Furnaces of the Will
The black citizens of Georgia did not have to await Robert E. Lee's surrender to gain their freedom. As soon as Sherman's horses clattered past Thomas Crossroads, the emancipated men and women of the Thomas plantation had to create from scratch a system for putting food on their tables and building a community of freemen.
One of their first priorities was to shed the names imposed on them during slavery and choose their own. With considerable ingenuity they came up with new ones—their "entitles," they called them. In Laurens County, many former slaves used initials for first names. It was also commonplace to take the last names of masters, such as Troup or Cummings. Even then, many Laurens County blacks put their own individual stamp on the name, adding, for example, an "e" or "pe" to Troup for distinction. The ex-slaves of the Thomas plantation who took the surname Thomas were not, of course, adopting their masters' name, since the Thomas brothers had sold the property decades before. These black folk were rather naming themselves after the property itself, the only home they knew.
In time of war and resulting devastation, it was no simple matter to replace a centuries-old economic system, even a manifestly unjust and deficient one. When hostilities ended, planters lacked cash and former slaves needed food. The landlords offered their former slaves deferred pay in the form of a share of the crop grown on their land. This agreement gave landlords or merchants a lien on the tenant's share of the next crop, which was the tenant's collateral for the seed and goods needed to live until the crop was harvested. Such sharecropping soon became the norm at the Thomas plantation and throughout the state. By 1890, nine out often black farmers in Georgia were sharecroppers.
For those blacks who did not submit to this regime, peonage often