Slavery by Another Name: The Economy of Sharecropping
Mary, Martha and their mother Tallulah are sharecroppers in Texas in the 1890s. At the beginning of Gun & Powder, they find out that their crop harvest is short, and the plantation owner threatens them with a $400 debt and eviction. The sharecropping style of farming has been practiced worldwide for centuries but a unique form emerged in the Southern United States following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
The economy of the pre-war South was predominantly agrarian and built almost entirely on the back of enslaved people and their free labor. Slavery was abolished with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. With no more free labor and approximately 3.5 million people no longer in bondage, the Southern economy collapsed.
The period immediately following the Civil War is called the Reconstruction Era. During this time the United States government attempted to acclimate former enslaved people into freedom and to rebuild the economy and political structures of the South. While former enslaved people had their freedom, they they had no property or means of supporting themselves. Many had skills as farm workers, servants, craftsmen, and other professions, but they had no land or equipment of their own. Therefore, Union General William T. Sherman promised African Americans land after the war (commonly referred to as 40 acres and a mule) as a means for them to gain economic independence. However, President Andrew Johnson (a Southerner) nullified the order shortly after he came into office and returned the allocated land to Whites in the summer of 1865. A minority of African Americans were able to obtain land on which to farm, but by and large, they were pushed out.
At the same time, White Southerners could not pay wages to newly freed African American workers. Their Confederate dollars were useless, the banking industry was in shambles and not lending, and they had never had to provide for the expense of wages before. They had the land, but no one to farm it. So, a contract of crop sharing tentatively arose. The landowner would provide the land, the animals and the seeds, and African Americans would provide the labor. During the season, the White owner or a merchant store would loan the African Americans food, shelter, medicine, etc., and at the end of the season, the two parties would split the harvest and the profits. African Americans were in effect putting up their future harvest as collateral to finance the necessary equipment and land rental costs.
Unfortunately, at the same time as sharecropping was emerging, the price of cotton – which was the main crop in much of the South – plunged. This meant that African American workers had to do the same amount of work to grow and harvest the cotton, but they’d get paid less for it at the end of the season – sometimes not enough to cover the cost of the loan. Besides the low-priced crops, other factors caused the harvest payments to vary wildly, for instance, high-interest rates on their loans, unpredictable harvests, and dishonest owners. The debt to the landowners compounded year after year until there was no way to ever repay it, which tied sharecroppers to the plantation land without an option to leave. This vicious cycle essentially turned sharecropping into another form of servitude and generations of families were impoverished with no other way to earn a living.
Eventually, the traditional system of sharecropping was no longer tenable. By the time of the Great Depression, many factors came to a head to end the practice: the boll weevil had devastated the cotton crop, the soil had been depleted due to the lack of crop rotation, and the mechanization of farm work made labor less valuable. In addition, as racial violence grew and Jim Crow laws tightened restrictions on every aspect of African American life, 6 million African American Southerners opted to leave the rural South and move to Northern cities. The Great Migration, as it came to be known, took place between 1916 and 1970. The loss of African American labor in the South led to a substantial decline in tenant farming and over the course of many years sharecropping gradually disappeared.