At best, sharecropping families, often African Americans, made a few hundred dollars per year. At worst, they became stuck in never-ending debt. Sharecropping became the dominant form of labor in the South after the U.S. Civil War, and when combined with racially discriminatory laws enacted after Reconstruction, created an exploitative work situation for African Americans.
With the end of slavery, freed African Americans in the South needed to find a way to earn a living. Despite promises made during the Civil War that the federal government would give confiscated plantation land to freed people in the form of “forty acres and a mule,” no such allocations were made. As a result, African Americans were economically dependent on whites. Since most southern whites had little cash at the end of the war, they could not afford to pay wages for farm labor.
Both whites and African Americans turned toward sharecropping as an alternative to rural wage labor. Because most African Americans had no access to capital, they lacked the financial wherewithal to buy their own land. Many initially viewed sharecropping as a way to build up savings and eventually enter the landowning class. In exchange for their skills and muscle, sharecroppers expected to receive tools, seed, work animals, and fertilizer, plus food, housing, supplies, and a substantial proportion of the final crop. Shares might vary from one-third to one-half for a sharecropping family, with the remainder going to the landowner to cover supplies, rent, and debts to merchants and bankers. Tenant farmers, who owned their own mules and farm implements, had rights to a larger share of the crop than did sharecroppers, who owned nothing. In practice, there was considerable overlap between the conditions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, both of whom worked the land of others.
For African American families, sharecropping had the advantage of involving less work than farming had involved during the slave era. Families worked together on a small plot, usually growing cotton or tobacco. African American sharecroppers worked about one-third fewer hours than they had as slaves, while women and children worked less than men. Workers were no longer forced to work as hard as possible until they were exhausted, as they had been under the slave system. Sharecroppers escaped the gang system and close supervision that had characterized slave agriculture.
The disadvantages of sharecropping, however, soon became apparent. A new system of credit, the crop lien, became closely associated with sharecropping. Under this system, a planter or merchant extended a small line of credit to the sharecropper while taking the year’s crop as collateral. The sharecropper could then draw food and supplies from the store of the planter or the merchant. When the crop was harvested, the planter or merchants who held the lien sold the harvest for the sharecropper and settled the debt. The system depended on the honesty of the planter.
When Reconstruction gradually collapsed, the revived Democratic Party took steps to strengthen the hand of white landowners and weaken the bargaining position of black workers. The new racist governments in southern states instituted repressive labor legislation, such as North Carolina’s Landlord and Tenant Act of 1877, which placed full authority over the crop and settlement in the hands of the planter. The law made the sharecropper into a wage earner instead of a partner in the production of a crop. Sharecropping disintegrated into an exploitative labor system that trapped black families. Planters regularly falsified accounts at the end of each year to keep their workers in perpetual debt. Some planters found excuses to dismiss tenant farmers just before their compensation was due.
A tenant farmer works in North Carolina in 1936.
When African Americans attempted to protest this injustice by quitting, the Black Codes took effect. Under these laws, African Americans who failed to enter into contracts or who broke them could be arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned. Vagrancy laws permitted the employment of convicts by private employers. The wages of such workers went into state coffers. The convict lease system rerouted black workers back into the plantation economy but on worse terms than before. The system proved especially brutal, with convicts sometimes worked to death. In 1906, the state of Georgia made $354,850 from convict leases. In essence, sharecropping became slavery. By 1900, nearly 80 percent of southern African Americans worked as sharecroppers on farms owned by whites.
The sharecropping system ended gradually during the early decades of the twentieth century. Increased mechanization reduced the need for many agricultural workers, while the New Deal during the 1930’s paid landowners not to grow crops. As a result of these changes, many African American farmers were pushed off the land.
Cohen, William. At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Useful survey of the crucial period in African American history that spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the years leading up to the Great Migration out of the South. Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. 1988. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 2006. This standard work on the Reconstruction era examines the struggles of former slaves to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Special attention is given to the federal government’s failure to meet the economic needs of its newly freed citizens. Gilbert, Charlene, and Quinn Eli. Homecoming: The Story of African American Farmers. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. Designed as a companion to Charlene Gilbert’s 1998 documentary film Homecoming, this volume offers a compelling introduction to the history of African American farmers and contains an excellent selection of historical photographs. Higgs, Robert. Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. First published in 1976, this scholarly study offers a reinterpretation of African American economic history during the era in which sharecropping arose. Nieman, Donald G. From Slavery to Sharecropping: White Land and Black Labor in the Rural South, 1865-1900. New York: Garland, 1994. Excellent history of southern agriculture that thoroughly covers the experiences of black farmworkers during their transition from slavery to sharecropping. Royce, Edward Cary. The Origins of Southern Sharecropping. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Engaging study that sees the rise of sharecropping in the South as a struggle between landowners trying to preserve the system of plantation slavery and newly freed slaves trying to acquire land and autonomy. Tolnay, Stewart E. The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Valuable supplement to any study of sharecropping; provides an intimate look at how African American farmers actually lived in the South.
U.S. Civil War
Panic of 1873