Sharecropping


So let’s look at the rural South. And let’s see what happened
after the Civil War there. In particular, let’s look
at what kind of labor system replaced slavery in
the cotton districts. Because cotton was so important
to the pre-Civil War US economy. And of course, many policymakers wanted
the commercial production of cotton to continue to be an essential
piece of the US economy. What replaces slavery, specifically,
is an institution called sharecropping. And as many of you already know, there
were deeply inefficient, premodern, destructive, and impoverishing aspects
to this system of sharecropping. Now a lot of people would say the
fact that sharecropping, in some ways, was considered to be another kind
of slavery– a slavery of debt, rather than a slavery of the whip,
and the sale of people as slaves away from their family– that
this shows that slavery itself was inefficient and premodern. In economic terms though,
I think what it actually shows is that slavery was an extremely
efficient process for producing cotton. And the failures of sharecropping,
once the use of force and the selling of people
is taken away, show that those have been essential
aspects of the production of cotton, and the US success at producing
cotton in the prewar period. But here’s what sharecropping
was actually useful for, despite its economic inefficiencies. What it was useful for was keeping
African Americans and increasingly, poor whites, economically marginalized
and soon enough politically marginalized as well. And those were important goals for the
people who wanted to run the South, even though their own economic
power, in relative terms, shrank dramatically compared
to the growth of the North. They wanted to be able to continue to
control a separate regional economy. And sharecropping was,
from their perspective, an important piece of that puzzle. So what is sharecropping? Well, in essence, it’s pretty simple. It’s a contract between someone who owns
land and has some capital, on the one hand, and on the other hand,
somebody who’s willing to work, who owns their own labor. Because, of course, now
there are no longer slaves. And sharecropping in practice
evolves in the wake of emancipation. As enslavers who no longer command
labor– and often don’t have the money to pay decent wages– make deals
with formerly enslaved people. They run something like this. If you grow a cotton crop on my land,
I will give you one third of the crop. So we’ll take the crop,
we’ll divide up into thirds. I’ll sell my 2/3, you
sell your one third. And in return, not only will
I provide you with land, but I’ll provide you
with mules to pull plows. I’ll provide you with
plows and other tools. I’ll provide you with
credit at the local store so that you can get
food that will enable you to feed your family through
the year while the crop is growing. Now, in practice, what
this often turned out to be was an extremely
inequitable relationship. If you’re borrowing credit, if
you’re buying food and things like that on credit from the store,
the landlord or the store owner can charge any price that he wants. By the end of the year,
families often found that no matter how big
a cotton crop they made, they were still in debt at
the end of the year from what they had borrowed from the landlord. Over time, more and more people came
to feel that sharecropping trapped them in relationship to debt. The problem was, it was very
hard for them to find other jobs. African Americans, in particular,
who wanted to move to the North were unable to accumulate the capital
to enable them to make that move. And when they did
succeed in moving north, often they found themselves not
welcomed, chased out of towns, refused access to
particular kinds of jobs. And southern landlords controlled the
politics of their particular states. Often, they were able
to literally chase down sharecroppers who
walked out on contracts, and walked out on debts– no matter
how unfair– and put them in jail, put them to forced labor on road crews,
chain gangs, and things like that. Vagrancy laws, all kinds of
laws, were created in order to trap people more firmly
in this long term bondage. But one interesting thing that
happened was that, over time, fewer and fewer as a percentage of
the total number of sharecroppers were African American. Increasingly, poor whites who
had lost their land or maybe had never owned land at
all, found themselves in the same kind of relationships. Because of that, by the time you get to
the 1930s, 2/3 of all sharecroppers– and there are about 9 million of them
by that point– are actually white. Over time, the number of
sharecroppers increases dramatically. And the number of acres that
are committed to growing cotton increases dramatically. And so it shouldn’t surprise you that
the total size of the US cotton crop eventually recovers from its
steep decline in the 1860s, during the time of war and emancipation. By the late 1870s, in fact, the United
States is producing as much cotton as it produced in the late 1850s. But it’s doing so with many more
workers committed to that project. In fact, over time, from
the 1860s to the 1920s, the average productivity of labor
in the sharecropping cotton economy declines approximately
1% per year overall. And there are many reasons for this. There’s a decline in soil
fertility that people try to ameliorate by
importing lots of fertilizer. There’s the arrival of new pests
like the boll weevil, which moves north and east from Mexico,
starting in the late 1870s. But, above all, what you see is
that cotton before the Civil War was produced by organized,
calibrated, carefully measured force, delivered in the form of torture. Without that possible, it was simply
not possible at all for workers, whether they’re white or black, deeply
indebted, not indebted, landowners, sharecroppers, tenants,
it didn’t matter. It’s not possible for them
to produce at the same level that enslaved people
were able to produce. And if you look at cotton records,
you see that free people simply did not pick as much cotton,
as quickly, as enslaved people. So the decline in productivity,
at least before the arrival of a mechanical cotton picker– which is
first on the scene in the late 1930s– that decline in productivity
is probably inevitable. But in an economy, a regional economy in
the South and a wider national economy, it is predicated on getting export
revenues from the production of cotton. What this meant was that the
United States in general, and the south in particular, had
to find new ways to make profit, to make enough revenue, to continue
to grow the economy at the rate it had been growing
before the Civil War. Sharecropping as an
institution is a sort of machine for trapping laborers in
difficult economic circumstances. And it was trapping more and more
people every year in the South. Thousands and thousands of them,
until by the early 20th century it was something like 9 million in all. But these people who are experiencing
high debt, dropping commodity prices, and a sort of closing
economic future were still citizens of the United States. And so it’s not surprising that
they organized politically, to resist the circumstances in
which they found themselves. And so, beginning in
the 1870s, often working with farmers in other
parts of the country, and at times with workers
who are participating in the new industrial labor
movements, sharecroppers in the South organized a series of third
party and other movements that attempted to change the system of
economics and politics in the South. Ultimately, these would culminate in
the movement that we call populism.

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