Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Origins of Black Sharecropping

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

The Origins of Black Sharecropping

Article excerpt

Sharecropping developed after various other production schemes failed. By 1868, it was the predominant capital-labor arrangement throughout the South. In retrospect, the development of sharecropping seems a tragedy, because it is associated with the kind of static, hopeless poverty and debt cycles that afflicted the entire South well into the twentieth century. The freedmen attained an economic status akin to peonage, in addition to having their hopes for political and social equality dashed. If the entire South suffered, it was the freedmen who paid the highest price. Ignorant and impoverished, they were easy targets for exploitation by landlords and merchants alike; moreover, their options were entirely curtailed by the vehement racism in the South, by legal restrictions and partiality, and by the postbellum financial institutions and resurgent plantation economies, which reentrenched a powerful white elite. According to this retrospective viewpoint, sharecropping resulted from the intense explicit or implicit desire of white Southerners to keep blacks subservient to them. Whereas this viewpoint seems plausible and contains more than a few elements of truth, the viewpoint also overly simplifies a whole range of historical considerations.

The exploitation scenario misses or ignores the crucial role played by blacks themselves in the development of sharecropping--indeed, as a preferred contractual agreement. The essentially Marxian interpretation also pits class against class in uncharacteristic ways, grossly simplifying divisions between poor whites, planters, merchants and Republicans of all stripes. The use of misnomers is especially common, for in no wise can the so-called planter elite of the postbellum South be compared to the planter elite of the antebellum South. In no wise can the plantation economy of the Old South with slavery intact be compared to the plantation economies of the smaller production units under sharecropping arrangements.

The action of the capitalist economy in both protecting freedmen and determining the final form of capital-labor organization is likewise minimized. The problems associated with post-1875 Redemption, with injurious national policies, with structural problems and weaknesses in the Southern economy, are confused with the natural and rational response to adverse circumstances that resulted in the development of sharecropping in the first instance. This is not to say, however, that racism did not largely shape the political and social context--and hence, the political economy--in which the market responded. Hence, sharecropping may have been the optimal result possible within a sadly narrowed sphere of alternatives,(1) but it certainly was not the unqualified result of Southern racial prejudices, nor the imposed order of a class elite.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, almost all the freedmen lived in the devastated South. The positive inheritance of slaves was slim: they possessed few skills, and those they did possess related almost exclusively to agricultural production; they owned no property but the clothes on their backs; they were predominantly illiterate; they had very little experience in independent management but were, instead, trained in docility and deference to the master class and habituated to extreme dependence. Still, in the summer of 1865, they were free at last and no longer the legal property of other men.(2) Although nearly two percent of the entire black population died as a result of the war and its aftermath, mostly in epidemics,(3) the freedmen greeted the news of emancipation with happy tears. Their first reaction was to celebrate and to salve a vacation from labor-- and to test the bounds of their new-found freedom.(4)

Of course, the most basic and symbolic characteristic of freedom is mobility--the ability to physically move about at will. So thousands just "up and went," with no particular place in mind. They roamed the countryside awhile, sought out family relations, and congregated in shantytowns around Southern cities and towns. …

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