From Slaves to Sharecroppers
The Levi Jordan Plantation represents a period of transition after the Civil War that is largely absent from history books.
By Evelyn L. Merz
The sign on the gate reads “No Trespassing.” The historic marker on the side of the road informs passersby that this is the Levi Jordan Plantation — “Home built 1848–1851 by slave labor; Materials came by sea, Florida to Velasco, and up the San Bernard River.” Beyond the padlocked gate is a hulk of a house that could inspire a Dickens novel — its windows and doors boarded and locked — shutting out everything but decay. The green Columbia bottomland stretches beyond.
But while you listen to your footsteps past the house and the well and explore its fields and woods, you are walking with history. Not the major event kind of history that can be bounded by a single day, but of history changing for an entire people.
This is the Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site, a place on the cusp of the Deep South Plantation culture. Beyond was the western frontier. This hundred-acre patch of Brazoria County holds the promise of putting flesh on the buried history of African-Americans in Texas. Some of that history has literally been unearthed during archaeological excavations at the site.
If we try to imagine Levi Jordan, the builder of his namesake plantation, from observing his home, he must have been single-minded in making a success of his operation. Forget the imposing multicolumned showplaces of the Old South. Levi Jordan’s home is spare, simple and strictly utilitarian — a workplace, not a showplace.
Some time after the Civil War, after the former slave cabins became sharecropper cabins, the inhabitants disappeared. They abandoned their few possessions and their food on the table. Why did they leave? What can the Levi Jordan Plantation tell us about the people who lived there, their neighbors and how enslaved people became free?
“Though I cannot altogether abide by his decisions, I am no longer a child to be governed by his rigid and old-fashioned notions and he cannot expect me to be as compliant as Ma is,” confided Sallie McNeill to her diary in 1860. Sallie lived at the plantation with her grandfather, Levi Jordan. Through her writings, we see Levi Jordan as the absolute patriarch of his family who ruled it with an autocratic hand. She chafed under his authoritarian ways and resented the subservience of her mother.
Her diary recounted her frustration with her life on the plantation, how she recoiled from the brutalities of slavery, but also her ultimate acceptance of the system. Sallie’s emotional conflicts are evident as she described her feelings upon seeing an escaped slave returned: “The tears rose indignantly to my eyes, when ‘Mose’ was led up that evening ragged and bleeding. I could say or do nothing, for he brought the trouble and pain upon himself.”
Indeed, cotton, sugar and slavery were the keys to wealth for Levi Jordan, his family and his fellow planters. Success in Brazoria County was rooted in the plantation system. To reject slavery was to reject wealth.
After the Civil War ended, the former slaveholders still relied upon the newly enfranchised black population to work the land. In fact, each needed the other. The landowners couldn’t farm without labor and the former slaves needed work. The post-Civil War labor system had some of the same restrictions that were hallmarks of slavery. The former slave cabins became sharecropper cabins. The workers were still bound to live on the land where they labored.
So what had changed at the Levi Jordan Plantation? What did freedom mean to the freed African-Americans? What was the difference between slavery and sharecropping?
If the Civil War was the cleaver that freed the slaves, the Freedmen’s Bureau was the buffer between the newly enfranchised black population and the white landowners. The labor contract was the key. From the early days of Reconstruction through the withdrawal of its agents in 1868, the Brazoria County Office established itself as watchdog, mediator and enforcer of the rights of the freedmen in its district.
Freedmen could bind themselves to a certain plantation for wages — working under supervisors that were the former overseers. Payment could be for a specified sum of money, but usually for a share of the crops produced. Levi Jordan himself contracted to pay “one-fourth of all crop” to the sharecroppers listed on his 1867 contract roster. Part of the contract could include housing, food and medical care. Labor contracts were filed with the County Freedman’s Bureau, such as the one for Sterling McNeill, who agreed in 1867 to “Contracts with five freedpersons and families to work during the year 1867: To furnish them with provisions, teams, etc. and give them one third of the cotton.” Although still bound to the land, freedmen could now earn income from their labor.
In Brazoria County, the relationship between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the landowners was more cooperative than in the rest of Texas. In other regions, local resentment could spark violence, which was sometimes fatal. James Hutchison, Brazoria County’s second bureau agent, had confidence in his position. He staked his claim as the arbiter of labor contract disputes. It must have been unsettling to the former slaveholder to receive a demand letter requiring him to respond to the complaint of a freedman about the breach of a labor contract.
By June 1867, there was a new bureau agent in Brazoria County — P.F. Duggan — and he continued Hutchison’s forceful defense of freedmen’s rights. One sharecropper on Levi Jordan’s plantation, with the surprising name of Jeff Davis, brought his grievance to the bureau. Agent Duggan called Levi Jordan to account, writing him that “Jeff Davis f.m.c. complains that you have dismissed him from your employ without just cause and in direct violation of the agreement made by you last spring and have even refused to pay him for the services rendered to you.” Both Jordan and Bob Stanger, his overseer, replied immediately to defend their actions, countering that Jeff Davis “has been absent from here three different times to my knowledge from 4 to 10 days at a time.” But significantly, Levi Jordan accepted the jurisdiction of the bureau to resolve the dispute.
But the freedom to contract could be treacherous. The advance of clothing and supplies could be used as a credit against future wages or share of crop production. The danger was that the debt could exceed the value of the future income. In response, the bureau issued General Order No.11 in 1867. It prohibited the landowner from deducting a debt from the sharecropper’s share of the crop before paying him, essentially separating debt payment and income into two independent transactions. The landowner was required to pay the sharecropper his full share of crop and then collect the debt. In response, a number of landowners simply refused to extend credit for supplies.
We can trace the freedom to offer liens and own property in Brazoria county records. In 1867, when Levi Jordan’s sharecroppers received their one-fourth share of crop, they immediately sold their shares at market for income. The bureau agent was often the trusted broker of their crop shares. By 1873, Walter Brown, one of Levi Jordan’s sharecroppers in 1867, agreed to settle a debt for $75.90 for purchase of supplies from Joseph Mims the prior year. Brown’s payment was “one bale of cotton now in Jordan’s Gin House, unginned, said cotton to be ginned and baled at my expense and to weigh 500 lb.” Freedmen had begun to handle their own business transactions.
By 1881, Robert Smith, who also appeared on Levi Jordan’s 1867 sharecropper roster, purchased 50 acres on the west bank of the San Bernard River for $500. Land purchases by freedmen continued. In 1884, Holland Sherman paid $100 to acquire 40 acres near Cedar Lake, a parcel formerly owned by R.S. Stanger, overseer at the Levi Jordan Plantation. The freedmen had crossed a great divide from being treated as property to becoming owners of property.
The freedom of the right to vote moved in tandem with economic freedom. Agent Duggan sent the most sanguine of reports to his supervisor in Galveston: “I have the honor to report that 301 voters — 46 white and 255 blacks were registered during the week ending Saturday August 3, 1867.” He asserted that no influence was exerted on the freedmen to prevent them from registering. His description of the courthouse scene sounds more like a festival than a voter registration: “There is a freedom from all restraint and the best humor prevails between the races. ... Both whites and blacks are eager to register and it is amusing to see the happy effect the possession of a certificate has upon them...”
In 1865, at a neighboring Brazoria plantation owned by Kit Patton, Henrietta Maxey learned that she was free. Just 15 years old when she was emancipated, she was old enough to have vivid memories of slavery and young enough to be able to pass on her memories to her granddaughter, who still lives down the road from the plantation where her grandmother became free. Now at 100 years of age, Cora Faye Williams still calls it the Patton Place, but now the sign reads Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site.
When Henrietta Maxey was freed, signing with a mark was common practice for the black population. Education was a scarce commodity in Brazoria County for all its residents, but was more acutely felt by the freedmen. White planters resisted having schools established on their plantations. Agent P.F. Duggan was emphatic that there was “an earnest desire on the part of the colored people of this county to do all in their power to educate the children but they are unable to build school houses through want of means.”
Arthur B. Homer, who took Agent Duggan’s place in 1868, had definite ideas about the reasons. Homer believed that the planters’ response was rooted in apprehension “that a teacher might be the cause of trouble in one way or another among the freed people.” The freedom to learn was missing.
Agent Homer persisted in trying to establish schools while trying to rouse a nonresponsive bureau. He repeatedly requested teachers and construction funds. The freed men — and women — did try to establish their own schools. But without the assistance of the bureau to provide teachers and supplies, the results tended to be ephemeral. Thanks to Homer’s determination, the bureau eventually sent some supplies and financial support for teachers’ pay in the fall of 1868. In November, Homer could report that there were “5 freedmen’s schools in my district — two in charge of the Bureau and three supported by the freedmen.” The future must have seemed promising to Homer when he contemplated those five schools.
The future was short-lived. In Brazoria County, landowners could see the Freedmen’s Bureau fading, as could other landowners across Texas. Arthur Homer’s last surviving report, from November 30, 1868, crystallized hope derived from rationalization. He concluded that “the demand for labor compels the white people to treat them justly.”
All of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices in Texas closed by the end of 1868. It was just a short era in Texas, but the meaning of freedom changed mightily for African-Americans in Brazoria County during those three years following the close of the Civil War: the right to earn wages, to make a contract, to register to vote, to go to school, and with perseverance to be identified as a property owner instead of property. It wasn’t equality. It was a beginning.
But with the demise of the Freedmen’s Bureau, there was no reliable champion to vigorously assert the rights of the freedmen. Freedom ebbed away as the promise of education eroded. The Jim Crow era was born as white power organizations rose. Some time about 1890, the sharecroppers disappeared from their cabins at the Levi Jordan site. There is no precise record of why or how it occurred, but we do know that the inhabitants appear to have been compelled to leave without their few belongings. Over time the cabins and their contents crumbled in place, preserved in strata. This is the history in the earth of the Levi Jordan Plantation.
Cora Faye Williams shares her memories of the changes she has seen and her grandmother’s stories with her visitors. Age has restricted her mobility, but not her interest in the change she sees around her. As a girl, she remembers wanting for nothing except education. “There wasn’t but one thing we didn’t have with the black people here. And that was the education, the schooling.” Miss Cora Faye’s local school held classes for only four and a half months a year. Then the teacher rotated to another local school. The black students who wanted to continue their education would make the trek to the neighboring school and walk back home by evening.
Henrietta Maxey, Miss Cora Faye’s grandmother, told her that she would live to see better times. After adding the celebration of her centennial birthday to her storehouse of memories, Miss Cora Faye still makes quilts and greets each day with anticipation. Her grandmother's prediction finally came true, she says. “There’s been such a change from the time I was a girl and now to look like I’m living in another world. It’s so different. It is so different.”
The Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site holds the promise of revealing the journey of how Henrietta Maxey’s prediction came true.
The Levi Jordan Plantation State Historic Site is open only for prearranged tours scheduled though the Varner-Hogg State Historic Site (979-345-4656; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/varnerhoggplantation>).
Visit <www.webarchaeology.com> to read additional excerpts from Sallie McNeill’s diary and to learn more about the Levi Jordan Plantation.
Research assistance provided by Cora Faye Williams, Park Superintendent Kandy Taylor-Hille, Regional Interpretive Specialist Walter Bailey, Interpretation and Exhibits Lead Planner Angela Davis, Brazoria County Historical Museum, Staff and Friends of Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site, Beverly Stimson and Ginny Raska.