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8-10-2015, 09:43


Sharecropping replaced slave gang labor after the CiviL War. The cotton plantations were cut up into small parcels, usually less than 40 acres, with the parcels farmed by free African-American families. The cotton grown by the former slaves was divided between the planter, the merchant, and the farmer. The conditions of sharecropping often brought black laborers into dependency and debt, making it difficult for them to improve their economic position in the New South.

After 1865 most freedmen worked for their former owners on a year-to-year contract. These contracts usually offered food and a small monthly stipend in exchange for working under gang labor, which was too much like slavery for African Americans. They felt that freedom entitled them to break as far as possible from the world of prewar plantations. In great numbers they broke their contracts and tried to lease small plots of land to live as independent farmers. One sympathetic observer wrote: “The sole ambition of the freedman at the present time appears to be to become the owner of a little piece of land, there to erect a humble home, and to dwell in peace and security at his own free will and pleasure.”

Rejecting plantation labor, the freedpeople and the plantation owners came up with a compromise, which was sharecropping. Once they settled on a parcel of land, the ex-slaves entered into credit relationships with local merchants and landowners. Over time, a relatively predictable system was established. Landowners gave freedmen the bare necessities to farm the land: seeds, tools, fertilizer, clothing, and food. In return for the use of the land, sharecroppers paid plantation owners or landlords a share of the yearly harvest, usually about half. The freedmen retained their portion of the crop to feed their families and to pay merchants (owners could also be merchants) for goods purchased on credit during the year. However, these goods were often sold at inflated prices and with high interest rates. Thus, by the end of the year the tenant generally owed so much to the landowner that the debt could not be entirely repaid. Essentially, freedmen moved from lives of chattel slavery to lives of debt peonage.

Although sharecropping was especially common among African-American freedmen, it also affected white farmers. Yeomen who sought to participate in staple crop production were themselves caught in the web of debt that merchants could spin. This situation, which divided prosperous white landowners from indebted white and black people, created a potential racial problem for Southern leaders. The class divide between rich and poor white people held open a possibility that black and white farmers might unite politically.

Racism put an end to cross-color unity. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan had formed as early as 1866, fostering white supremacy and solidarity. Because of this divide, sharecropping for white farmers proved a very different experience than for African Americans. Poverty was a serious problem, but white tenant farmers could count on the judicial system, community support, and family ties to help in their relationship with the owners.

While sharecropping prevented African Americans from enjoying the economic benefits of emancipation they had expected, it was not slave labor, and it allowed a limited amount of independence and power.

See also race and racial conflict.

Further reading: Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); Edward Cary Royce, The Origins of Southern Sharecropping (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

—Samantha Holtkamp Gervase