A while back I was asked to try to locate proof that an African-American family was involved in sharecropping in Louisiana. My first inclination was to check the land records. I knew that I had seen crop contracts in Arkansas which indicated liens on crops planted to cover debts incurred in raising the crop. It seemed like a logical step to try to locate sharecropping contracts among the land records.
After a careful search of the land records for Caldwell Parish, Louisiana where the family was known to have lived I came up empty. I found no such records among the deeds. Not quite sure where to go next I tried looking in Land and Property Research in the United States by E. Wade Hone. I found no information to lead me to the possible location of sharecropping contracts.
A fellow researcher I was working with on this project but who was involved in more of the historical context research suggested that I try Freedmen's Labor Contracts. A catalog entry was located in the Family History Library Catalog for the labor contracts for Caldwell Parish. These can be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or they are available through the National Archives.
These records are not indexed but are filmed by parish. At the beginning of the section for each parish you will find a list of all the plantations where the contracts came from. In order to find the people you are looking for, you have to search each page.
The header of the contract gives the contractual details of the agreement. Below the contract header you will find a list of all workers for whom the contract applies, giving their names and ages and in some cases, their occupations if it was something other than farmer. It was my experience that people were generally listed together as families much like a census although in very few records did the contract actually give relationships.
When I got to the section for Caldwell Parish, you can imagine my delight when the family I was looking for was on the very first contract. Their wages according to the contract were to be 1/3 of the proceeds of the crop, after expenses. This was to be shared among all the people listed on the contract. As you can imagine, sharecropping was only one step above slavery.
If you would like to learn more about sharecropping, I recommend Slave to Sharecropper an informative website sponsored by PBS. The life of a sharecropper was tenuous at times. Everything hinged on getting a good crop in order to have a successful outcome. This was a transition from slavery to freedom that really had few of the markers we associate with liberty. I encourage you to learn more about this topic.