After the Civil War, freed men and women wanted land so they could support their families. Many former slaves established subsistence farms on land abandoned to the Union army. President Andrew Johnson restored this land to its former owners. The failure to redistribute land reduced many former slaves to economic dependency on the South’s old planter class and new landowners.
During Reconstruction, former slaves and many small white farmers became trapped in sharecropping—a new system of economic exploitation. Lack of capital and land, forced the former slaves to work for large landowners. Planters, with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau, wanted to restore gang labor under the supervision of white overseers. But, the freedmen, who wanted autonomy and independence, refused to sign contracts that required gang labor. Ultimately, sharecropping emerged as a sort of compromise.
As a result, landowners divided plantations into 20 to 50 acre plots suitable for farming by a single family. In exchange for land, a cabin, and supplies, sharecroppers agreed to raise a cash crop and to give half the crop to their landlord. The high interest rates landlords and sharecroppers charged for goods bought on credit (as high as 70 percent a year) transformed sharecropping into a system of economic dependency and poverty.
Sharecropping did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than slavery. As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields. Wives and daughters sharply reduced their labor in the fields and instead devoted more time to childcare and housework. For the first time, black families could divide their time between fieldwork and housework in accordance with their own family priorities.
Copyright 2016 Digital History