Forty Acres and a Mule
After the Civil War, tens of thousands of freed slaves left the plantations. The Union Army granted each freed family 40 acres of land and a mule. Many freed African Americans saw the “40 acres and a mule” policy as proof that they would finally be able to work their own land after years of slavery. Owning land was the key to economic independence.
Instead, as one of the first acts of Reconstruction, President Andrew Johnson ordered all land under federal control to be returned to its previous owners.
The Freedmen’s Bureau had to inform the freedmen and women that they could either sign labor contracts with planters or be kicked off the land they had occupied. Those who refused were eventually forced out by army troops.
By 1870, only around 30,000 African Americans in the South owned land (usually small plots), compared with 4 million others who did not.
In the early years of Reconstruction, most blacks in rural areas of the South were forced to work as laborers on large white-owned farms and plantations. Former Confederate state legislatures passed restrictive laws denying blacks legal equality and political rights. “Black codes” forced former slaves to sign yearly labor contracts or be arrested.
Rise of the Sharecropping System
The federal government did not help freed blacks in the quest to own their own land.
Freedmen preferred to rent land for a fixed payment rather than receive wages. By the early 1870s, sharecropping on cotton farms dominated agriculture across the South. Under this system, black families rented small plots of land, called shares. In return, they gave some of their crop to the landowner.
‘King Cotton’ Dethroned
The sharecropping system strengthened the South’s dependency on cotton, but the price for cotton was falling.
Sharecropping gave African Americans freedom in their daily work and social lives. However, the sharecroppers often owed more to the landowner (for the use of tools and supplies) than they could ever repay.
Some blacks managed to move from sharecropping to renting or owning land, but most were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair contracts that left them little hope of improving their lives.
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