Ed A Black Sharecropper’s Story


When Ed Brown finally left Abbeville, Georgia, in 1962, he id his wife worked as domestics for Jane Maguire’s family, first in Atlanta and then for thirteen years in New York City. During those years Ms. Maguire became fascinated by Ed’s sharp memories of what life was like for a black farmhand in Georgia, and she persuaded him—he is illiterate—to let her help tell his story. She interviewed him, taking careful notes over a period of about four years, and assembled the interviews into a consecutive reminiscence entitled simply Ed. His direct, unself-pitying, and often heartbreaking story will be published by W. W. Norton later this month, and we are pleased to publish the following excerpt from this unusual memoir.

Mr. Brown is now retired and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where his too daughters by a second marriage are in high school.



In 1929 Mr. Addison bought a tractor. He was the first man I ever knowed to have one. Right away he cut the fifteen men on his place down to four hands. It would be a favor to him, he say, if I could get myself another job. That was the turrible year I worked on shares for Mr. Leslie Prince.

To buy food and to take care of the smokin and chewin me and my wife wanted to do while we was makin the crop, Mr. Prince said he’d loan me ten dollars a month. He would put it out, he say, but not all in cash, January through June, with interest at 15 per cent. He was aimin to make me take all the meat and syrup he could from his smokehouse.

Then, on shares, the boss furnish you with the land, mule, seeds, tools, and one half of the fertilizer. I was to put out the other half of the fertilizer and all the labor.

Things went all right for a while. I was the best cotton picker there. Whenever Mr. Prince hire anyone to pick by the hundredweight, he said, “I want you to beat Ed pickin.” The most I ever picked in an hour was a hundred and thirty-five pounds.

But hard work didn’t get me nowhere. Mr. Prince wouldn’t show me the papers the gin and the warehouse give him, so I didn’t know what the crop had brung and what my share should be. He took his share and all of mine and claim I owe him twenty-four dollars in addition.

In panic times ten dollars would buy a horse wagon full of groceries. You could buy ten pounds of sugar for fifty cents, fifteen pounds of bacon for ten or fifteen cents a pound. A gallon of syrup would cost fifty cents, and so would a peck sack of flour.

And usually I had a garden, either for myself or on halves with the boss, such as potatoes, squashes, onions, turnips, collards, cabbage, snap beans, butter beans, peas, Irish potatoes, tomatoes, and okra. Come summer my wife would put up seventy-five or eighty jars of blackberries, plums, watermelon rinds, apple preserves, and jelly. She raised chickens, and I would have a sweet-potato patch and a cane patch.

After the ten-dollars-a-month furnish money was cut off in June, it was best to be with a fellow that knowed you had to live through the winter too. A landlord would most likely want you and your family to have enough to eat if you was stayin on to make another crop. But if you wasn’t, he didn’t care.

My wife want us to work for Mr. Prince because his tenant house had glass windows. When he come by our house, he would smile and wave, wave and smile. She say, “I declare that is a nice man. I believe he would be a good man to work for.”

I thought it would suit me because he said I could make a garden on halves. Before I had gathered much, Mr. Prince acted friendly to some people: “Get anythin out of the garden you want.” They cleaned it out. That made me a little dissatisfied. And my wife kicked because whenever I want to borrow Mr. Prince’s mule to carry her to church on Sunday, he would say, “No, the mule should rest on Sunday.”

Another reason I was dissatisfied was because I was a strong man behind a goin mule. Mr. Prince figure my time worth the same as one of his boys. They was chilien at the time, and quite natural they couldn’t do a man’s work.

Most white chilien went to school. But any landlord who was furnishin money to feed a colored tenant would expect him to take his chilien out of school to do what need doin on the farm.

By walkin over the farm all the time Mr. Prince knowed if you was behind with anythin. After school and on Saturday he had his sons work for me. “Ed, what about takin the chilien over there to soda your cotton?”

The boys would walk over thirty acres of cotton carryin a one-half-gallon bucket of soda in one hand and droppin it with the other. I’d follow along behind plowin the soda under. Whatever time the chilien spent helpin me I’d owe their daddy. I didn’t favor that.

After a year’s hard work and makin a good crop I ask Mr. Prince for a settlement. “I ain’t got the books ready today,” he said. “I want to have a settlement when we get through gatherin everythin.” After I had even my late corn in the crib, I went back and he got out the book.

It didn’t look to me like he could figure worth nothin- ‘bout like me. I had made seven bales of cotton and two horse wagon loads of corn, but Mr. Prince claim I hadn’t made enough to pay off my sixty dollars’ furnish money and that I still owed him twenty-four dollars.

He put the corn in the crib without weighin it. Velvet beans was bringin a dollar a hundred pounds, and he took all of them. And all the sweet potatoes.