After the end of the Civil War, two new forms of agricultural labor filled the vacuum of slavery.
Learn about sharecropping and tenant farming, and test your knowledge with a quiz.
The Post-Civil War Context
Imagine two situations: In one, you run a business. You use the profits from selling your goods to pay a landlord for an apartment. In the other situation, you have no money, so your landlord takes the profits from your business as rent. But you can’t sell your goods on the market, because the landlord demands control so he can receive rent money.
This was similar to the situation of landless farmers, black and white, in the decades after the Civil War and into the early twentieth century. These small farmers didn’t own any land, so they were forced into labor systems called sharecropping and tenant farming. They paid the landlord – often through a portion of the crop they raised – to use his land. Sharecroppers and tenants rarely broke out of this system to become landowners themselves.Since the Civil War ended slavery, all the money that was invested in slaves was wiped out. The plantation economy – huge farms producing cotton or tobacco or rice based on forced labor – was destroyed. In this vacuum developed two new labor systems: sharecropping and tenant farming.
Sharecropping emerged from the conflicting interests of former slaves and former slave plantation owners. For planters, it was a way to resume agricultural production, as large plantations were turned into individual family plots. For former slaves, it moved away from the gang labor system and freed them from the constant supervision of white overseers.In sharecropping, a family farmed someone else’s land. The landowner demanded around half of the crop yield (usually cotton) in exchange for rent.
But because the landowner provided the sharecropper with seeds, beasts of burden, farm tools, housing, and food, he often claimed a larger share.Sharecroppers rarely were able to work their way up to become landowners themselves and were stuck in a cycle of dependency. Since the landlord demanded payment immediately after crops were sold, this left the cropper with little cash. Furthermore, because the cropper had put to up future crops for collateral, this bound him in debt to the local merchant. The inability of sharecroppers to grow their own food also made them dependent on the landlord or merchant for sustenance.
And credit rates were always high in mostly isolated and rural areas of the South where sharecropping predominated. Finally, if cotton prices were low, which they increasingly were throughout the late 19th century, the sharecropper started the next season already in debt. It was extremely difficult for a cropper to break out of this cycle of dependency.
A black sharecropper in Alabama put it this way: ‘The colored folks stayed with the old boss man and farmed and worked on the plantations. They were still slaves, but they were free slaves.’ Although the majority of rural blacks were sharecroppers by 1900, there were actually more white sharecroppers than black.
Sharecropping was indicative of the poverty of the South after the destruction of the Civil War.
Tenant farmers, who were mostly white, were barely better off than were sharecroppers in the postwar South. However, they usually had their own beasts of burden, some farm tools, and the seeds and fertilizer they needed. Some tenant farmers also owned their own houses. Thus they also owned the crop once it was grown and could sell it and keep some of the profit. However, just like sharecroppers, the tenant farmer had to pay the landlord a large share of his profit for the privilege of using the land.
But because cotton prices fell throughout the late 19th century, tenant farmers found themselves without cash in hand to pay rent. So in many instances tenants paid their landlord just like sharecroppers did–with a portion of their crops. This pulled tenant farmers into a similar cycle of dependency that afflicted croppers in the South.
The Effects of Sharecropping ; Tenant Farming
Sharecropping and tenant farming were the most widespread systems of agricultural labor in the postwar South. By 1900, the region had around 2.6 million farms, and croppers or tenants worked half.
By that year, fully one-third of white farmers and almost three-fourths of black farmers were either sharecroppers or tenant farmers.Since the landowner demanded a cash crop to be planted year after year, such as cotton or tobacco, the soil lost fertility and eroded. Economist Matthew B. Hammond noted, ‘The tenant is interested only in the crop he is raising, and makes no effort to keep up the fertility of the land.’ This requirement also kept sharecroppers and tenants from growing their own food, thus keeping them in debt to the landlord for sustenance.
Southern sharecroppers and tenant farmers after the Civil War were the poorest people in America’s poorest region. Their struggles lasted for generations, at least until the World War II period of the 1940s.
After the end of slavery, two new labor systems in the South replaced slavery. The first, sharecropping, required farmers to work for a landlord and pay rent with a share of the crop, usually cotton.
In debt to the landowner for everything, the sharecropper rarely worked up from poverty. The second labor system, tenant farming, also required farmers to work someone else’s land and pay rent with a portion of the crop yield. But the tenants usually at least owned a small home, farm tools, and a horse or mule. Both these systems were pervasive in the South, and tied both black and white farmers in a cycle of poverty.