Sharecropping and Changes in the Southern Economy
Historians discuss labor relations between former slaves and former masters after the Civil War.
What happened to labor on Southern plantations right after the war?
Ed Ayers: Perhaps the most fundamental thing that had to be decided the day that slavery ended was what form would labor take now. Slavery is fundamentally a form of extracting labor from unwilling people. Now what's going to happen? You can't wait to find out. This is not an abstract question. The day that freedom comes, it's springtime. It's time to be plowing the fields. It's time to be putting in the seed. It's time to be clearing the ditches. If you don't do it now, it's going to be too late. Soon that hot Southern sun's going to come baking down, and if those plants haven't started, they're never going to start. And if they don't grow, there's nothing to eat. So these are not just sort of things that people can sit around and decide later what they're going to do...
Black Southerners make one thing clear. They're going to work, and they want to work as free people, which does not mean being put in a gang and presided over by a man on horseback with a whip. What they want is what white people had. They want a chance to show what good workers they are; their own families, their own work to be rewarded for what they do. So they go to the former masters and say, "We're ready to work. Let us have our own responsibility for what work we need to do." Masters say, "I don't know that black people will work like that. You know, the whole idea of slavery was, we had to force you to work, and that you would only work if somebody was watching you. And you'd only work if somebody was threatening you. Can I count on you to do that?"
How did landowners and freedmen resolve their differences over labor issues?
Ed Ayers: Well, there's a lot of negotiating and a lot of worry, and a lot of anger going on... It's challenging fundamental ideas of the way things really were... So sometimes a master would say, "Okay, tell you what. You, your family have always been excellent. I'm going to have you work that land over there. Let's see what you can come up with, and I'll pay you a certain amount per day." And they would often get mad, these former masters, when the former slaves would say, "Well, boss, can we put that on paper? Let me have a contract. You know. I need to be sure that we can get paid. Now this is the way they tell me that these Yankee soldiers say that things should be; that up North, when you work for somebody else, you have a contract, and you say right at the outset how much it's going to be, how much you pay." And the white men would be furious... "You're doubting my word? You're doubting that if I say that I will pay you, that I will?" Former slaves [would say], "Well, I'd just feel better if we had a contract." And often the Freedmen's Bureau agent is insisting on it. And so they go, the white man and the black man together, to the Freedmen's Bureau agent, and he would write out the contract. White Southerner would be seething at this notion. But he needs the work. All the land in the South is not worth anything if there's not anybody to work it. You've still got to pay taxes on it, still got to feed yourselves. If you're going to get back on your feet, [you've got to] have work. So this is what goes on in 1865, these kinds of elaborate kinds of deals.
Why did many Southern blacks stay on the land where they'd been slaves?
Nell Painter: The freed people believed that land was important because they were a rural people. They were peasants. And working land was what they did. I should add that most Southerners were rural people, and saw land as of crucial importance. So you have land, you have labor. But the difference was that the freed people wanted to farm for themselves. So they saw their own land as a means of having a stake in society. They often talked about living and working under their own vine and fig tree. And that was real freedom...
The difference between what the freed people wanted and what the federal policy offered was that the federal policy was temporary, and what freed people wanted was permanent. They almost never got any land, either through federal action or through state action. Freed people did get land, but by and large it was through working it themselves. That was a minority of Southern black farmers. Most of them turned into tenants and sharecroppers. The land crisis in the South endured throughout the 19th century, and affected more than black farmers. Black and white farmers became progressively less landed over the period of the late 19th century. So black and white farmers did not own their land, and the proportion of land-owning Southern farmers decreased.
How did the idea of sharecropping originate?
Ed Ayers: After [freedmen] begin to get that one crop in the ground, they can tell, they're going to have to work something on a more stable basis. So these same really hardworking black families say, "Tell you want we want to do. We want to have some land of our own that we have responsibility for. And we want to work it and get the benefit of our hard work...You've never seen anybody work as hard as we will, if my own family gets this fruit of my labor." And the master says, "Well, you know, I don't have any cash." There is no money in the South. "But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you a share of the crop, if you produce it. I'll supply the land, I'll supply the mule, I'll supply the plow and the seed. You supply the work. And then at the end of the year, we'll share a crop." And the former slaves, "Well, that sounds better than a gang. And that does reward me and my family for the hard work we're going to do. And that means that we might have some money at the end of the year. We might come out ahead. Now, it does mean that you'll loan us money along the way for the food or medicine that we might need. Right? Because you're waiting. There's no money changing hands here. You're going to wait till the end of the year and it's all done. But in the meantime, right, you'll be loaning us the things that we need?" "Yes, we can do that."
Nobody ever signs a law says "Sharecropping is invented," but it's invented over and over and over again across this vast expanse of the South, as these kinds of bargains are struck.
Could freed slaves succeed as sharecroppers?
Ed Ayers: Few years go by, during Reconstruction, different kinds of bargains might be struck. "Boss, I've got my own mule. I've got my own plow. I'll put five of my children in the field." Or "Look at the crop we produced last year. It was the biggest you had. You give us more land to sharecrop on. And if we do any of those things, we might get a larger share of the crop." So that's one of the things that might happen. People who are fortunate could find that sharecropping had actually worked to their benefit.
More often, black families with the wives and children working in the fields, using a white man's mule, plow, work all year long, and they come up to the end of it, and they're ready to go get their share of the crop, their share of the money, and they go to the former master, and they're ready, and he says, "Well, you've all got a good crop in this year, but you know, remember when I loaned you that money for that medicine for your little girl? And I see here that you got a dress back there in December, and you know, I'm afraid that when we add up all that food that I loaned you money for, that you didn't quite cover it, and you still owe me some money. But I tell you what I'm going to do. We'll [make] the same arrangement again this year. Maybe you can work your way out of it." And the black people think, "We worked this entire year, and we have nothing to show for it? All we've done is keep ourselves alive? All those nights we're working out there by the light of the moon, and all the times when my wife was just too sick to come out there but she did anyway, and we don't have anything? We have less than anything? But what choice do we have? Okay. We'll do it again this year. Maybe we'll have better luck this year. Maybe that rain will come at the right time this year. Maybe we'll get a bigger crop in. Maybe the prices will bounce back a little bit." So they did it again. At the end of the year, very often, "I'm sorry. The rains didn't come." Or, "The prices in New Orleans are down. I'm afraid you still owe me money. And you're going to have to stay here. You can't leave. If you owe me money, the sheriff is going to come get you if you try to leave." So we're sharecropping, but what that's turned out to mean is that you're still on the same land that you were on as a slave, and you can't leave until you get yourself out of debt.
Why wasn't sharecropping more profitable?
Eric Foner: [The] larger economic context... is very disadvantageous. Cotton prices are falling. World demand for cotton is slowing. The credit system in the South, based on the so-called "crop lien" (whereby people borrow money pledging the future cotton crop as their collateral to a merchant), leads to over-production of cotton and further declines in the price. So it is not a vehicle that enables people to move ahead. It's not a vehicle for improvement. Very often the sharecropper is in debt at the end of the year, and continues in debt year after year. So it does give black families far more independence than they had as slaves, or even as gang laborers or something like that, but it certainly doesn't fully give them the economic independence that they have wanted, coming out of slavery.
Did sharecropping keep freed slaves in poverty permanently?
Ed Ayers: One of the miracles of the Reconstruction era and the period that follows is that despite the fact of having been slaves, and despite the fact of starting with nothing, nothing, that through their hard work, [freed slaves] were able to scrimp and save and buy a little bit of land for themselves, and build a better future for their children. They educate their children somehow, out of all this. How could they afford to do that? Just through sacrifice.
So we don't want to let the story of subjugation and poverty so overwhelm us that we don't understand that despite all those things, that African Americans in the South were able to fight their way up into a better life for themselves and their families.
How did the changes in black labor affect white workers?
Nell Painter: Sometimes white employers said, "Well, I've had so much trouble with these black people, I'm going to employ white people." So white people had a real opening into the labor market in 1865, in a way they hadn't. And it turns out that they acted in the labor market very much the way other people did. So poor white women were no more anxious to do housework than poor black women. And what that did was raise wages...
There were many more skilled black people in 1865 than there were skilled white people. And when skilled work became wage work, then white workers moved into that niche... We know that there was a good deal of violence around skilled work. And it was violence that finally got a lot of black people out of skilled work. In the railroad business, for instance, there was a series of hate strikes and attacks, so that by the early 20th century, black workers' role in railroad work was as Pullman porters or as helpers to mechanics and so forth. So they could no longer be engineers and that sort of thing.