After Slavery: The Effects of Sharecropping/Tenant Farming in Black Families in Alabama

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Then, it should come as some surprise that farm operating loans in this day and age are typically structured in much the same manner. Modern competition forces more friendly terms. It is routine that the borrower be required to pledge both livestock and growing crops/future harvest in order to secure operating credit on an annual basis. Farm machinery loans usually require some level of down payment and are secured by mortgage on the item purchased, much like real estate loans. In the farm sector operating money might be borrowed by a community bank, a cooperative farm credit bank or in some cases from the merchants of farming inputs. For instance, I might take out an operating loan from the local bank, a machinery loan from the equipment manufacturer, a seed loan from the seed company and the seller typically carries the mortgage on the farm land.

Also, we try to grow the crops with commercial value. Here in the Midwest, its the major commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, hogs and cattle. We raise a considerable truck patch to supplement the foodstuffs we buy from The WalMart.

I totally agree. It is very much like how things are set up today. And I agree with your points.

It's just back then - and for this particular Sharecropping situation - meaning enslaved people being freed -- the premise of that was..... fairytales. There is no way - and the white farmers knew it was NO way for the newly freed men and women to make any of those requirements - and they actually betted on that. Many of them stayed on the same farm they were enslaved on or right down the street - so they [farmers] knew these people had nothing. But, they needed the labor.

I would recommend - if you haven't read them already two books ---- Slavery by Another Name (the PBS documentary is in the other post - it's very good.) as well as The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism they both do a great job explaining how everything worked. I thought they both were fair and well-researched.
 
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civilken

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 25, 2013
thank you for a true history lesson. First there was slavery and then there was sharecropping and in the end the master of the house stayed rich and happy some of the people on the forum need to read this article. So the next time they say what's wrong with statues think about it and thank God your relatives didn't work or slave on those fields
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Great thread. Sharecropping is an ancient practice, not Made in America by any means. Its effect on black families after the war was to perpetuate poverty.

Since we are a forum for nitpickers :smile: I just want to caution against using sharecropping and tenant farming interchangeably. It's already been explained that the sharecropper/tenant bore the input costs of the farm operation.

The 'share' arrangement meant the laborer was hosed in a marginal year (let alone a bad one), and then when a good one materialized, he had to 'share' his income with the land owner. Tenants, OTOH and speaking generally, paid a flat land rent. They were also hosed in bad years but at least got to bank the good ones for themselves. The latter at least had a shot at eventually buying their own land.
 

Lusty Murfax

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Location
Northwest Missouri
Today, the old 50-50 crop share arrangement is still popular, but more so in marginal farming or moderate yield areas. Within the past decade or so we have seen most landlord tenant arrangements migrate toward straight cash rent, particularly in the higher productive soils. A cash renter assumes all of the cost of the inputs and pays a straight per acre rate, but receives 100% of the harvest. Something in between called modified crop share has been used, as well. The farmer and landlord might agree on something less than 50-50 with the landlord picking up part of the harvest and trucking expense, or paying the cost for the portion of the fertilizer, lime and micro-nutrient application that exceeds replacement rates for an running average crop yield. I once rented farm land from family on a cash rent scheme on the basis of paying the equivalent of one third of the gross revenue of the crop on the day harvest began and I paid 100% of the inputs.

Many landlords are too greedy and all too willing to demand the highest return without consideration of value to his operation from his tenant farmers sustaining a reasonable level of profitability. Obviously, the entire community benefits when both parties share the wealth of their mutual labors.
 
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atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
This could have been avoided if the US gov't had delivered on the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Even if only 20 acres was cropland back then you could make a living.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Many landlords are too greedy and all too willing to demand the highest return without consideration of value to his operation from his tenant farmers sustaining a reasonable level of profitability. Obviously, the entire community benefits when both parties share the wealth of their mutual labors.

Truer words have never been said, Lusty Murfax.

BTW, I haven't seen you post before. Welcome to CivilWarTalk.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Great thread. Sharecropping is an ancient practice, not Made in America by any means. Its effect on black families after the war was to perpetuate poverty.

Since we are a forum for nitpickers :smile: I just want to caution against using sharecropping and tenant farming interchangeably. It's already been explained that the sharecropper/tenant bore the input costs of the farm operation.

The 'share' arrangement meant the laborer was hosed in a marginal year (let alone a bad one), and then when a good one materialized, he had to 'share' his income with the land owner. Tenants, OTOH and speaking generally, paid a flat land rent. They were also hosed in bad years but at least got to bank the good ones for themselves. The latter at least had a shot at eventually buying their own land.

Thanks for explaining the difference! I have seen them being used interchangeably.

I have a few (well more than a few) questions - if you don't mind. :smile:

- Did Tenant farmers have to rent their own equipment? I don't see Whites during that time would allow them to do this - especially with no cash or collateral...and because they were Black. Or did the Lease owner/Farmer buy their seed, supplies - and they had to put this on credit via their lease holder/farmer account? Or would they just get everything they needed free of charge from their Farmer/lease owner? If so, did interest rates or fees get attached on for doing so?

- If they did have to get their own stuff -- supplies and other needs to be able to work the fields - was this done on credit as well - and deducted or added to the land rent monthly?

- Do you know the consequences -- if any issues happened with the crop? or labor? Did the Tenant get charged anything? or Jailed? or worse?

- On the Census - it lists "R"- meaning "rented" -- and when I asked family members they stated our ancestors were "sharecroppers" - do you know how they were differentiated on the Census or if they even were?

- Were these lease/contracts breakable? From what I have read - they pretty much made it where the people were put in so much debt - they could never catch up. So, I assume - they couldn't break it - and if they did a high amount or something else would happen.

- I have also read accounts about people starving or having very little to eat - because they didn't make anything after they paid up their rent/fees. Even though not only them but their entire family worked the field. Would you think those in that situation were Sharecroppers or Tenant farmers? I guess it could be both.
 
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Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Thanks for explaining the difference! I have seen them being used interchangeably.

I have a few (well more than a few) questions - if you don't mind. :smile:

- Did Tenant farmers have to rent their own equipment? I don't see Whites during that time would allow them to do this - especially with no cash or collateral...and because they were Black. Or did the Lease owner/Farmer buy their seed, supplies - and they had to put this on credit via their lease holder/farmer account? Or would they just get everything they needed free of charge from their Farmer/lease owner? If so, did interest rates or fees get attached on for doing so?

- If they did have to get their own stuff -- supplies and other needs to be able to work the fields - was this done on credit as well - and deducted or added to the land rent monthly?

- Do you know the consequences of any issues with the crop? or labor? Did the Tenant get charged anything.

- On the Census - it list "R" - and when I asked family members they called stated they were "sharecroppers" - do you know how one was differentiated on the Census or if they even were?

- Were these leases breakable? From what I have read - they pretty much made it where the people were put in so much debt - they could never catch up. So, I assume - they couldn't break - and if they did a high amount or something else would happen.

- I have also read accounts about people starving or having very little to eat - because they didn't make anything. Even though not only them but their entire family worked the field. Would you think those in that situation were Sharecroppers or Tenant farmers. I guess it could happen to both.

Geeze, these are good questions and I don't have the answers, with respect to Alabama in the years following the war. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of black families were in 'share cropping' arrangements, I just wanted others to understand the difference between 'shares' and tenants. I'm really not schooled in this kind of nitty-gritty, sorry.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Geeze, these are good questions and I don't have the answers, with respect to Alabama in the years following the war. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of black families were in 'share cropping' arrangements, I just wanted others to understand the difference between 'shares' and tenants. I'm really not schooled in this kind of nitty-gritty, sorry.

LOL. It's ok! I got carried away with the questions. :smile:

I am going to find out the answers and when I do - I will make sure to share.

Thanks again!
 

Lusty Murfax

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Location
Northwest Missouri
Truer words have never been said, Lusty Murfax.

BTW, I haven't seen you post before. Welcome to CivilWarTalk.
I generally post in threads dealing with my home State of Missouri.
Geeze, these are good questions and I don't have the answers, with respect to Alabama in the years following the war. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of black families were in 'share cropping' arrangements, I just wanted others to understand the difference between 'shares' and tenants. I'm really not schooled in this kind of nitty-gritty, sorry.
I'm not certain there was all that much difference in share cropping and tenant farming. Traditional rental arrangements called for a portion of the yield or farm income to be returned to the landlord or farm owner. The farmer/renter/tenant/share cropper would likely have been responsible for upkeep of the farmstead and paying the cost of all farm inputs. In those days, there were no synthetic fertilizers, crop protection chemicals, advanced seeds, sophisticated machinery or expensive technologies in use. The landlord's supply of farmable land was the key ingredient in agricultural production. Tracts might be rotated in and out of production. Many farmers followed the Bible teaching of laying off a portion of the land fallow one year out of every seven, in order to naturally replenish its productivity. A man's labor, his draft animals, his crude tillage and planting equipment were not a significantly unique element to the yield equation. There generally being ample numbers of families wishing to rent farms on a share crop basis, the land owner was in the driver's seat. They still are today.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
I generally post in threads dealing with my home State of Missouri.

I'm not certain there was all that much difference in share cropping and tenant farming. Traditional rental arrangements called for a portion of the yield or farm income to be returned to the landlord or farm owner. The farmer/renter/tenant/share cropper would likely have been responsible for upkeep of the farmstead and paying the cost of all farm inputs. In those days, there were no synthetic fertilizers, crop protection chemicals, advanced seeds, sophisticated machinery or expensive technologies in use. The landlord's supply of farmable land was the key ingredient in agricultural production. Tracts might be rotated in and out of production. Many farmers followed the Bible teaching of laying off a portion of the land fallow one year out of every seven, in order to naturally replenish its productivity. A man's labor, his draft animals, his crude tillage and planting equipment were not a significantly unique element to the yield equation. There generally being ample numbers of families wishing to rent farms on a share crop basis, the land owner was in the driver's seat. They still are today.

Thanks for posting this. I didn't mean for us to get bogged down in individual details, only the difference between the two general models.

I've got a book somewhere in my mess, Richard Willis' Long Gone. This is a man's personal memoir of growing up in Iowa in the 1930s. His parents were sharecroppers (yes, in Iowa) and he makes it pretty clear the arrangement was a disaster for his family. They moved on to a flat rate, tenant arrangement and things improved. The author was grown and gone from home when his parents were able to buy a place of their own.
 

Lusty Murfax

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Location
Northwest Missouri
Our family has always owned land and those in each generation who were able to inherit some of it generally stayed put and farmed it, while others moved on to town and found another way to make their living. Maybe, that is why I am the last active farmer in my family.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
Our family has always owned land and those in each generation who were able to inherit some of it generally stayed put and farmed it, while others moved on to town and found another way to make their living. Maybe, that is why I am the last active farmer in my family.

Seriously, that's a great legacy to be apart of! I know your family is very proud of you. I bet it's rewarding and a beautiful feeling to know you are on the same land your family lived/loved/worked on. It has to be daily blessing and a way to feel connected to your loved ones who are no longer here. :smile:
 

Lusty Murfax

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Location
Northwest Missouri
Seriously, that's a great legacy to be apart of! I know your family is very proud of you. I bet it's rewarding and a beautiful feeling to know you are on the same land your family lived/loved/worked on. It has to be daily blessing and a way to feel connected to your loved ones who are no longer here. :smile:
I wish things had been different for your ancestors and we could express the same thoughts toward you. Its difficult to place yourself in the situation of others, whose experiences you do not share. When these situations pivot on matters of race, it is risky to express one's thoughts and usually best to avoid it altogether. I know there are highly successful AA farmers and I suspect there are rural communities where blacks and whites share common social experiences and live together happily. I wish I knew what that was like. I think each society misses something living separate as we typically do.
 

Lusty Murfax

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Location
Northwest Missouri
This generally qualifies within the context of the thread. About 20 years or so ago a black family from Kansas City held a family reunion in rural DeKalb County in northwestern Missouri. The core of the family had descended from slaves once held on an area farm. I read about the family reunion in the local paper. Turns out no known descendants of the white family associated with those slaves still lived or owned farms in the County. It is my understanding the last native black residents of the County had left for big city jobs during WWII. The County was practically white when I was growing up.

My Uncle's farm was situated in the community pinpointed by the group. The KC family had approached County officials and somehow a connection was made and my Uncle agreed to allow them to hold the doings on his farm. From all accounts, it was a huge success. There were no notable incidents recorded in the paper. They cleaned up the pasture and didn't even leave tire ruts in the sod. I think everyone was happy.
 

Dedej

Retired User
Joined
Mar 17, 2017
There is a wonderful book All God's Dangers, a first person account of being a black sharecropper. It was a rigged system.

I wanted to say thanks again for the recommendation! I finished the book last month.

It was WONDERFUL! I learned so much. Mr."Shaw"/Cobb was truly one of a kind.

If you have any other good reads on sharecropping in the South please let me know :smile:
 

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
- Did Tenant farmers have to rent their own equipment? I don't see Whites during that time would allow them to do this - especially with no cash or collateral...and because they were Black. Or did the Lease owner/Farmer buy their seed, supplies - and they had to put this on credit via their lease holder/farmer account? Or would they just get everything they needed free of charge from their Farmer/lease owner? If so, did interest rates or fees get attached on for doing so.

1. Tenant farmers simply rented the land. They were responsible for all the tools and expenses.

2. Sharecroppers paid no money and provided only minimal tools such as a hoe. They might provide their own mule as well. If they did they got a larger share of the crop, which was otherwise split fifty-fifty.

The landlord also typically provided a company store from which the sharecroppers could buy goods with scrip until the crop was harvested. Sharecroppers received their shares after the balance in the company store was paid off. This was a risky business for the landlord because croppers who realized that they would not collect enough in the harvest to pay off the company store would often abandon the property, move far away and leave the store with the debt.

Do you know the consequences -- if any issues happened with the crop? or labor? Did the Tenant get charged anything? or Jailed? or worse?

As noted, croppers would typically move away if they were hopelessly in debt to the company store. It was hard to collect from them.

Were these lease/contracts breakable? From what I have read - they pretty much made it where the people were put in so much debt - they could never catch up. So, I assume - they couldn't break it - and if they did a high amount or something else would happen.

The contracts were generally not breakable until after the harvest time when they were completed. As noted, however, if a cropper became hopelessly in debt he would often abandon the farm and move far away where it would be hard to collect his debts.

I have also read accounts about people starving or having very little to eat - because they didn't make anything after they paid up their rent/fees. Even though not only them but their entire family worked the field. Would you think those in that situation were Sharecroppers or Tenant farmers? I guess it could be both.

As a fifteen-year-old I worked one summer on an outdoor job with a man in his fifties or early sixties who had been a white sharecropper. He told me our job that summer was much like chopping cotton. When I asked him about the cropping experience he said sometimes his family went to bed without dinner because they could not afford it, particularly during the Great Depression.

Not until after World War II did sharecroppers and tenant farmers have tools that were more advanced than those of Russian peasants during the nineteenth century. Many, for example, still used mules instead of tractors to pull their plows as late as the 1950s.
 
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Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
I wanted to say thanks again for the recommendation! I finished the book last month.

It was WONDERFUL! I learned so much. Mr."Shaw"/Cobb was truly one of a kind.

If you have any other good reads on sharecropping in the South please let me know :smile:
Provided below is an edited excerpt from my Southern Reconstruction book that describes black sharecropping in the 1930s.

A British company, Delta & Pine Land (D&PL), owned the largest Southern cotton farm during the first half of the twentieth century. It eventually totaled almost forty thousand acres and was located in the delta near Greenville, Mississippi. After confessed bribe taker and former Grand Rapids, Michigan, District Attorney, Lant K. Salsbury, moved to Mississippi, he became a cotton farmer. In 1911, he journeyed to England, where he persuaded a British cotton textiles consortium to acquire the inactive D&PL and use its charter to purchase large tracts of Mississippi cotton land. The British sent over a delegation to investigate. Local planters, who would sell the Brits some of the land, charmed the buyers with hospitality and entertained them with goose hunting.

After completing the purchase, the British quickly discovered how difficult cotton growing could be. Floods in 1912 and 1913 took a toll, as did the persistent boll weevil. The company did not earn a profit until 1917 and did not pay a dividend until 1920. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, the plantation grew from twelve thousand acres to eighteen thousand. Due to overproduction, the cotton market crashed in 1926. The disastrous 1927 flood, however, led to a cotton shortage the following year from which D&PL benefitted primarily by speculative buying early in the futures market. In the ensuing years, the company’s operating efficiency steadily improved. It also pioneered the breeding of superior cotton types that could better withstand insect infestations and provide higher yields.

black-jpg.jpg


By the time of the Great Depression, D&PL was not only America’s largest cotton farm, it was also perhaps the most efficient at utilizing its sharecroppers, who were almost entirely blacks. In 1937, the company was the subject of a Fortune magazine article, “Biggest Cotton Plantation.” In 1936, it produced 15,000 bales at a yield of almost 640 pounds per acre, whereas the typical cotton farmer obtained a yield of only about 190 pounds per acre. Due to its superior qualities, D&PL cotton sold on the market at an average price premium of 10 percent. Its cottonseed was in demand throughout the world, and three thousand five hundred tons were exported. Net income in 1936 was $153,000.

The company provided farms and homes to a dozen managers who were paid a salary of $150 monthly with the potential for a 10–15 percent year-end bonus. Each supervised about 100 sharecropping families with an average of three children. In order to maximize production, managers gave croppers detailed cultivation instructions obtained from the company’s scientific research and experience. For example, croppers were provided D&PL’s high-yield cottonseed, which matured about six weeks earlier than normal. Managers commonly rode through their respective territories daily to look for problems and provide assistance. Crop-dusting airplanes applied insecticides. D&PL also distributed a half ton of yeast annually to worker families in order to prevent pellagra, which was a common ailment among malnourished Southern farmers of the era.

east-missouri-by-photographer-russell-lee-1938-jpg.jpg


Southeast Missouri Sharecroppers Pictured Above

Beyond these advantages, however, working conditions were little different from those of the earliest post-Civil War sharecroppers. A farmer who used one of the company’s one thousand mules was entitled to a half share at harvest time. If he provided his own mule, the share was typically three-quarters. However, D&PL often did not permit three-quarter shares, because management did not believe that most sharecroppers cared properly for their mules. Each farmer was provided a dwelling unit, free fuel, and a half-acre parcel for growing fruits and vegetables. D&PL also paid for half of the fertilizer costs. The entire cultivating season totaled only 125 days. At other times, croppers might work for cash wages of a dollar a day on other company projects, if available.

D&PL offered croppers a company-owned store to provide food, clothing, and other essentials. The currency of the store was company scrip because of, as Fortune put it, the sharecropper’s tendency to “blow [cash] rapidly for unnecessaries such as whisky.” Assuming the potential for captive stores to charge high prices and impose steep interest rates, Fortune concluded that D&PL’s success partly resulted from the “intangible . . . treatment of [its] labor,” which included reasonable terms at the company store. The company also provided a school and hospital for the blacks. The school operated five months annually at no charge. The hospital had a doctor on staff and was available for a fee of $9 a year.

In 1936, the average cropper consumed $200 in store credits and was paid $320 in cash, resulting in total earnings of $520. If one ended the year with a deficit at the store, D&PL normally canceled the debt. The cash was typically paid on “settlement day” at the end of the harvest. Almost immediately thereafter, used car salesmen, prostitutes, and bootleggers arrived in the neighborhood from Greenville. A cropper’s entire year’s earnings might be wasted in a single day. Black-on-black homicides averaged four or five annually.

Between 1930 and 1932, D&PL reported one thousand cases of syphilis. The best treatment available at the time cost $14,000, which was shared by D&PL and the nonprofit Rosenwald Foundation. Thus, over a two-year period, D&PL invested more than twenty-two times its 1936 income to treat venereal disease among its sharecroppers. Assuming only $320 of clear cash income a year as in 1936, the average cropper would have otherwise required forty-four years to pay for the treatment costs alone.

D&PL’s presence was generally regarded as benevolent to African-Americans of the region. Even though labeling sharecropping as a “national disgrace,” Fortune concluded, “[A]ny practical solution . . . is hard to see and, even if seen, hard to preach. . . . It is possible that at Delta and Pine, you see sharecropping at its best, or say, its least objectionable.” An independent 1939 Harvard University study added scientific evidence to support Fortune’s opinion. It stated that the good diet and excellent medical care encouraged by D&PL lowered the death rate among the croppers. In response to the study, the New York Times wrote, “The Harvard experiments not only teach a valuable physiological lesson but [also] point to the sociological moral that working for an enlightened company on a sharecropping basis need not be another form of slavery.”

According to Fortune, Delta & Pine supplied “better than average cabins with tight-fitting walls [and] grooved and tongued floors.” Tenants were not, however, provided window and door screens, because “the croppers normally punch holes in the screens to let the dogs in or throw trash out.”

When Fortune asked local whites why D&PL’s black sharecroppers failed to use their earnings to purchase lands and improve their economic status, the whites replied that the croppers earned enough money to do so but most were not thrifty and lacked initiative. They compared such blacks unfavorably to Italian families who had migrated to the area after the Civil War to become cotton workers. Some second generation Italians, they said, “had become Memphis doctors and lawyers . . . or otherwise improved themselves.” At the time, however, black sharecroppers occupied such a low social rank that it may have seemed impossible to many—even among the young and ambitious—to improve their position. There were few examples to serve as role models. Those who tried likely faced obstacles from racial discrimination as the tiny number who succeeded often claimed.

Presently, Delta & Pine Land is a subsidiary of Monsanto Chemical. It is the world’s largest developer of cottonseed and controls about 70 percent of the market. Its breeding, gene-splicing, and selection technologies provide seeds that are setting new records in terms of yield, infestation resistance, and fiber quality. The genetically engineered seed is reducing the need for pesticides. It is also hugely profitable for Monsanto because insecticide costs about $150 per acre, whereas conventional seed is priced at about $8 per acre. D&PL can earn a generous profit margin by pricing its transgenic seed at $32 an acre and still lower a farmer’s overall cultivation costs. The company sold most of its cotton lands in 1978 and no longer operates the plantation.

The 1939 claim by the New York Times that D&PL’s methods indicated that sharecropping “need not be another form of slavery” warrants analysis. Sharecropping was not a choice freely made by Southerners after the Civil War. It was compelled by a regional capital shortage when the only alternative was starvation. Federal aid, or investment by outside capital, might have enabled more satisfactory arrangements, but neither was forthcoming. The South’s economic recovery was to be by its own bootstraps. Moreover, it would need to be accomplished within an environment of injurious federal policies such as protective tariffs, unfair freight rates, industrial monopolies, and discriminatory banking rules that favored the Northern states. There were consequences.

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Joined
Mar 1, 2019
Location
Dedham, MA
I have always believed that the failure of the U.S. Government to take strong, lasting action to help former slaves was a real shame. Politicians allowed local governments to take over things and thus subvert the process. What happened to the Freeman's Bureau is an example. Google Freeman's Bureau, or perhaps you can link to it https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedmen's_Bureau
 
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