Following the end of the Civil War, both black and white Floridians faced enormous political, social, and economic changes. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments brought a measure of political equality, which unfortunately would not last after the end of Reconstruction. African-Americans in Florida and the other states of the former Confederacy also faced economic challenges in the transition from slavery to a free market economy. In these southern states, a system of compensated labor was instituted in which many newly-freed slaves remained on plantations, often still run by their old owners, and agreed to work the crops in a manner similar to the pre-war years. As freedmen, however, they would receive a salary, or payment in the form of a percentage of the crop. Under provisions enacted by the state legislature, legal contracts were drawn up and signed by both laborer and planter. Overseeing these agreements were agents from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, a government agency established to assist freedmen in the aftermath of emancipation.
A number of Freedmen's Contracts from this period survive in the collections of the State Archives of Florida. They are contained in a large collection of court records from Jefferson County, which is located just to the east of Tallahassee. Captain Alfred B. Grunwell served as the Freedmen's Bureau agent for Jefferson County from 1866 until the abolishment of the agency three years later. Negotiating labor contracts and settling subsequent disputes took up much of Grunwell's time. According to historian Jerrell Shofner, "[t]here were obvious cases of planters trying to cheat their employees, just as there were cases where recalcitrant freedmen tried to renege on their agreements. But there were also many genuine misunderstandings which required concessions by both sides."(1) Because few freedmen were literate, it was easy for them to be taken advantage of in written contracts. Many African-Americans also claimed that the written contracts were not the same as the earlier oral agreements upon which they were based. The agreement reproduced here was between Jefferson County planter S.B. Alexander and thirteen black laborers. The freed men and women agreed to "labor faithfully" on Alexander's Elbo Plantation, in exchange for rations and one-third of the cotton, corn, peas, and potatoes produced on the plantation. Laborers who became ill would have to pay for their rations, and white overseers would maintain discipline and settle disputes. Several types of farm tenancy such as this developed in the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the end result being the economic subjugation of many African Americans.
(1) Jerrell H. Shofner, History of Jefferson County (Tallahassee: Sentry Press, 1976), 286.
State of Florida,
Articles of agreement,
made and concluded this 30th day of January A.D. 1867 at Elbo plantation in the County and state aforesaid between S.B. Alexander, of the first part and the following named, Laborers, Viz. Westley Bryant, Pinckney Bryant, Frank Bryant, Albert Bryant, Mary Bryant, Jim Queen, Ellen Queen, Smart White, Ben White Robin White, Luvenia Brown, Sandy Marry, Peggy, Queen, all of the County and state aforesaid of the second part.
That the said of the second part, for the consideration herein after mentioned dohereby, individually, and severally, covenant, and agree, that they will labor faithfully upon the plantation known as the Elbo Plantation owned by the said party of the first part, in the County and state aforesaid from the _______day of January A.D. 1867 until the twenty fifth day of December next, that during said time they will to the best of their knowledge, skill and ability well and faithfully, serve the said party of the first part performing the customary Labor of plantation Laborers, such as