Reconstruction: Sharecropping

sharecropers children
Figure 1.--Here sharecroppers' families are gathering items for the annul 4th of July celebration in Hill House, Mississippi. The scene was photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936.

Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states during the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages. Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive labor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other. The principal crop continued to be cotton. And the planters under the sharecropping system contnued to a large degree to control the lives of the blacks working their land. While the system at first developed to obtain black labor, eventually poor whites also entered the sharecropping system. The system varied, but in many cases all the cropper brouht to the arrangement was his labor. The planter provided the land, but also commonly animals, equipment, seeds and other items. The land owners also commonly advanced credits for the family's living expences until the crop was harvested. The system was open to considerable abuse because the cropers were uneducated, commonly iliterate. Akmost all slaves in the Deep South following the Civil War would have been illiterate. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. By the 20th century black and white cropers would have had some minimal education, but iliteracy was still high. The land owner marketed the crop and kept all accounts. He charged interests on cash advances, often quite high interest. He also commonly operated a store where the cropers had to make their purchases. The normal arrangement was that the the croper got half the proceeds from the harvest. The landowner then deducted cash advances which because of high interest and dishonest accounting commonly left the croper very little. The system continued into the Depression of the 1930s. School portraits from the rural South during the late 19th and early 20th century will often include cropers children. Many did not go very far in school. (The Southern states commonly had very weak compulsory school attendance laws.) The children commonly were barefoot. During the 20th century many wore overalls. After World War II, migrtion to the North, farm mechanization, education, other employment options, and the Civil Rights movement brought the system to an end.

Farm Tenancy System

Sharecropping is an agricultural system which developed in the Southern states after the Civil War. It was a farm tenancy system in which families worked a farm or section of land in return for a share of the crop rather than wages.

Civil War

Sharecropping replaced the plantation system destroyed by the Civil War. The victorious Federal authorities which occupied the South did not seize plantations, but empancipation meant that the owners no longer had a captive labor force. The former planters, even those activly engged in rebellion, for the most part still had their land, but no slaves or money to pay wages. The former slaves on the other hand did not have jobs or land and because they had been denied education, had few options. Thus emancipation initially resulted in an acute labor shortage in the largely agrarian South. Productivity plumted and the economy in many areas essentially collapsed.

Renconstruction

President Johnson after the assasination of President Lincoln advocated a policy of "soft" Reconstruction. He rapidly brought the Southern states into the Union. The resulting all-white state legislatures passed "black codes" meant to force the recently freed blacks back on the plantations. Authorities put them to work in gangs. The codes varioed from state to sate, but were very similar in many ways. The black codes denied blacks the right to purchase or even rent land. The states also passed vagrancy laws authorizing authorities to arrest blacks "in idleness" and assign them to work/chain gang. They were then auctioned off to land owners for vsarying periods--often as long as a year. Another element of some of the black codes was to required blacks to have written proof of employment. In some cases blacks were not permitted to leaving plantations. The Freedmen's Bureau was even used to enforce some of these codes, especially the laws against vagrancy and loitering. Sopme blacks had stayed on the plantations and began farming as squsaters. State officials prevented these squaters from obtaining title to the lsand. The aim of white authorities was essentially to restablish the plantation and slavery. Congressional Republicans moved to gain control of the Reconstruction from President Johnson. Their key step was to deny representatives from the former Confederate states who arrived in Washington from taking their Congressional seats. This meant that the Republicans had very strong majorities in both the House and Senate. They then proceeeded to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as well as the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. This took the unprecedented step of extend citizenship rights to black Americans. This provided them "equal protection of the laws". The Congress also passed the 15th Amendment which guaranteed voting rights. (The amendments had to be ratified by the states, but the impetus came from the Radical Republicans in Congress.) The Radical Republicans also attempted to confiscate plantations and redistribute land to the freed blacks. This was defeated.

Development of the Share Cropping System

Sharecropping developed because the former slaves and planters needed each other. The solution to this economic impasse was the sharecropping system. White authorities attempted to reimpose a thinly desguised form of slavery. The plantation owners souught to restore gang labor under white overseers. With the ascent of the Radical Republicans in Congress, however, this proved impossible. And the freed blacks man who wanted real autonomy generally refused to sign contracts that involved gang labor. Federal authorities limited the ability of white local officisals to use force. The result was that sharecropping emerged as a kind of compromise. Labnd owners began to divide the plantations into 20- to 50-acre plots. Notice the rough approximation of the 40 acres and a mule concept. This was the area of land that could reasonably be farmed by a single family using existing methods. This meant the former slaves continued the routine of cotton cultivation and under supervision--albeit less total than before the War. In addition, some blacks even managed to acquire land of their own.

Assessment

Some modern authors have likened share cropping to a new system of slavery. This is too simplistic an assessment. Sharecropping did allow land owners considerablke control over the lives of the freed slaves--but no longer absolute control. It is certainly true that share cropping posed very severe limitations on freed blacks. And that it developed as an explotive system. This was in large measure due to the monopoly of legal and extra-legal power by whites who enacted the Jim Crow system. Even so, the sharecropping system did allow the newly freed blacks for the frst time in their lives a degree of autonomy. Freedmen all over the South with teams of mules began dragging their slave cabins away from the centralized plantation slave quarters to their new fields. Modern authoirs often miss very real differences. The most important was the prtofound changes in black family life. Under slavery there was no legal recognition of family units. Some of the mosdt obscene aspects of slavery was theabuses imposed on slave families. Any member of the family could be sold off at any time. And women and children woirked the fields along with the men. Sharecropers could on a family basis divide labor. As a result, wives and daughters were lless involved in field work. They began to devote their energies to childcare and housework. These may seem to modern readers as very small gains. They were to the newly freed blacks very important achievemnents.

Crops

The principal crop continued to be cotton. A variety of crops were grown, but cotton was generally the real money crop. The same methods continued to be used, labor intensive agriculture. Unlike other major crops, few technical innovations developoed in cotton agriculture. As lsate as the 1930s, cotton farming except for the disappearance of the plantations was little different thsan in ante-bellum era.

Racial Connotations

The first share croppers were theformer black slaves. The planters under the sharecropping system contnued to a large degree to control the lives of the blacks working their land. Gradually the system was extended to poor white farmers. While the system at first developed to obtain black labor, eventually poor whites also entered the sharecropping system. The relative proportion, however, was different. The precise numbers varied from state to state, but most black farmers were share croppers. Most white farmers owned their land.

Operation

The system varied, but in many cases all the cropper brouht to the arrangement was his labor. The planter provided the land, but also commonly animals, equipment, seeds and other items. The land owners also commonly advanced credits for the family's living expences until the crop was harvested. The system was open to considerable abuse because the cropers were uneducated, commonly iliterate. Akmost all slaves in the Deep South following the Civil War would have been illiterate. It was illegal to teach slaves to read. By the 20th century black and white cropers would have had some minimal education, but iliteracy was still high. The land owner marketed the crop and kept all accounts. He charged interests on cash advances, often quite high interest. He also commonly operated a store where the cropers had to make their purchases. The normal arrangement was that the the croper got half the proceeds from the harvest. The landowner then deducted cash advances which because of high interest and dishonest accounting commonly left the croper very little.

Depression

The system continued into the Depression of the 1930s.

Children

Sharecropping was a family undertaking. Both the parents and the children worked on the farm. Sharecropping involved back-breaking labor and this included the children. Their work assignmentsd was affected by the age and gender of the children. The work included plowing (commonly with a mule), planting, weeding, and harvesting. Even when the children attended school, they woiuld stay home when there was work to be done, especially when it was harvest time. School portraits from the rural South during the late-19th and early 20th-century will often include cropers children. his was especially common after the southern states began passing compulsory school sattendance laws in the early 20th century. Many did not go very far in school. (The Southern states commonly had very weak compulsory school attendance laws.) The children commonly were barefoot. During the early-20th century many children in rural areas wore overalls. this was especially common with cropper children.

World War II

Share cropping disappeared in the aftermasth of Wortld War II. The War created good paying jobs in factories all over the country. Cropper families black and wjite sought those jobs, bith in southern cities and the North. Other factors included farm mechanization, education, other employment options, and the Civil Rights movement. They combined to bring the system to an end. Another factor was migratory farm lsbor.

Sources

Coles, Robert. Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers (1972).

Conrad, D.E. The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (1965).

Raper, A.F. and I. D. Reid. Sharecroppers All (1941, reprinted 1971).






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Created: 11:45 PM 7/17/2007
Last updated: 10:11 PM 7/4/2009