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Sharecroppers

SHARECROPPERS

SHARECROPPERS were agricultural wage laborers who raised crops on farm plots owned by large landowners in the post–Civil War era. Both landless whites and blacks worked as sharecroppers, although the majority of sharecroppers were African Americans. The system of sharecropping primarily existed in the southern states and was the end result of struggles between former planters and recently freed slaves over the terms of a new labor system. On one level, sharecropping was a compromise between planters who wanted a docile labor force and freedmen who wanted to purchase and work their own farmlands. In this arrangement, the planter supplied the sharecropper with the land, housing, tools, and seeds, and assumed chief supervision of the farming operations. The planter also retained legal rights to the crop. Sharecroppers brought only their labor to the bargaining table. After harvest, the sharecropper would be paid a share of the produce in lieu of cash wages. Typically he would receive one-third to one-half of the crops.

The sharecropping system was financially oppressive and most sharecroppers were unable to break out of a cycle of poverty and debt. Sharecroppers were responsible for providing their own board and clothing. Landlords would sometimes extend credit for food and living necessities at exorbitant interest rates, either through a local storekeeper or at a plantation commissary. Often the amount a sharecropper owed the landlord at "settling time" exceeded the value of his share of the crop. Unable to support himself or his family until the next harvest, the sharecropper would have to ask for more credit. Bad weather, poor crops, or declining prices on the cotton market could also make it difficult to get ahead. Occasionally, planters would pass punitive laws restricting the farm laborers' mobility, thereby increasing the chance that sharecroppers might find themselves tied to the land in a perpetual cycle of debt.

By the time of the Great Depression the sharecropping system was beginning to break down. The Agricultural Adjustment Act under the New Deal encouraged planters to reduce their acreage production in exchange for government payments. Landlords rarely shared these payments with their sharecroppers. Instead, many share-croppers were evicted from the land and migrated to urban areas. In the 1940s the increasing mechanization of farm production, including the introduction of tractors and cotton pickers, made sharecropping all but obsolete. Rather than relying on sharecroppers, landlords employed wageworkers to meet their limited labor needs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Conrad, David Eugene. The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Woodman, Harold D. New South, New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.

Natalie J.Ring

See alsoFeudalism ; New Deal .


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