The Sharecropping System

The American Civil War (1861-1865) brought the end of slavery in the United States of America. For the plantation owners of the South this meant that during the years after the war they were faced with a predicament. Even if a family owned an impressive parcel of land, they couldn't farm it by themselves; they needed labor. The Southern economy was in such shambles that in many cases they couldn't even afford to buy seed and farm implements, much less to pay hired hands. At the same time, most of the blacks who'd been shackled to the land before the Civil War were still there, living in the old slave quarters or in shacks they'd built themselves, trying to raise enough food to keep from starving, getting by from one day to the next.

A bargain was struck. The white landowners, through mortgaging their property or through credit connections, scraped together enough cash to provide seed, implements, provisions, and basic shelter for the blacks that were willing to stay on and work. In return, the blacks planted and harvested the crops, under the supervision of a handful of salaried white overseers on the larger plantations and under the watchful eye of the owner himself if the farm was smaller. It was up to the plantation owners to sell each year's cotton harvest, compute each black family's fair share of the proceeds, deduct the market value of the food, clothing, and other necessities that had been provided to that family, and pay them the difference in cash. In theory, the system was fair enough, but in practice it was heavily weighted against the blacks. The price of cotton on the open market fluctuated wildly. At the end of a good year, a large, hardworking black family might expect to see some cash, perhaps enough to buy new clothes arid even an automobile. At the end of a bad year, and most years seemed bad to some degree, the blacks wound up in debt. Their debts were duly entered in the record books the planters kept for each black family and carried over into the following year. Families that stayed on the same plantation year after year found that they sank deeper into debt regardless of how hard they worked.

This was the sharecropping system. It was shaped by mutual dependency in the years immediately following the Civil War, but it rapidly developed into a kind of modern-day feudalism. The larger plantations printed their own paper money and minted their own coins and advanced these to their tenant farmers against the next year's crop rather than giving them real cash. Plantation money was as good as the real thing at plantation stores, which sometimes charged exorbitant prices for necessities. Usually the stuff was accepted as legal tender in the closest town, but it wasn't much good in the next county or in a large city, and it tended to keep blacks tied to the plantation. Other abuses were possible. Planters could shortchange their sharecroppers when totaling up the cotton harvest, or quote them a price lower than the cotton's actual market value. After a time, an informal system of checks and balances developed. Blacks who were heavily indebted or thought they were being treated unfairly simply packed up in the dead of night and hit the road; planters who were particularly exploitative or whose overseers were cruel often found themselves critically shorthanded at harvest time.

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