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Sharecroppers were landless farmers in the Deep South primarily. Many sharecroppers were black, and the system allowed southern landowners to perpetuate many of the features of slavery even after it had been abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment.
In some ways, emancipation and Reconstruction broke the power of white southern planters over their labor force. Freedpeople negotiated with planters over how the land would be cultivated and how they would be compensated. African-American families worked small plots independently, sometimes obtaining land for cash or, more commonly, for a fixed share of the year’s crop this latter practice was known as sharecropping. By 1870, sharecropping was the dominant means by which African Americans could gain access to land in the South. Still, freedpeople desired independent proprietorship. In this interview, African-American farmer Henry Blake recalls how black land ownership became an elusive goal as unequal power relations between white and black hardened and the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist campaigns increased. Blake’s narrative and many others were recorded during an ambitious New Deal (1936) program of interviews with ex-slaves. Despite unfamiliar interviewers and distant memories, these first person accounts are an unparalleled resource.
I was born March 16, 1863, they tell me. I was born in Arkansas right down here on Tenth and Spring Streets in Little Rock. My father was a skiffman. He used to cross the Arkansas river in a ferry-boat. My father’s name was Doc Blake. And my mother’s name was Hannah Williams before she married.
My father’s master was named Jim Paty. My father was a slavery man. I was too. I used to drive a horsepower gin wagon in slavery time. That was at Pastoria just this side of Pine Bluff, about three or four miles this side. Paty had two places, one about four miles from Pine Bluff and the other about four miles from England on the river.
When I was driving that horsepower gin wagon, I was about seven or eight years old. There wasn’t nothin‘ hard about it. Just hitch the mules to one another’s tail and drive them ’round and 'round. There wasn’t no lines. Just hitch them to one another’s tail and tell them to git up.
We ginned two or three bales of cotton a day. We ginned all the summer. It would be June before we got that cotton all ginned. Cotton brought thirty-five or forty cents a pound then.
I was treated nicely. My father and mother were too. Others were not treated so well. But you know how Negroes is. They would slip off and go out. If they caught them, he would put them in a log hut they had for a jail. If you wanted to be with a woman, you would have to go to your boss and ask him and he would let you go.
Daddy wan sold for five hundred dollars, put on the block, up on a stump, they called it a block. Jim Paty sold him. I forget the name of the man he was sold to, Watts, I think it was.
After slavery we had to get in before night too. If you didn’t, Ku Klux would drive you in. They would come and visit you anyway. They had something on that they could pour a lot of water in. They would seem to be drinking the water and it would all be going in this thing, They was gittin' it to water the horses with, and when they got away from you they would stop and give it to the horses, When he got you good and scared he would drive on away. They would whip you if they would catch you out in the night time.
My daddy had a horse they couldn’t catch. It would run right away from you. My daddy trained it so that it would run away from any one who would come near it. He would take me up on that horse and we would sail away. Those Ku Klux couldn’t catch his. They never did catch him. They caught many another one and whipped him. My daddy was a pretty mean man. He carried a gun and he had shot two or three men. Those were bad times. I got scared to go out with him. I hated that business. But directly it got over with. It got over with when a lot of the Ku Klux was killed up.
In slavery time they would raise children just like you would raise colts to a mare or calves to a cow or pigs to a sow. It was just a business. It was a bad thing. But it was better than the county farm. They didn’t whip you if you worked. Out there at the county farm, they bust you open. They bust you up till you can’t work. There’s a lot of people down at the state farm, at Cummins, that’s where the farm is ain’t it, that' a raw and bloody. They wouldn’t let you come down there and write no history. No Lawd! You better not try it. One half the world don’t know how the other half lives. I’ll tell you one thing if those Catholics could get control there would be a good time all over this world. The Catholics are good folks.
That gang that got after you if you let the sun go down while you were out, that’s called the Pateroles. Some folks call ‘em the Ku Klux. It was all the same old poor white trash. They kept up that business for about ten years after the war. They kept it up till folks began to kill up a lot of ’em. That’s the only thing that stopped them. My daddy used to make his own bullets.
I’ve forgot who it is that that told us that we was free. Somebody come and told us we’re free now. I done forgot who it was.
Right after the war, my father farmed a while and after that he pulled a skiff. You know Jim Lawson’s place. He stayed on it twenty years. He stayed at the Ferguson place about ten years. They’re adjoining places. He stayed at the Churchill place. Widow Scott place, the Bojean place. That’s all. Have you been down in Argenta to the Roundhouse? Churchill’s place runs way down to there. It wasn’t nothing but farms in Little Rock then. The river road was the only one there at that time. It would take a day to come down from Clear Lake with the cotton. You would start 'round about midnight and you would get to Argenta at nine o’clock the next morning. The road was always bad.
After freedom, we worked on shares a while. Then we rented. When we worked on shares, we couldn’t make nothing, just overalls and something to eat. Half went to the other man and you would destroy your half if you weren’t careful. A man that didn’t know how to count would always lose. He might lose anyhow. They didn’t give no itemized statement. No, you just had to take their word. They never give you no details. They just say you owe so much. No matter how good account you kept, you had to go by their account and now, Brother, I’m tellin‘ you the truth about this. It’s been that way for a long time. You had to take the white man’s work on note, and everything. Anything you wanted, you could git if you were a good hand. You could git anything you wanted as long as you worked. If you didn’t make no money, that’s all right they would advance you more. But you better not leave him, you better not try to leave and get caught. They’d keep you in debt. They were sharp. Christmas come, you could take up twenty dollar, in somethin’ to eat and much as you wanted in whiskey. You could buy a gallon of whiskey. Anything that kept you a slave because he was always right and you were always wrong it there was difference. If there was an argument, he would get mad and there would be a shooting take place.
And you know how Negroes is. Long as they could git somethin', they didn’t care. You see, if the white man came out behind, he would feed you, let you have what you wanted. He’d just keep you on, help you get on your feet, that is, if you were a good hand. But if you weren’t a good hand, he’d just let you have enough to keep you alive. A good hand could take care of forty or fifty acres of land and would have a large family. A good hand could git clothes, food, whiskey, whenever be wanted it.
Source: Henry Blake, Little Rock, Arkansas Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Children of a sharecropper on the porch of their Montgomery County, Alabama, home in 1937. The exploitative system of sharecropping trapped many Black people in poverty for generations after the abolition of slavery. (Library of Congress)
The widespread economic exploitation of the Black community continued for generations after slavery’s end, due to discrimination, violence, and terrorism. In addition to convict leasing systems that re-enslaved Black people through criminalization, and lynching that enforced white supremacy through terror, sharecropping and disenfranchisement created a system of unchecked racialized economic domination.
Within years of Emancipation, discriminatory laws and lending practices largely barred Black people from land ownership: in Georgia in 1910, for example, more than 40 percent of white farmers were landowners, compared to just 7 percent of Black farmers, while more than 50 percent of Black farmers were sharecroppers or wage workers. Through sharecropping, white landowners hoarded the profits of Black workers’ agricultural labor, trapping them in poverty and debt for generations.
Black people who challenged this system of domination faced threats, violence, and even murder. Whites violently attacked and murdered Black people attempting to form sharecroppers’ unions in communities throughout the South in the early 20th century, including in Elaine, Arkansas (1919) Camp Hill, Alabama (1931) and Lowndes County, Alabama (1935).
This exploitation persisted as legal and political protections ignored the plight of Black workers. Through poll taxes, grandfather clauses, felon disenfranchisement, and violent intimidation, Black citizens were banned from the democratic process well into the 1960s, prevented from electing officials to represent their interests. Today we continue to grapple with the economic and political effects of the racialized exploitation that characterized the century following Emancipation.
Sharecropping was the mode of labor that supported much of North Carolina's postslavery plantation economy. During Reconstruction, this system of tenant farming offered both planters and laborers, African Americans as well as some poor whites, incentives over the gang labor that predominated during slavery. Planters, strapped for cash in a postbellum economy where money was scarce, offered laborers housing, a mule, tools, and seed to farm a small plot of the planter's land. In return, the sharecropper bought provisions on credit from the planter and reserved the sale and one-half to three-quarters of the crop for the planter. For laborers, sharecropping eliminated the pain and humiliation of gang labor and allowed freedmen to move their families out from direct supervision of white supervisors.
Despite the benefits some sharecroppers accrued from the system, planters profited more. Employers throughout the South constructed a form of sharecropping that contributed to the horrific poverty of African Americans in the region. Planters, faced with a severe labor shortage at the close of the Civil War, used sharecropping to develop a labor-repressive economy that enabled landowners to maintain economic and political dominance. Sharecropping contracts, designed for a year-long obligation, favored the rights of employers and Freedmen's Bureau agents, ostensibly the freedmen's advocate, often encouraged freedmen to sign contracts in order to restore stability and order to otherwise chaotic economic conditions. North Carolina laws reinforced planter dominance over croppers. The law defined sharecropping as wage labor. Therefore, croppers were subjected to more managerial supervision than tenants who merely rented land from planters and provided their own supplies. Furthermore, crop lien legislation gave landlords control over the crops, which prevented croppers from selling their goods to merchants elsewhere for better prices.
Economic conditions worsened in the 1880s and 1890s as cotton prices plummeted from 18 cents a pound in 1868 to 5 cents a pound in 1894. North Carolina's poor economic infrastructure offered few forms of credit. The crop lien system intensified laborers' misery as sharecroppers, bound to planters and merchants, pledged their growing crops for food and supplies at interest rates that ranged from 25 percent to 100 percent. By the 1890s, many yeomen, tenants, and sharecroppers revolted against landholders by forming Farmers' Alliances, which established the Populist Party in the mid-1890s. Black and white yeomen, tenants, and croppers drew together to promote reform policies that included the Subtreasury Plan, a system of warehouses intended to store crops until market prices improved. Eventually, the Populist Party dissipated due to friction between leaders, who usually owned land, and rank-and-file tenants and sharecroppers.
Over time, sharecropping declined. New Deal policies and surges in the African American population reversed labor shortages, which enabled planters to turn back to a wage labor system. Programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act discouraged farming and released many sharecroppers into the already growing pool of unemployed laborers. Mechanical harvesters further reduced planters' needs for labor. Temporary wage labor proved cheaper than sharecropping contracts, which required year-round management. During World War II, African Americans began to migrate to northern cities for industrial jobs. As the United States embarked upon the postwar years, North Carolina, no longer in need of labor-repressive laws, developed wage labor policies in favor of industrial development.
Grade 8: From Slavery to Sharecropping. North Carolina Civic Education Consortium. http://civics.sites.unc.edu/files/2012/04/Sharecropping.pdf
Dwight B. Billings Jr., Planters and the Making of a "New South": Class, Politics, and Development in North Carolina, 1865-1900 (1979).
Margaret Jarman Hagood, Mothers of the South: Portraiture of White Tenant Farm Women (1939).
Gerald David Jaynes, Branches without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1882 (1986).
On December 6, 1865, the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction .
With this Amendment, the economic slave-based system of the South was deemed unconstitutional. The South’s GDP, which was largely based in slave ownership and trade , disappeared as African Americans ceased to be property and were acknowledged as human beings. Plantation owners with large patches of land found themselves with no workers nor funds to pay for labor. Newly freed African Americans were able to enjoy freedom for the first time but had no property nor money in order to make a living. In order to remedy the precarious economic system in the South, sharecropping was introduced.
After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established. The Bureau was created by the government in order to allocate resources, such as food and medical supplies to newly freed slaves. In addition, the Bureau could organize the reallocation of confiscated land by Confederates to freed people and assist freed people in earning a living after the war. Because of its temporal status and budget constraints, the Bureau’s reach and control were limited. Originally, the Bureau suggested forming freedmen into groups and creating a gang-labor system to amend the economic problems in the South. This labor formed freedmen into multiple groups, or gangs, and assigned each gang a different task. These gangs w ere managed by one field manager or a group of field managers. Gangs w ere paid by the field managers when the ir assigned tasks were completed. Many freed people did not want to partake in this system. This type of labor gave the manager or managers complete control over the gang with little oversite. It was also commonly used, and abused, by plantation owners on plantations to force field slaves to work long hours with physical punishments if they didn’t complete their tasks. Because of these complaints, sharecropping was adopted by the Bureau instead of gang-labor.A cotton-farming family in a cotton field c. 1890s
Share c ropping was an economic system that existed before the Civil War and throughout the world . Both white and African Americans became sharecroppers . This system was comprised of s harecroppers rent ing farmable land from farmers, such as plantation owners, w ho owned large patches of land . In addition to this land, sharecroppers rented supplies and equipment from the farmer to work the land . Usually, cash crops, like tobacco and cotton, w ere grown. Depending on the contract, the sharecropper gave half of their harvest or half of the proceeds from selling their harvest to the farmer in lieu of rent. From the remaining proceeds, the sharecropper paid back the sum of the rented supplies and equipment, usually with interest. Any leftover income w as kept by the sharecropper. The benefits of this system were that a farmer without disposable wealth , which could be used to buy farmland or equipment , could still become a farmer and make a living. In addition, a farm owner could gain income from farmland he did not have the time or the income to farm themselves . Ideally, the sharecropper could earn enough income each year to save a percentage until they could buy their own land. In addition, the sharecropper had the freedom to decide when they wanted to work, how long they wanted to work, and what crops they wanted to plant.
Ideally, sharecroppers were able to become share-tenants and cash-tenants. Share tenants rent ed land from a large-scale farm, just like sharecroppers. However, share-tenants owned their own equipment and supplies or were able to buy their own equipment and supplies. Depending on their contract , share-tenant s g a ve one- half to one-third of their harvest or one- half to one-third of the proceeds from selling their harvest to the farmer they rented land from in lieu of rent. The remaining proceeds were kept by the share-tenant. Generally, share-tenants made more profit than sharecroppers since they did not have to pay interest on suppl ies or equipment rentals. Cash-tenants were like share-tenants, except cash-tenants paid a monetary amount of rent for the property annually instead of giving one- half of the harvest in lieu of rent. This system allowed the tenant to keep the entirety of their crop and could reap higher rewards, or financial burdens, in the marketplace when they sold their crops.
However, the system became exploitative to sharecroppers. Farmers with large patches of land, such as old plantation farmers, establish ed a “Plantation Store” on their property. The se farmers required all sharecroppers farming on their land to use th eir store for farming equipment and personal shopping . Prices in these stores w ere highly inflated. Stores encourage d sharecroppers to buy items with “credit.” In this system, called “crop lien,” the stores charge d excessive interest rates on items bought with credit , which could be as high as 15% interest per month. Since many sharecroppers did not have enough disposable income to purchase items during the year, many used this credit extensively. Because of these high interest rates, many did not have disposable income after they paid off their credit line. If the harvest was poor, some sharecroppers remained in debt to the store until the next year .
With these exploitative stores, many sharecroppers couldn’t become fully “free” in this system. With mounting debts, farmers prioritized cash crops and could not spend time planting personal gardens for daily food consumption. Since these cash crops were time-intensive, sharecroppers’ children were pulled from schools and were unable to access an education. Because of poor harvests, farmers could not make enough income to buy their own land or start a savings account. Eventually, this type of situation was labeled “wage slavery.” “Wage slavery” is a term that refers to individuals who are only earning subsistence wages, which means their wages only cover their basic needs. This term w as used in future labor protests throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century protests.
Many children were pulled from school to work on the family's farm.
Sharecropping began to wean as a labor-system in the 1930s. Once large-scale automation was introduced to farming, farmers could plant and harvest larger patches of land for less money in less time. Buying machines became a more profitable venture than paying sharecroppers to farm smaller plots of land by hand. In addition, decades of poor labor practices left thousands of acres of land inhospitable to farming. These practices led natural disasters, such as the Dust Bowl, that scattered dust throughout the Great Plains, destroyed plant and animal life, and made the area uninhabitable. Some sharecroppers did benefit from this labor system. Farmers were able to dictate their own hours, what to plant and where to plant their crops. Women were able to play a more active role in the home since they were able to devout time away from fields and crop cultivation. Schools and communities were established near dense clusters of sharecroppers for educational and social enrichment. Ideally, sharecropping was a beneficial labor system that could create upward mobility for newly freed African Americans. In reality, the sharecropping system was the site of exploitation and economic stagnation that only benefited few.
People, Locations, Episodes
*On this date in 1865, sharecropping is briefly described. Sharecropping historically is a system of agriculture or agricultural production in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land (e.g., 50 percent of the crop).
We chose this date because of the passing of the 13 th Amendment in the United States. With this Amendment, the economic slave-based system of the South was deemed unconstitutional. This should not be confused with a crop fixed rent contract, in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a fixed amount of crop per unit of land (e.g., 1 ton per hectare). Sharecropping has a long history and there are a wide range of different situations and types of agreements that have encompassed the system. Some are governed by tradition, others by law. Legal contract systems such as the Italian mezzadria, the French métayage, and Spanish Mediero occur widely. Islamic law contains a traditional “musaqat” sharecropping agreement for the cultivation of orchards. This article will concentrate on American sharecropping.
Following the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, most freed people lacked land or money and had to continue working for white plantation owners. Indeed, many plantations continued to run as large operations that were worked by wage-laborer’s or sharecroppers, including also poor rural whites, and sharecropping gradually became the accepted labor system in most of the Antebellum South. Landowners, short of capital, favored the system because it did not require them to pay cash wages. In addition to the land, the owners usually provided animal power, machinery, and most of the other inputs in the form of an advance. Cabins were commonly rented to the workers. Charges for the land, supplies, and housing were deducted from the sharecroppers’ portion of the harvest, often leaving them with substantial debt to the landowners in bad years.
Sharecroppers received what was left if they were able to pay back the owners—generally about half of what had been produced under honest arrangements. A string of poor seasons or periods of low prices, coupled with the proliferation of unfair practices with little legal recourse, meant that many sharecroppers were held under the implicit bondage of economic insecurity. Contracts between landowners and sharecroppers were typically harsh and restrictive. Many contracts forbade sharecroppers from saving cotton seeds from their harvest, forcing them to increase their debt by obtaining seeds from the landowner. Landowners also charged extremely high interest rates.
Landowners often weighed harvested crops themselves, which presented further opportunities to deceive or extort sharecroppers. Also financially distressed landowners could rent land to Black sharecroppers, secure their debt and labor, and then drive them away just before it was time to harvest the crops. Southern courts were unlikely to rule in favor of Black sharecroppers against white landowners. The Great Depression had devastating effects on sharecropping, as did the South’s continued overproduction of and overemphasis on cotton and the ravages of the destructive boll weevil. Cotton prices fell dramatically after the stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing downturn bankrupted farmers.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 offered farmers money to produce less cotton in order to raise prices. Many white landowners kept the money and allowed the land previously worked by sharecroppers to remain empty. Landowners also often invested the money in mechanization, reducing the need for labor and leaving more sharecropping families, Black and white, underemployed and in poverty. Sharecropping in the United States gradually died out after World War II as the mechanization of farming became widespread. So too, Blacks left the system as they moved to better-paying industrial jobs in the North during the Great Migration. Similar forms of tenant farming are still found in some places around the world.
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O f all the images of economic backwardness, racial oppression, and social stagnation associated with Louisiana and the South in the post-Civil War decades, that of sharecropping has persisted most vividly as a defining symbol of a region held captive by the chains of poverty and tradition. Much of the relevant scholarly literature, and certainly public opinion, has stereotyped sharecropping as little more than a recast form of slavery, with even fewer protections than found under the “peculiar institution” and just as many opportunities for exploitation. There is a core of truth to this characterization, of course. As a labor system and way of life, though, sharecropping was much more complex than such a narrow description allows. Indeed, the term sharecropping itself tends to cloud the profound differences in land tenure and agricultural labor that existed from the 1860s until the 1950s. Still, no other phrase or expression is as effective in conjuring the spirit of this ultimately debilitating institution hence its widespread, though often inexact usage.
The emergence of sharecropping, or more precisely “farm tenancy,” as the dominant form of agricultural organization in postwar Louisiana reflected the state’s deep economic crisis as well as its indelible bond to the cotton economy. Originating in the old plantation districts along the Mississippi and Red rivers, the sharecropping system represented a compromise between newly freed but landless African American workers and impoverished white planters who lacked capital and credit. The former slaves provided the manpower needed for the struggling plantations, and in return they received housing, food, and a share of the cotton crop, along with considerable latitude in their daily lives. The planters maintained their dominant social position and, most important, the title to their lands, even while being forced to accept a new, decentralized labor structure.
While outsiders often perceived sharecropping as the collapse of the plantation system, it actually signified less a breakup of the old order than a dispersal of its functions. Planters gave up direct control over production in return for the convenience of a semi-autonomous but fairly stable labor force. Within the confines of the era, it appeared to satisfy the needs of each group. Yet as planters regained political and economic power in the 1880s and 1890s, sharecropping lost much of its elasticity and became a more impersonal institution. Landlords exercised considerable control over the lives of their tenants through the legal instrument of the “crop-lien” and the application of other means of leverage, including physical violence.
On the lowest rung of the agricultural ladder, day or wage laborers proved among the easiest to exploit. Essentially operating as hired hands, they worked at the direction of the plantation manager, who could use them for any number of tasks associated with cotton production or plantation upkeep. As part of their “contract,” they usually received a cabin or shack for living quarters and collected cash wages. Occasionally these wages were paid in real currency, but more often were paid with paper “scrip” or cheap metal tokens known as “bronzeen,” redeemable only at the plantation store. As one might imagine, few bargains awaited the customer at such places.
One step up from the day laborer, sharecroppers farmed specific plots of plantation ground. These farmsteads ranged anywhere from ten to thirty acres in size, depending on the cropper’s expertise and the number of “hands” (wives or children) who could be deployed in planting, tending, and picking cotton. Planters usually supplied the necessary work stock, seed, fertilizer, cotton bagging, and equipment, along with a cabin and an account with either the plantation commissary or a local “furnish” merchant to meet day-to-day needs. The croppers primarily supplied their labor. Although nominally more independent than day laborers, these tenants nonetheless met with close supervision from plantation managers, who determined when to plant and harvest, and deducted any additional services, such as plowing, dusting, or ginning, from the croppers’ accounts. At the end of the season, croppers, as true share-tenants, received anywhere from a quarter to half the value of the harvested cotton and cottonseed (hence, the phrases “working on quarters” or “working on halves”). The landlord, however, retained control of the crop’s marketing as well as the settlement of accounts. This final reckoning of the plantation books rarely favored the cropper, who often cleared only $50 to $150 in a good season, and dipped further into debt during a bad one.
Tenants who owned a mule, had their own equipment, or were otherwise in a better financial position might arrange for a straight-cash rental or some mix of cash payments and crop-shares. These farmers maintained more control over their individual routines than either day laborers or croppers. Indeed, they often planted vegetable gardens and orchards, kept milk cows, and raised chickens or pigs. Because they led fairly self-sufficient lives, they reaped larger shares of the profits. Working on the Montrose and Trinidad plantations in Madison Parish during the 1920s, tenants who had their own mules and equipment cleared upwards of $400 or $500 a season, for example. But any sort of economic reversal—such as the death of a mule or a bad harvest—often sent these “renters” spiraling back down the ladder into cropper or laborer status.
Whatever the situation, sharecropping was a perilous existence. It also had deep social ramifications, especially as cotton culture expanded into new regions of Louisiana in the decades after Reconstruction. By the early 1900s, the cotton kingdom had grown to include most of the upper Red River Valley, including Caddo, Bossier, De Soto, and Claiborne parishes, along with most of northeastern Louisiana, central Acadiana, and parts of the Florida Parishes. Very few of these areas could be considered true plantation country, but the cotton regime took hold nonetheless, and with cotton came tenancy. In 1880 only a third of Louisiana’s farmers could be classified as tenants, but by 1910 this number had surged to 55 percent. By 1930, a staggering 67 percent of Louisiana farmers were classified as tenants, with the vast majority listed as share-tenants or croppers, rather than renters. White farmers, formerly the sturdy yeomanry of antebellum times, comprised a solid third of this tenant population. Driven by ruinous economic conditions and an expanding market, these landless whites, like their black counterparts, became enmeshed in the cyclically depressive cotton economy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although trapped within this repressive system, sharecroppers were not bound to the land like feudal serfs, as is popularly imagined. Mobility, in fact, defined the lives of most tenants as they shifted about from plantation to plantation and region to region in search of better opportunities. In her memoir of life in Caldwell and Richland parishes during the 1930s, Lillian Laird Duff recounts moving on an almost yearly basis, making a different agreement with each landlord. These agreements might include a more liberal “furnish” from the plantation store or associated country merchant, better living quarters, expanded acreage, less supervision from management, or any number of other factors. Often, proximity to family or friends proved to be a major selling point.
Such mobility, though, had its costs. Children of tenant farmers, both white and black, had very little access to educational or medical facilities and suffered as a consequence. Likewise, Louisiana’s stringent voting requirements worked against this vulnerable class of workers, who usually were not in one place long enough to establish residency and rarely could afford to pay the poll tax. In addition, black tenants were unable to exercise the franchise. Without a political voice, sharecroppers had little chance to improve their conditions. Most simply drifted along with the ebb and flow of events far beyond their control.
Increasingly during the New Deal years of the 1930s, for instance, when the federal government sought to reduce cotton production through subsidized rent payments to farmers, plantation landlords balanced their accounts on the backs of their labor force, withholding the tenants’ portions of subsidy payments, limiting the amount of furnish, and demoting renters and croppers to day labor status. Pressed on all sides, tenants and their families had few choices. Many abandoned their farms, while others joined futile efforts like the Louisiana Farmers’ Union to help combat this exploitation. But the consolidation of the plantation that began in the 1930s continued unabated for the next several decades, leading to the further degradation of farm labor through the reimposition of centralized management. Still, it was not until the mechanization of the cotton harvest and the emergence of chemical pesticides and herbicides in the post-World War II years that the need for hand labor in the cotton routine diminished and with it, the need for tenants themselves. Thus, after eighty years, sharecropping came to an end in Louisiana with a final clearing of rural people from the land.
Aiken, Charles S. The Cotton Plantation South Since the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Davey, Elizabeth, and Rodney Clark, eds. Remember My Sacrifice: The Autobiography of Clinton Clark, Tenant Farm Organizer and Early Civil Rights Activist. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
Davis Ronald L. F. Good and Faithful Labor: From Slavery to Sharecropping in the Natchez District, 1860–1890. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.
De Jong, Greta. A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Duff, Lillian Laird, and Linda Duff Niemeir. Sharecropping in North Louisiana: A Family’s Struggle Through the Great Depression. Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2008.
Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Scott, John Henry. Witness to the Truth: My Struggle for Human Rights in Louisiana. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Shugg, Roger W. Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939.
Wayne, Michael. The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860–80. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System
The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.
“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.
At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.
Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.
Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.
Ulysses Simpson Bratton, attorney, Little Rock, Ark., ca. 1890 (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)
Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.
During the massacre, Arkansan Leroy Johnston, who had had spent nine months recovering in a hospital from injuries he suffered in the trenches of France – was pulled from a train shortly after returning home and was shot to death alongside his three brothers. In places like Phillips County, where the economy directly depended on the predatory system of sharecropping, white residents were inclined to view the activities of Hill and others as the latest in a series of dangerous agitations.
In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”
The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience."
To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.
The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.
“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town. if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.
The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.
Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.
In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.
The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.
Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the s and s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.
Elaine Defendants: S. A. Jones, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall with Scipio Jones, State Penitentiary, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Ark. ca. 1925, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)
The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”
The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would - through several years of tenacious effort - end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.
Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2009).
Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
Arthur F. Raper, Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties (1936 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Arthur F. Raper and Ira De A. Reid, Sharecroppers All (1941 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Nate Shaw, All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, comp. Theodore Rosengarten (New York: Knopf, 2000).
Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).
The Sharecroppers' Union, also known as SCU or Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union, was a trade union of predominantly African American tenant farmers (commonly referred to as sharecroppers) in the American South that operated from 1931 to 1936. Its aims were to improve wages and working conditions for sharecroppers. 
Founded in 1931 in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, the Sharecroppers' Union had its origins in the Croppers’ and Farm Workers’ Union (CFWU). It was founded with the support of the Communist Party USA and, although theoretically open to all races, its membership by 1933 was solely African-American.   Among its first members was Ned Cobb, whose story was told in Theodore Rosengarten’s All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. 
SCU's initial demands included continuation of food advances, which had been suspended by landowners in an attempt to drive down wages the ASU also demanded the right to sell surplus crops directly in the market rather than having to rely on brokerage by the landowners. They demanded also the right to cultivate small garden plots in order to minimize dependency on the landowners for food. In addition to the demand for payments to be made in cash rather than in goods, SCU membership also demanded nine-month public elementary schools for their children. 
In 1935, the SCU turned its attention to the Federal government. Subsidies which were provided by the New Deals' 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) benefited only the landowners and the SCU sued the Federal government for direct payment to sharecroppers. The AAA was declared unconstitutional in 1936 and the case was subsequently dropped. 
By 1935, membership had reached 5,000  by 1936, membership had nearly doubled to 10,000.  However, in October of that year the Communist Party, desirous of promoting a more popular-frontist bloc with Democrats in the South, withdrew its support of SCU,  resulting in the dissolution of the SCU as it merged first into the Farmers' Union of Alabama and then into the Alabama Agricultural Workers' Union.