Debt Slavery in American: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping

After the Civil War, slavery was still around in the form of sharecropping, which kept blacks tied to the land they worked. To understand sharecropping, one must look at the social, economic, and legal contexts under which sharecropping occurred.

Following the Civil War, the entire South was engulfed in economic troubles due to the abolishment of physical slavery; and plantation owners now had to pay wages to their workers. In addition, former slaves were reluctant to work in the fields for subsistence-level wages. Having a wage-labor economy was near futile economically. The banking system was practically destroyed and planters, farmers, and landowners could not borrow money to pay freedmen to work their land for them. Poor harvests only worsened the problems as planters found themselves unable to grow sufficient crops to earn enough money to hire wage laborers. Yet, the most important factor in this was that freed people had higher aspirations than being wage laborers on large, centrally-organized plantations.

To address this problem, Congress established the Freedman's Bureau, whose purpose it was to aid former slaves and refugees and to handle abandoned land. The agency was also given the task of supervising labor contracts.

This did not solve the South's labor problem, as the planters and freedmen didn’t have any idea of what the best labor arrangements would be. Former slaves entered into labor contracts with planters who still expected them to work in ways quite similar to what they had experienced under slavery. Most planters sought to restore gang labor, centralized plantations, and the close supervision of the work and social lives of their new laborers. This system was a compromise between worker and employer, that gave blacks some autonomy.

Black Autonomy: After gaining their freedom, former slaves went to great lengths to seek out and reunite their families. For a time, there were labor shortages resulting in more power to the former slaves. Rather than large, centralized plantations, the blacks broke them into smaller plots of land, and chain gangs were replaced by family group labor that managed the land. This collective share arrangement was adopted by both planters and former slaves. Planters considered it a group incentive scheme, and the former slaves saw it as an opportunity to decrease the amount of outside supervision.

Economics and the Law: Sharecropping, while influenced by black autonomy, was overall negative for black farmers. The farmer (in this case the black family) was unable to access sources of credit to acquire needed supplies and was forced to use his future crop as collateral to finance loan. This bound the farmer to the merchant and restricted his options to buy elsewhere or dispose of his crop in the most advantageous manner. The farmer also had to borrow money from the merchant for food. This created a cycle where the farmer was constantly behind in his paying his debt. The farmers stayed in perpetual debt and slavery perpetuated itself; but rather than a physical slavery, it was an economic bondage that held black people to the land. The landowner could also provide loans to the sharecroppers. Once again, the future crop was used as collateral against the loan.

Black Women: With sharecropping, black gender relations changed with the empowering of the black male to create a patriarchal family model.

While black female labor played a large role in producing income for families under the sharecropping model, their work was subjugated to the interests of black men.

Family sharecropping was not just the preferred model for the black family as a whole, but also for black women. Many times, freedwomen rejected field work as they were paid less than men, but also due to gang and squad labor putting them in close proximity to white landowners and overseers who would abuse them.

Sharecropping eventually ended due to mechanization and the Great Migration, yet the effects of the practice, had a negative multi-generational impact on the black community as a whole. Rather than being able to work to obtain and pass down capital to aid in the economic growth of the black community, it resulted in economic stagnation that would only increase racial economic disparity.

Source: Debt Slavery in American: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping
copyright 2013 by the Hampton Institute. All Rights Reserved.

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