Debt Slavery in American: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping

After the Civil War, slavery took 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. Plantation owners had to pay wages to their workers, but former slaves were reluctant to work in the fields for subsistence-level wages. Planters, farmers, and landowners could not borrow money to pay freedmen to work their land for them. Poor harvests meant that planters were unable to earn enough money to hire wage laborers. And freed people had higher aspirations than being wage laborers on large, centrally organized plantations.

Congress established the Freedman's Bureau to aid former slaves and refugees and to handle abandoned land. 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 the way they had under slavery. Most planters sought to restore gang labor, centralized plantations, and 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 tried to find their families. Labor shortages resulted in more power to the former slaves. The blacks broke the large, centralized plantations 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 outside supervision.

Economics and the Law

Sharecropping was bad for black farmers, who were unable to access sources of credit to acquire supplies. They were forced to use future crops as collateral to finance loans. As a result, the farmer was tied to the merchant and had limited options to buy elsewhere or sell crops in the best way. Farmers also had to borrow money from the merchant for food. This created a cycle where farmers were constantly behind in paying debts. This was economic bondage to the land. The landowner could provide loans to the sharecroppers, where the future crop was used as collateral against the loan.

Black Women

Black female labor produced income for families under the sharecropping model, but their work was subjugated to the interests of black men. Women preferred family sharecropping to field work where they were paid less than men and worked in close proximity to white landowners and overseers who abused them.

Sharecropping eventually ended due to mechanization and the Great Migration, yet its effects had a negative impact on the black community, resulting in economic stagnation that increased 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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