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Sharecropping was the most impoverished level of the tenant farming that characterized cotton and tobacco production in the post-Civil War South. The almost 1.8 million tenant families reported by the 1930 census included about half the region's farmers. Tenants were classified according to their ability to farm and live independently and contribute supplies and equipment for making a crop. Relatively few were cash renters. Approximately 700,000 were share tenants, who might supply their own mules or equipment and who might receive from their landlords two-thirds or three-fourths of the year's profit. But sharecroppers, who lacked equipment, as well as cash or credit for self support, contributed only labor to production and usually received no more than a half share of the crop. In 1937 a special President's Committee on Farm Tenancy reported approximately 775,000 sharecroppers in the South, almost equally divided between whites and blacks.


Cotton sharecroppers normally worked about twenty acres, with their tenure on farms at their landlords' discretion. To sustain themselves during the crop season, they received subsistence goods on credit. This "furnish" was provided, or arranged, by landlords at usurious interest rates. When landlords sold the crops and settled accounts, they subtracted all costs and interest from the sharecroppers' portions. Because landlords had liens on the crops and kept the books, such settlements left most share-croppers still in debt, year by year. The system perpetuated intense poverty, along with poverty's related effects: dependence and lack of expectation, low farming skills, poor health, and illiteracy. Tenancy and sharecropping persisted in the South because of the region's dearth of cash and farm credit, its great surplus of unskilled rural workers, and the fact that cotton and tobacco remained hand labor crops before the mid-twentieth century.


As the agricultural depression bottomed out and rural living conditions became increasingly desperate in the early 1930s, sharecropping came under such economic stress that knowledgeable observers described the system as near collapse. Yet it still dominated newer plantation lands, such as those in eastern Arkansas. It was in that Delta region that sharecropping generated a political storm that embarrassed the New Deal, nearly wrecked the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and focused national attention on landless farmers.

The objective of the AAA was to raise crop prices to certain target levels, known as parity, by eliminating surplus production. To accomplish this, the AAA offered landowners acreage reduction contracts. Under the first regular cotton contract, covering 1934 and 1935, the secretary of agriculture "rented" about three-eighths of the nation's cotton land from cooperating landowners. These farmers agreed to retire the rented acres from cotton, reserving them for food and feed crops. In return, they received a compensation (at 4.5 cents per pound) for the cotton they normally would have grown on those acres. Moreover, if acreage controls worked as planned, prices for a reduced crop would rise. Drafted by AAA officials closely connected to plantation interests, these favorable provisions gave landowners reliable profits for the first time in more than a decade. Critics charged that the contract was unfair on its face because it required landlords to give sharecroppers only about 11 percent of the benefit, far less than customary crop shares. Even more serious, any requirement to divide the AAA check would give landlords incentives to put share-croppers off the land (switching to wage labor instead) in order to keep the whole payment for themselves. To prevent massive displacement of sharecroppers, the contract required landlords to retain their normal number of tenants, rent free, and with access to rented acres to grow their own food. But the AAA's legal staff warned that anti-eviction provisions were both vague and unenforceable. Just as they predicted, as soon as the contract went into effect, the AAA was flooded with complaints of cheating and eviction of tenants, especially in eastern Arkansas.

The formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in the summer of 1934 intensified sharecropper controversies. Centered in the Arkansas Delta and led by local Socialists, this biracial union protested evictions and contract abuses. In turn, it was subjected to violent repression by planters. Early in 1935 the AAA legal section, headed by Jerome Frank, resolved to take action against evictions. They held that retaining the normal number of tenants meant keeping the same individuals for the contract's duration. But AAA administrators insisted the contract gave landlords latitude to remove any tenants. The conflict was irreconcilable. In February 1935 AAA administrator Chester Davis demanded that Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace repudiate the legal section's interpretation and dismiss those responsible for it. Agonized by this dispute, but acutely aware of the AAA's constituency and congressional backing, Wallace allowed Davis to fire Frank and most of his staff. This "AAA purge" confirmed that an agency founded on price parity was politically unable to assure sharecroppers security on the land. As the number of sharecroppers declined steadily through the 1930s, New Deal cotton policy was partly responsible.


The New Deal's most positive efforts against rural poverty were those of the Resettlement Administration (RA), organized in May 1935 under Rexford Tugwell. This eclectic agency pieced together such programs as land classification, relocation of people from submarginal lands, experimental cooperative communities, and planned "greenbelt" suburbs. But its largest component was rural rehabilitation, a program started by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1934. Hoping to stabilize poor farmers on the land, get them off relief, and improve their living standards, the FERA gave its clients a combination of credit and farming supervision. By the time it was transferred to the RA, the program had served more than 200,000 tenants, sharecroppers, and poor landowners, mostly in the South. To direct rehabilitation, Tugwell chose Will Alexander, a southern liberal who had led the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Becoming head of the RA in November 1936, Alexander would make it one of the New Deal's most racially inclusive agencies.

Even before he joined the RA, Alexander and other liberals had developed tenancy legislation. Introduced by Senator John H. Bankhead of Alabama, their ambitious bill proposed a billion-dollar bond issue to finance federal purchase and resale of foreclosed land to supervised tenants on easy terms. Expecting it would help the ablest tenants, Alexander envisioned farm purchase lending as a capstone for the RA's array of programs. But after Senate approval in June 1935, the bill died in committee in the House. Not until July 1937 did Congress pass the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, a token measure that ultimately provided only 44,300 loans by 1946. This modest credit program was added to the RA, then renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Under the leadership of Alexander (until 1940) and C. B. Baldwin (until 1943), the FSA grew into one of the New Deal's largest agencies, and the only one focused on chronic poverty. Many of its activities addressed the conditions of southern tenancy. Between 1935 and 1943 the RA/FSA served almost 400,000 rehabilitation clients in the region. It required these clients to keep farm and home budgets and grow food at home, and it promoted written leases between landlords and tenants. With uneven success the FSA organized some of its clients into innovative cooperatives for the purchase of feed and fertilizer, the marketing of produce, joint ownership of tractors or breeding stock, prepaid health insurance, and veterinary services. Nearly all these antipoverty programs attracted conservative opposition from the start, but as the New Deal waned and war began, the FSA came under heavy fire in Congress. Beginning in 1943, crippling budget cuts curtailed its effectiveness.

The New Deal never had the resources or political support to reach the majority of the poor or to reform southern tenancy. For a time, the RA/FSA alleviated poverty and stabilized some poor farmers on the land. But acreage reduction, the revolution of cotton mechanization beginning in the mid-1930s and accelerating after World War II, and outmigration during and after the war all contributed to the decline of sharecropping. By the last third of the twentieth century sharecropping had become rare in a region where it had once dominated so many lives.



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Paul E. Mertz