The Emergence of Sharecropping in Oxford, Georgia

(Professor Mark Auslander, Brandeis University)

The coming of emancipation in November 1864 may not have made an immediate difference in the material circumstances of many of the African American families of Oxford. Take for example, the case of those enslaved by Professor Gustavus J. Orr, Emory’s other Professor of Mathematics.
In August 1865, five months after the final Union victory, Professor Orr signed a contract with his former slaves:

“As slavery has been abolished by the Government of the United States, the undersigned make the following contract. I, G.J. Orr, agree, on my part, to furnish the freedmen whose names appear below, food, clothing, fuel, quarters and medical attention, and pay them one fourth of the corn, fodder, peas, and syrup of sorghum and sweet potatoe… for their services for the whole of the present year… I do furthermore agree that, should Phil. and Charles leave me on the first of December, there shall be no abatement as to the part of the crops they are to receive, and if they stay with me longer than that time, I am to pay them such compensation as we may agree upon.
We, the undersigned freedmen, agree on our part to labor faithfully and diligently, for G.J. Orr, to obey him in all things, pertaining to labor and service and to treat him and his family with proper respect and courtesy.”

The document is worth pondering. In many respects, what it offered to Phillip, Charles, Eliza, and Hannah and her children was not so different than what they had experienced, materially, before emancipation; hard work without monetary compensation. But they did of course have, in principle at least, he right to leave Orr’s property and to make their own lives.

In time, this is just what they did. By 1870, Hannah was living on her own as head of household under the name of Hannah Hunter; her daughter Octavia, 13 years old, was attending the newly founded school for free children of color near Rust Chapel. Hannah’s 17 year old son, George, was working as a domestic servant. For all the immediate constraints of their first year of freedom, within five years this family had at least been able to move out on their own as wage earners, away from sharecropper status. In this respect, they resembled many of their neighbors in the new free community of Oxford, employed as domestic servants and artisans.

For more information about the African-American Historical Association of Newton County, or to share information about the county's African-American history, please contact the association president Mr. Forrest Sawyer, Jr. (770) 788-0792.