Monday, November 4, 2013

Debt Slavery

Debt Slavery: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping

Originally posted at the Hampton Institute

Image Courtesy of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

After the close of the Civil War, many assumed that the scar of slavery had been done away with, something to be put into the annals of American history and only to be bought up in classrooms. Yet, the situation in many ways couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Slavery was still around; however it was in a much different form. Besides the convict lease system, which kept black people as slaves within the construct of leasing them out to corporations, there was also sharecropping, which kept blacks tied to the land they worked. In order to obtain a full understanding of sharecropping, the social, economic, and legal contexts under which sharecropping was instituted must first be examined.


After the Civil War ended the rather short-lived era of Reconstruction came about which saw Union troops occupying former rebel states to ensure that blacks had equal rights and a large rise in the number of black politicians on both the local, state, and national levels. While this was good for black people, there was a dark undercurrent as Reconstruction “exacerbated sectional and political tensions and economic recovery problems.”[1] Due to the Civil War, the entire South was engulfed in economic troubles as with physical slavery abolished; plantation owners now had to pay wages to their workers. Yet the implementation of a wage system was problematic as “the South’s quasi-feudal plantation system was not well-suited for a modern, free labor force.”[2] In addition to this, former slaves were quite reluctant to work in the fields for subsistence-level wages.

Having a wage labor economy was near futile as economically speaking; the entire South was in shambles, especially with regards to currency as “Circulating currency was in short supply,” the Confederate currency was useless, “the banking system was practically destroyed and, crucially, planters, farmers and landowners could not borrow money to pay freedmen to work their land for them.”[3] Planters were left in economic ruins as few were able to use their now ruined land as collateral for loans. Poor harvests only exacerbated the problems as planters found themselves unable to attain sufficient crops to gain enough money to hire wage laborers. Yet, the most important factor in this was that “freedpeople had altogether higher aspirations than being simply wage laborers on large centrally organized plantations.”[4]

To address this problem, Congress established the Freedman’s Bureau, whose purpose it was to aid former slaves and refugees and to handle abandoned land. They were also given the task of supervising labor contracts. Initially, Congress envisioned “that the Bureau would undertake the role of umpire in ensuring that the contracts reflected the free interplay of market forces”[5] and gave Commissioner Major General Oliver Howard, explicit instructions as to what contracts and contractual terms could not be dictated by the Bureau.

Yet, this did not solve the South’s labor problem as both planter and freedmen “had little initial idea of what the optimal labor arrangements would be. They had to be discovered by a process of experimentation.”[6] The experimentation began when former slaves begrudgingly entered into labor contracts with planters who still expected them to work in ways quite similar to what they had experienced under slavery. Most planters still believed that blacks needed supervision, Whitelaw Reid noted that most Southerners held the belief that “'niggers wouldn't do more 'n half as much, now that the lash was no longer behind them.”[7] To this end, in the name of ensuring that blacks would work, “they sought to restore gang labor, centralized plantations, and the close supervision of the work and social lives of their new laborers, which, to their mind, were central to the economics of plantation slavery.”[8] While this new system was a compromise between worker and employer, a deal which neither group particularly was fond of, it was one in which blacks had some autonomy, an asset which they leveraged to make the system of sharecropping less oppressive.

Black Autonomy

During slavery, the black family was in a way nonexistent due to the bitter and bleak reality that a family member could be sold off at any time, for almost any reason whatsoever. Thus, when freedom came about, it made sense that former slaves went to great lengths to seek out and reestablish their families. “These attempts to restore families and redirect their labor to serve the needs of the household rather than the planter, were integral to the self-sufficiency that freedpeople sought from sharecropping.” For a time there existed sizable labor shortages, which gave more power to the former slaves and allowed them to “contribute decisively to the contours of the new labor system that was awkwardly being constructed.”[9] Rather than large centralized plantations, blacks had them broken into smaller plots of land and chain gangs were replaced by family and kin-group labor that managed the land.

This collective share arrangement was adopted by both planters and former slaves as planters considered it a group incentive scheme and the former slaves saw it as an opportunity to decrease the amount of outside supervision. The preference blacks had for family-level sharecropping lied “in the increased effectiveness of the incentives implicit in the share arrangement, more closely matching effort and reward at the individual family level, and in the preference that freedmen showed for family farming over collective arrangements.”[10] Though for the little black autonomy that did exist, it was overshadowed by the economics and legal effects of sharecropping.

Economics and the Law

Sharecropping, while influenced by black autonomy, was overall negative for black farmers as such a system “allowed the exploitation of the small farmer by the monopolistic financial structure dominated by the local merchant,” as the farmer (in this case the black family) was unable to access alternative sources of credit to acquire needed supplies and thus the farmer was forced to use his future crop as collateral to finance the loan which “bound the farmer to the merchant and restricted his options to buy elsewhere or dispose of his crop in the most advantageous manner.”[11] Due to his need to pay back the loan, the farmer focused on growing a cash crop such as cotton, to the neglect of food production, thus forcing the farmer to borrow even more money from the merchant as to feed himself. This created a cycle where the farmer was constantly behind in his paying his debt. It also didn’t help that the credit prices that the farmer was charged so he could purchase food “were exorbitant, reflecting not only the local merchant's inefficiency, but his exploitative powers as the sole source of rural credit.”[12] Thus, the farmers stayed in perpetual debt and slavery perpetuated itself, but rather than a physical slavery, it was an economic bondage that held black people to the land.

Another factor in the economics of sharecropping was that the landowner could also provide loans to the sharecroppers. Once again, the future crop was used as collateral against the loan, yet in the 1870s, the Tennessee legislature legalized this practice which, in part due to the corrupt local authorities and the rulings of state courts, resulted in having horrid results for the sharecroppers.

Since 1825 a law had been in place allowing for future crops to be utilized as IOUs to landlords; however the law only applied to the collection of cash rent. In 1870 the legislature passed a law which stated “that under certain conditions a loan by the owner to the cropper for equipment and workstock constituted a lien against the cropper's share of the proceeds.”[13] The legislation did not allow for liens to be carried over from the previous year and mandated that the transaction be in writing. The law was amended in 1875 as to include croppers’ debts to their landlords for supplies used in family consumption. While the legislature did attempt to protect sharecroppers from fraud, they were quite ineffectual as “local authorities ignored violations of the laws and state courts stripped [fraud protection laws] of their legislative intent” which resulted in landowners having the ability to carry debts over year after year. This economic power not only gave them better security for their loans, but also “gave them greater control over their black croppers.”[14]

Besides the law, contract provisions also hurt sharecroppers. Contract terms which assessed “penalties for noncompliance or neglect on the part of the cropper likewise enhanced the landowners' control”[15] as if croppers failed to cultivate the specified amount of land, consequences could be extremely damaging. One contract stated that such a failure would bind the sharecroppers "to pay for fifty acres of corn land at seven dollars per acre & ten (10) acres of tobacco land at twelve dollars & fifty cents per acre in money”[16] where another contract stipulated that the landowner had the privilege of dismissing him entirely. While such terms appeared in the contracts of both white and black farmers, they were more prevalent in the contracts of black farmers. By having the power to dictate the terms of the contract, landowners “could control black croppers during working hours and, perhaps, be situated to dominate them and their families during nonworking hours as well” and there is evidence, “both direct and inferential, that landowners sought to use the system for this purpose.”[17] In some cases, if sickness or accident prevented sharecroppers from meeting their obligations, the landowner had the power to outsource the work at the sharecroppers’ expense.

While such provisions reflected an assumption that blacks were unable to manage a commercial enterprise, it is maintained by many historians that the provisions were an “effort by white southerners in general to hold freedmen, the large majority of whom became sharecroppers, in a subordinate status after emancipation.”[18] Yet, while black sharecroppers in many ways remained subordinate to white landowners, the situation was worse for black women as for them, sharecropping combined the oppression of debt peonage and black patriarchy within the family.

Black Women

While slavery was brutal, there was actually gender equality among black men and women. Though the plantation system was based on patriarchy, “the domesticity in the enslaved cabin at the quarters was, ironically, about as close an approximation to equality of the sexes as the nineteenth century provided. An androgynous world was born, weirdly enough, not out of freedom, but out of bondage."[19] Yet, with sharecropping, black gender relations changed with the empowering of the black male to create a patriarchal family model.

While black female labor played a large role in producing income for families under the sharecropping model, their work was subjugated to the interests of black men as “male croppers controlled the labor of family members and, hence, held more power than women held over income and property.”[20]

Family sharecropping was not just the preferred model for the black family as a whole, but also for black women. Many times freedwomen rejected field work as they were paid less than men, but also due to gang and squad labor putting them in close proximity to white landowners and overseers who would abuse them.

However, while family sharecropping benefited black women, it was also used as a form of control by white landowners as many held the view that "Where the Negro works for wages, he tries to keep his wife at home. If he rents land, or plants on shares, the wife and children help him in the field."[21] In their view, by allowing family sharecropping the landowner could ensure the stability of their labor and add to the labor pool by having the entirety of the black family work in the fields.

Black patriarchy was rather problematic for black women as “fathers could legally use corporal punishment to discipline their wives and children.”[22] In some cases, such discipline was contractually specified. Thus, not only was the black woman afflicted by the negative economic effects of sharecropping in the form of debt peonage, but also the social affects were harmful to them, especially due to sharecropping empowering and upholding black patriarchy.

Sharecropping eventually ended due to mechanization and the Great Migration[23], yet the effects of sharecropping, compounded with slavery and the convict lease system had a negative multi-generational impact on the black community as a whole as rather than being able to work and obtain and pass down capital as to aid in the economic growth of the black community, it resulted in economic stagnation that would only increase racial economic disparity.


1: John J. McDermott, “Reconstruction and Post-Civil War Reconciliation," Military Review 89:1 (2009) pg 67

2: McDermott, pg 68

3: Ian Ochiltree, “Mastering the Sharecroppers: Land, Labor and the Search for Independence in the US South and South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 30:1 (2004), pg 43

4: Ochiltree, pg 43

5: Ralph Shlomowitz, “The Origins of Southern Sharecropping,” Agricultural History 53:3 (1979), pg 588

6: Shlomowitz, pg 568

7: Ochiltree, pg 44

8: Ibid

9: Ibid

10: Shlomowitz, pg 572

11: Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, “Debt Peonage in the Cotton South After the Civil War,” The Journal of Economic History 32:3 (1972), pg 642

12: Ibid

13: Donald L. Winters, “Postbellum Reorganization of Southern Agriculture: The Economics of Sharecropping in Tennessee,” Agricultural History 62:4 (1988), pg 10

14: Winters, pg 11

15: Winters, pg 13

16: Ibid

17: Winters, pg 14

18: Ibid

19: Willie Lee Rose, Slavery and Freedom (New York, Oxford University Press, 1982) pg 29

20: Susan A. Mann, “Slavery, Sharecropping, and Sexual Inequality,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14:4 (1989), pg 7

21: Mann, pg 11

22: Mann, pg 12

23: PBS, People and Events: Sharecropping in Mississippi,

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