The word “sharecropping” likely brings to most folks’ minds images of the antebellum deep South, poor black men, and merciless southern landowners. But we northerners in general — and Rhode Islanders in particular — are just fooling ourselves regarding our ultimate responsibilities. We were a part of all this too; indeed, in some cases, we were the driving wheel behind the evil engine that was slavery. Sharecropping is a case in point. A 1783 sharecropping agreement between local landed gentry farmer (Yeoman is the period correct term) Jeremiah Gardner and freed slave Lonnon Philips tells us an awful lot about where South County, Rhode Island stood when it came to the one-sided dignity-crushing practices of sharecropping — not in the post-Civil War era South, but in 18th century Rhode Island. This is an exact transcription of the agreement:
“Articles of agreement made and agreed upon by and between Jeremiah Gardner of North Kingstown in the County of Washington, Yeoman, and Lonnon Phillps a negroman so called of the town aforesaid, laborer. Is as followeth; Viz the said Lonnon doth agree to do all the labor upon the said Gardner’s farm as hath been usually done in a year, that is to say, he is to mend all the fences up and keep them in good repair. Also, to make two division fences, one between the said Gardner and his son Benjamin and the other between the said Gardner and his son Amos. Also, to cut & cart home to said Gardner house what firewood he shall need for the families use. Also, to do all the planting and finish the plowing and carting dung sowing, howing up, mowing, harvesting and so forth and what is planted, said Lonnon is to tend well. All the English grain said Lonnon is to thresh and secure the Indian corn. He is to crib the potatoes. He is to dig and secure the Tobacco. He is to do what need to be done until it is stripped. A turnip yard he is to sow secure. The flax he is to sow, pull out and get out fit for use. The said Lonnon is to have his board found him and to have the use of said Gardner’s team, farming tools, and his negro boy “Cogge” to help do said work in the season and said Lonnon is to have the tenth bushel of all grain that he shall raise on the farm, also the tenth bushel of all potatoes and turnips and every tenth pound of tobacco and a fourth part of the flax. If said Lonnon shall sow a field of rye this fall, he is to have one half after he hath harvested and got out the same.
Each party hath here unto set their hands and seals this first day of April in the seventh year of Independence, Anno Domino 1783. Signed sealed and delivered in presence of Wm. Hammond.”
So, what does this say exactly? Well, Lonnon has a whole raft of things he must accomplish, many of them farming related, but also the task of continuously providing the Gardner family with firewood in an age where that was the only heat source and cooking fuel. And oh yeah, by the way, he also needs to construct two long fence lines along each side of the whole farm, thresh grain, prepare the harvested tobacco and flax for use, and keep all the existing fences and stone walls in good order. What does he get? Room and board, probably in a small shack, outbuilding or barn, the use of Jeremiah’s team of draft animals, his farm tools, and his slave Cogge, and of course his “share” which is what sharecropping agreements are all about — the workers’ share of the fruits of his labor, which for Lonnon is one-tenth of what he raises. As for Jeremiah, he sits up in the big house — which still exists to this day at 1510 Boston Neck Road — and gets the other 90% of Lonnon’s labors.
I have got to tell you all, this dash of South County reality has got me thinking about equity just about as much as the times we live in have. I am also struck by the irony built into the very common phrasing for the time frame that describes the year 1783 — “The seventh year of Independence.” Independence for who? All men are created equal? I wonder what Lonnon thought about that on the April day when he made his mark on this sharecropper agreement?