Sharecropping Contract Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The period after the Civil War was a time of uncertainty and chaos for both Southern landowners and former slaves. Agricultural land was devastated by the effects of neglect and war damage, and the new terms of labor in a racially-charged environment were uncertain. Former slaves believed initially that they would be granted land as part of their emancipation, but by the end of the 1860s, it was clear that this would not happen. For poor blacks and landless whites with only farming experience, the options were few. Landowners devised systems of land rental that returned many former slaves to a position of complete dependence. Sharecropping contracts, such as the one between the company Solid South and John Dawson, set terms on things, like equipment use and seed prices, which ensured that the tenant would always be in debt to the landowner and could be removed from the land at any time. It was a very precarious existence.

Summary Overview

The period after the Civil War was a time of uncertainty and chaos for both Southern landowners and former slaves. Agricultural land was devastated by the effects of neglect and war damage, and the new terms of labor in a racially-charged environment were uncertain. Former slaves believed initially that they would be granted land as part of their emancipation, but by the end of the 1860s, it was clear that this would not happen. For poor blacks and landless whites with only farming experience, the options were few. Landowners devised systems of land rental that returned many former slaves to a position of complete dependence. Sharecropping contracts, such as the one between the company Solid South and John Dawson, set terms on things, like equipment use and seed prices, which ensured that the tenant would always be in debt to the landowner and could be removed from the land at any time. It was a very precarious existence.

Defining Moment

By 1880, over half of black farmers in the deep South worked on farms that operated on a sharecropping system. When the Civil War ended with no widespread land grants to freed slaves, landowners who once owned slaves were left with land that was difficult to work with free-market labor. At the same time, many former slaves were left with very limited skills, except for agricultural work, but were unable to secure farmland. The system of sharecropping was a way for poor people, who owned very little, to be able to have access to equipment, seed, and a piece of farmland. During Reconstruction, the Freedman's Bureau saw the need for former slaves to be able to rent parcels of land on plantations, actively encouraged the sharecropping system, and became nominally responsible for the enforcement of freedmen's contracts. One Freedman's Bureau official, M. R. Delany, devised a model sharecropping contract that was equitable and spelled out the duties and obligations of the landowner as well as the tenant. Unfortunately, the Freedman's Bureau did not see the need to institute standardized contracts and, thus, dismissed Delany's concept in favor of allowing landowners and sharecroppers to write their own.

When this contract was written in 1879, sharecropping contracts gave the tenant no rights and exclusively protected the interest of the landowner. Sharecroppers were obligated by the terms of their contract to rent nearly everything, including housing, seed, equipment, and draft animals. They did not control the crops that were grown, how they were sold, or the price paid for those crops. They were often bound to plots of land insufficient to raise the quantity of crops that would be necessary just to pay the rent on the land and equipment, so they were kept desperately poor and in mounting debt.

Many sharecroppers rented land that they or their families had once worked as slaves, and they were extremely vulnerable to exploitation by landowners, who resented their new status as freedmen. Many sharecroppers were illiterate, meaning that they were easily cheated, as the landowner was the keeper of accounts and records, and the farmer simply had to pay what he was told was due. There was no recourse if theft or fraud occurred, or if the terms of the contract were violated, since the contract stipulated that a sharecropper could be removed from the land for any reason. The sharecropper was also obligated to pay for the upkeep and improvement of land that could be taken away at any time.

Most sharecroppers lived from harvest to harvest, going into debt each year and then hoping that the crop would be sufficient to settle the debt when it was sold. If the crop failed for any reason, the farmer still owed the full amount of the debt, which could be carried over from year to year at exorbitant interest rates set by the landowner and merchant, who were often the same entity. Even in successful years, these farmers often ended up with little to nothing after their debts were paid. Were the sharecropper to fall sick or become injured even temporarily, additional fees could be levied for missed work. If sharecroppers left the land while in debt, they could be jailed, but a landowner could remove tenants at any time and for any reason, including age, injury, or illness.

Author Biography

Little is known about John Dawson other than his lease of fifteen acres of Waterford Plantation in Madison Parish, Louisiana. As was the case with many sharecroppers, he could neither read nor write, as evidenced by his mark on the contract rather than a signature. The author of the contract is a company called Solid South, which is an intriguing choice of name. Solid South is the nickname for the results of the Compromise of 1877, which effectively ended Reconstruction by removing federal troops from the former Confederacy. Without the monitoring of the federal government, discriminatory practices were put in place to ensure that Democratic candidates would win elections, establishing the Democratic “Solid South” and ensuring that laws could be passed that effectively disenfranchised black people and stripped them of their rights. It was in such an environment that contracts, such as this one, which was clearly exploitative and discriminatory, were allowed to stand.

Document Analysis

This document lays out the terms under which an illiterate man may rent a parcel of land on a former slave plantation in Louisiana. Its primary goal was to control every aspect of John Dawson's business, from the rent he paid to the seed he bought, and to ensure that he remained in the debt of the landowner, Solid South. Dawson had no control over the land he was contracted to farm, and his rent of eighty-eight pounds of lint cotton (deseeded and cleaned) was just the beginning of his obligations to Solid South. Dawson's relationship to the landowner is spelled out clearly in the second paragraph: “All cotton-seed raised on said land shall be held for the exclusive use of said plantation, and no goods of any kind shall be kept for sale on any said land unless by consent of said lessor.” In other words, no matter how much cotton John Dawson managed to raise, it could only be sold to the landowner, at his prices, and seed could also only be bought from him. The cotton could only be processed at the cotton gin owned by the landlord at the sharecropper's expense. It was a closed system.

In addition to owning the land and any cotton grown on it, Solid South also sold or rented tools, equipment, draft animals (in this case, a pair of mules), and housing. John Dawson was under obligation to pay first for the cleaning and processing of his cotton (he needed to pay his rent with cleaned cotton, so this was not optional); but since the payment of any debts and his rent were to come out of his crop before he was allowed to sell any (to the plantation, on their terms), there was no way to avoid significant debt. The eighty-eight pounds of cotton that Dawson was to pay in rent would cost him an additional four dollars per bale to clean before he made a penny from any of his other cotton.

Everything that John Dawson owned was surety on his rent: “Dawson grants unto said Solid South a special privilege and right of pledge on all the products raised on said land, and on all his stock, farming implements, and personal property.” Under Louisiana law, he was also liable to imprisonment if he failed to pay the debt, but only after “all his property shall be seized and sold to pay said rent and supply bill.” John Dawson signed away any rights to laws protecting him from such exploitation in this contract as well. Since he was in perpetual debt, Dawson's land, tools, equipment, and all of his other property were liable to be taken from him at any time and without notice.

Essential Themes

This contract highlights the exploitative and discriminatory environment that existed for landless freedmen after the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction. John Dawson agreed to a relationship with a landowner that was, in many ways, a form of continued slavery. Sharecroppers were tied to the land and its owner by debt and obligation, while the landowner did not have to worry about paying wages or providing living quarters. In the end, the owner of the land had no obligation to the sharecroppers and could remove them from the property they and their families had worked.

There was no real ability to go outside this system. The legal system did not offer effective recourse for sharecroppers, as they had signed contracts that were binding, and the courts were often biased in favor of white landowners. Moreover, in some states, a black claimant could be penalized with fines or jail time if found to have brought “false suit” against a white landowner. From seed to finished product, nearly every aspect of sharecropping was controlled by the landowner-merchant, who could ensure that the families who worked their land could never leave it and could not own it either.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Alexander, Danielle. “Forty Acres and a Mule: The Ruined Hope of Reconstruction.” Humanities 25.1 (2004): 26–29. Print.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. New York: Simon, 1935. Print.
  • Feldman, Glenn. The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 1865–1944. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2013. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
  • Ransom, Roger L. and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.
  • Sterling, Dorothy, ed. The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans. New York: Da Capo, 1994. Print.
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