either land of their own or to other property. Given the laws passed and the chattel mortgages entered in, the possibility that the abandonment occurred as a direct result of the combination of these forces. Everything that they had owned at the time of going into debt became the property of the grantor. McWillie Martin held mortgages and offered supplies on credit as well. This could be an explanation of the abundance of the archaeological material and their contexts. Confiscation of their property and the padlocking of their homes occurred. As one descendant in the narrative said, "it was just time to leave".

 This version does not include references for the in-text citations, but they will be added at a later date.
Mary K. Barnes 1998

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