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13. Southern Renaissance

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Activities: Context Activities

Promises Unfulfilled: Sharecropping in the South

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Progress (The Advance of Civilization)

[4833] Marion Post Walcott, Tenant Family on Their Porch, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030534-M2].
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In the tumultuous South in the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction, four million freedmen (former slaves) found themselves faced with choices many had scarcely imagined would ever be theirs: How should we make our way in the world? At the same time, while the war had ravaged the southern economy, that economy remained dependent on the production of cotton, which had traditionally been taken care of by slave labor in the plantation system. Therefore, southern farmers and plantation owners faced a dilemma of their own: What would replace slave labor in the southern economy?

Sharecropping was the system of tenant farming which gradually emerged as the answer to the dilemmas of both freedman and planter. In this system, freedmen and poor whites who were unable to afford land of their own contracted with landowners to work a particular piece of land in exchange for a share of the crops or revenue they produced in a given season. Typically, a small group of laborers--often a family but sometimes simply a group of workers who got along well together--would agree to cultivate a certain parcel of land in exchange for one-quarter to one-half the crop as wages, to be paid at the end of the season. The landowner would also generally provide the tenants with a small cabin to live in and food to eat.

Sharecropping initially appealed to freedmen because it promised benefits they had previously been denied, such as the right to work in families or groups of their choice, the freedom to work under their own supervision in their daily activities, and the potential that extra effort might eventually earn them enough profit that they could buy a small piece of land for themselves. However, the vast majority of sharecroppers ended up working in conditions that weren't much better than slavery. Landowners generally retained the right to dictate what their tenants planted and how they worked the land; some even kept their tenants under near-constant supervision. What's more, sharecropping rarely produced a profit for the tenants. In a good year, sharecroppers could earn enough to save a few dollars, but it was generally more likely that they would end up in debt at the end of the season. If a group of sharecroppers encountered a series of bad years--due to poor weather, for example, or infestations of crop-destroying insects--they could quickly find themselves buried in more debt than they could ever hope to repay.

Despite its exploitative nature (and in part because of it), by the early 1900s sharecropping had become the norm throughout the South, allowing white landowners to continue to prosper while ensuring that those who could not afford land--both black and white--remained poor. During the Great Depression, government programs designed to aid southern agriculture only deepened the racial and class divides upon which sharecropping flourished. This was particularly true of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which paid landowners to reduce their output and adopt production quotas in order to raise the profit they could make on what they did produce. When landowners agreed to take some of their acreage out of production, the tenants who had been working those acres found themselves homeless and jobless. Furthermore, government payments to landowners gave them the capital they needed to buy tractors and other farm equipment that further reduced their need for tenant labor. In 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) emerged to unite sharecroppers against these inhumane conditions, and for the next few years it made considerable gains. However, neither government aid nor the STFU could reverse falling cotton prices or the fact that mechanized farming methods were increasingly making sharecroppers obsolete. By the end of World War II, sharecropping had largely faded into history as farming became increasingly mechanized and former tenants were forced to migrate to cities, where industrial work was more plentiful.

  1. Comprehension: If sharecroppers were unable to make a satisfactory living by sharecropping, why did they continue doing it?

  2. Context: As Abner Snopes looks upon his white landlord's plantation house in Faulkner's "Barn Burning," he tells his son, Sartie: "That's sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain't white enough yet to suit him. Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it." How does this illustrate the difference Snopes sees between himself and his fellow sharecroppers who are African American? How did white supremacy in the South draw on an argument of paternalism to maintain sharecropping as an exploitative system of agricultural production?

  3. Exploration: The agrarian life associated with farming has always been an important but contested ideal in American life. Thomas Jefferson, for example, famously supported the ideal of the "gentleman farmer" (see Unit 4). Compare Jefferson's ideas about the agrarian life with the system of sharecropping as it developed in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Why do you think Jefferson's ideal was never realized?

[1452] Anonymous, The Whole Black Family at the Hermitage, Savannah, GA (1907),
courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Company.
In the 1850s, the Hermitage was home to over two hundred slaves. There was a brick factory on the plantation, and the slaves made both the bricks and their homes. These structures still stand today, while other slave cottages made of wood have deteriorated. Sharecropping perpetuated the economic disenfranchisement of African Americans well into the twentieth century.

[2929] Anonymous, Adults Seated, Facing Camera, Child Playing in Barrel in Foreground, Plantation Setting (1880),
courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
While many former slaves left the plantation after emancipation, an even larger number stayed in the area and rented farms for either cash or, more commonly, a share of their harvest. The latter system, called sharecropping, was practiced by both blacks and poor whites throughout the South.

[4099] Anonymous, Tenants (c. 1880 - 1900),
courtesy of Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
Photograph of African American tenant farmers working in a cotton field. After the Civil War, "cotton remained king" and was a main staple of the southern economy through the first quarter of the twentieth century. Southern life was inextricably tied to the crop; political scientists and economists have even shown a strong link between the price of cotton and the number of lynchings in the South during the Jim Crow era.

[4806] Arthur Rothstein, Evicted Sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-002968-M1].
After the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slave labor on many plantations throughout the South. Conditions were arguably little better than slavery for many African Americans, who were given freedom but rented the land and often owed more than they made. During the Great Depression, white and black sharecroppers and farmers, like this family, were displaced from their land and homes.

[4833] Marion Post Walcott, Tenant Family on Their Porch, Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi Delta (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030534-M2].
African American sharecropping family seated on their porch. Plantation owners were generally also the owners of share-croppers' homes, which resembled, and sometimes were, old slave cabins. The plantation owners also controlled the rent and decided which crops should be planted. As payment, landlords usually received most of the profits.

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