Sharecropping and Tenant Farming
SHARECROPPING AND TENANT FARMING
The close of the Civil War ushered in profound changes in the character of American society. The North emerged from the war at the forefront of the process of recasting the national identity. In spite of the men it had lost, the North had been secure from the ravages of war and both the industrial and agricultural sectors of its economy had enjoyed unprecedented growth during the conflict. In sharp contrast to Northern prosperity, the South emerged from the war devastated.
Fundamental to Southern recovery was the need to get people back to work, which was no simple task in a region where brutal warfare had forcibly emancipated the slaves, its primary labor force prior to the Civil War. Many freed people celebrated the destruction of the slave system by abandoning farms and plantations by the thousands, exercising their newfound freedom by traveling across the South in search of loved ones they had been separated from or merely tasting their liberty. Their absence from the farms nonetheless greatly inhibited efforts at economic recovery. They wanted and had been promised the land necessary to sustain an independent existence, but white Southerners refused to give up land they considered their own, and even many of their Northern supporters seemed unwilling to accept massive seizures of Southern property to benefit the freed people. Among the greatest dilemmas in the post-war South was the existence of African Americans who were free but still without the tools necessary to ensure economic independence.
Ordinary white farmers also faced a severe challenge in the wake of the Confederate defeat. Although many commentators outside the South, inspired by abolitionist rhetoric, spoke of a South composed of rich planters, slaves and poor whites, reality proved to be more complicated. Recent research suggests that far from being fabulously rich or desperately poor, the majority group of whites in the South were independent yeomen farmers, often referred to as the plain folk. The residual effects of defeat proved catastrophic to this category of Southerners. Their high rate of participation in the Confederate Army meant that scores of farms had been neglected, thousands of soldiers never returned home, leaving their families to descend from a comfortable, nearly self-sufficient lifestyle to impoverishment. Expected to pay back taxes that had accumulated while they fought for the Confederacy and confronted with new higher land taxes imposed by the Reconstruction governments, many once-proud white farmers faced the possibility that their land would be forfeited.
A solution to the South's economic crisis emerged in the form of a system of sharecropping and tenant farming that included both poor whites and freedpeople. Initially received with hope by thousands of poorer Southerners as well as by large landowners, the program seemed to offer the freedpeople an interest in the land they farmed. It would keep them on the plantations and also allow whites with small or no farms to rent land or secure credit and continue farming their own property.
The agreement between landlord and tenant seemed simple. Large landowners subdivided their holdings into parcels that sharecroppers farmed for a share of the crop, usually half the harvest. Tenant farmers, who usually owned some equipment or resources that placed them in a stronger bargaining position than sharecroppers, rented the land, maintaining control of the crop until "settling up" time, when landlords received their payment. Tenant farmers typically enjoyed a higher social status than sharecroppers, and were subject to less control by the landlord.
Cotton dominated the post-Civil War era, fueling an emerging industrial economy that had been deprived of a reliable source of the fiber during the war. Landlords demanded that their sharecroppers and tenants plant only cash crops—in other words, cotton—which soon resulted in overproduction and falling prices. Rather than seeking to adjust agricultural practices to accommodate the changing circumstances, landlords encouraged increasingly desperate farmers to plant even more cotton in a futile effort to improve their situation. Tenant farming and sharecropping, which began in hope, soon became bywords for despair.
The details of the annual contract added to the misery of Southern farmers. Although most sharecropping and tenant arrangements included some form of housing, farmers were otherwise expected to provide their own food, clothing, and other essentials. Little thought was initially given to how a former slave or an impoverished Confederate veteran would obtain such supplies. Eventually, merchants, along with financially sound landlords, advanced credit, placing a lien on the farmers' half of the crop. Facilitated by the expansion of the railroads across the South, merchants—many of them recently arrived Northerners, others local people—provided essentials, or "furnish," to farmers, often at exorbitant rates. At the end of the season, the farmer delivered half the crop to the landlord and then used the rest to settle up with the merchant. As the late nineteenth century progressed, share-croppers and tenants increasingly found that the return on their crop did not equal the line of credit advanced by the merchant, ensuring an ever-widening cycle of poverty.
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, sharecropping and tenancy trapped increasing numbers of poor white and, even more acutely, black Southerners in sustained desperation. It would take another war to offer thousands of Southerners the opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty they generated. Born of poor planning in the aftermath of a brutal war and the end of slavery, sharecropping and tenancy shaped the character of the South, creating in the popular mind a caricature of Southerners that still remains.
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Samuel C. Hyde, Jr.