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Levi Jordan Plantation

Excerpts from "Material Culture and Community Structure" (2), including comments about how archaeology can illuminate this period of United States history and comments on sharecropping and tenancy

by Kenneth L. Brown

More on why this site is important (and more on the lives of tenants and sharecroppers)

and more...(on both, and on what kinds of things people can learn from this site)

Ken Brown


Questions or Comments?
Ask the archaeologists!

The cultural evolution which occurred in rural areas of the South after slavery resulted in what may be effectively conceived of as a continuum of development in many respects of African-American culture. Slavery may have legally ended, but "Freedom" didn't pay the rent or buy the food. Freedom meant that new behavioral adaptations were required for the survival of the former slaves. After emancipation, African Americans who remained within the plantation system faced a new set of adaptive forces. To some extent, they may have negotiated some successes in their labor relations with their masters during the long period of slavery, but with emancipation, those rules, and the economic and social basis for them, were suddenly and irrevocably altered. Former slaves and masters had to begin the negotiation process from a radically different point. As before, this process had to involve both the conditions of each plantation community as well as the historical processes into which (and from which) the "players" were embedded.

Indeed, if has been suggested that in many respects the postbellum period may have been materially worse for African Americans than was slavery. If true, this would mean that freedmen had to adapt to new conditions of life that may have been more severe in some respects that slavery. The depressed post war economic condition of the South was a major factor in formation of the environment that former slaves and slave owners were forced to confront during the new period of negotiation. Both of the primary plantation classes had to face reduced material conditions, as well as abrupt changes in the dependent relationship between the classes. The plantation owners continued to control the means of production, including both the land and a majority of the tools; and the former slaves continued to provide the primary source of labor. Wages and/or money earned through "shares" became the primary mechanisms for providing for the material needs of the labor force. The "legitimate" needs of each group had to be met through a process of negotiation with the other. Thus, these new conditions of life forced additional change and adaptation. However, as a result of the earlier period of adaptation and cultural development under the conditions of slavery, the cultural matrix for African Americans of 1865 was substantially different from the culture of earlier, enslaved arrivals.

Within the past decade elements of this discussion in southern historiography have begun to filter into historical archaeology. Traditional archaeological concerns with artifact classification, temporal distinctions, and the definition of ethnicity have begun to give way to other types of questions concerning the lifeways of the plantation's inhabitants. In part, this change has developed as a result of the realization that historical archaeology controls data this is at once the product of culturally defined processes and individual/group beliefs and behaviors of the European Americans and the African Americans. Archaeologists have the potential to deal with the end products (the artifacts and artifact contexts) of the actual lifeways and beliefs of African-Americans. Instead of looking for the presence of "ethnic identifiers" and/or "African retentions", historical archaeologists have begun to investigate why these end products came about and were perpetuated through slavery and freedom. The focus is shifting toward the investigation of cause and meaning to those who produced, utilized, and deposited the recovered artifacts and artifact contexts.

Material remains (both artifacts and their contexts) recovered from the slave and tenant quarters areas of the Levi Jordan Plantation, Brazoria County, Texas will be employed to investigate a number of issues related to the evolution of African-American culture from slavery to tenancy. As Randolph Campbell has stated, "Once defeat destroyed slavery and emancipated approximately 250,000 blacks, most white Texans for generation after generation regarded them and their descendants as more of a problem than an asset." This [research] will emphasize the role(s) served by certain artifacts and/or artifact contexts identified in the slave and tenant cabins in the survival and community adaptation to ante- and post-bellum conditions that existed on the plantation and in the surrounding area. Of particular concern here will be interpretations of economic, political and ritual life and adaptation within this community from 1848 to 1892. This should provide an example of the interpretive power of archaeological research in the study of the evolution of African-American culture within the United States.

...The operation of the plantation [during the period after the Civil War, from 1873 (when Levi Jordan died) until about 1892], was organized by a system that included wage laborers along with tenant-sharecroppers. Plantation ledger books indicate the lease of land and equipment, the sale of seed, and the payment of wages to a number of individuals residing on the plantation. Plantation ledger books indicate the lease of land and equipment, the sale of seed, and the payment of wages to a number of individuals residing on the plantation. Non-plantation residents appear only in the wage payment portion of the ledgers, suggesting that at least some of this labor was secured from people not otherwise farming the plantation's lands. Nearly all of the wages reportedly paid by these ledger books was paid during the month of November through February – the prime months for sugar production. Thus, while not directly stated within the ledgers, most of the wages paid were for work in the sugar mill. With the primary exception of the foreman, the wage laborers during any year were not the most productive sharecroppers for that year, although members of the same nuclear family might all into both categories. Individual families could, therefore, operate within both of these systems (that is, as both tenant farmers and sharecroppers), although individuals might not. Finally, the data strongly suggests that a majority of the families sharecropping in the plantation did not raise cotton in every year. All of the families do appear to have produced food crops. However, only a few families each year attempted to produce cotton for the external market.

This system ended in 1892, when four of Jordan's great-grandsons (the Martins) took sole possession of the northern portion of the plantation, divided it among themselves, and evicted the tenant/sharecropper families from their quarters. (see "A Brief History of the Plantation" and "Abandonment").

And, from later in the same article:

..."The data on sharecropping demonstrates that only a few of the plantation's residents cropped cotton for shares. Even among this group, the amount of cotton produced varied from person to person and year to year. [a table illustrating this will be included in the future]....The ledger books also indicate that the individuals who did not sharecrop cotton, did lease land and tools from the McNeills. As they are credited with having paid their rents in cash, it is likely that they used the land to raise basic crops which where then sold.

The production of a cash crop for the international market likely brought in much of the expendable income for the purchase of the items noted above, along with the rent for land and draft animals. Access to the plantation's fields for production of this cash crop was controlled by the McNeills (Jordan's primary heirs) and/or the various farm managers. However, the individual tenants also had some input into this production system, as they could choose to sharecrop. Therefore, some members of the tenant community appear not to have been a homogeneous group in terms of expendable capital. Further, the archaeological evidence demonstrates that a similar pattern of purchase of "wealth indicators" existed within a number of cabins during both the slave and tenant periods of occupation. Thus, slaves did have income which could be expended by them according to their own "desires". These patterns of consumption carried over into the tenancy .period; similar items were purchased in many cases

 

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