By 1900 a system of land tenancy and farming known as sharecropping had replaced slavery and yeoman farming as the main form of agriculture in Mississippi and the larger South. The vast majority of black agricultural workers in the Delta and other plantation areas in the state and region were paid a share of the crop as their wages or paid a smaller share of the crop to their landlords as rent. Those who worked as wage croppers typically received a half share of the crop at the end of the year, with all supplies, tools, and animals provided by the landlord or a furnishing merchant. These supplies were advanced against the worker’s share of the crop. Share tenants, including landless white farmers in the nonplantation areas, usually owned mules and tools but still obtained supply advances from landlords and merchants, paying one-third of the crop as rent. Similar to the sharecropper, the share renters pledged their share of the crop in exchange for advances from the landlord or a merchant for supplies. These furnishing merchants charged high interest rates on the advances—from 25 to 65 percent, depending on the risk and on the lenders’ unchallenged power to dictate the terms of credit. As a result, the vast majority of sharecroppers and tenant farmers ended the year hopelessly in debt to landlords and suppliers, entrapped in an economic box from which there was no easy exit.
This system of sharecropping did not emerge overnight. When the Civil War ended, southern landlords tried to establish a system of labor similar to slavery by promulgating the notorious Black Codes that bound the formerly enslaved to the land as a servile labor force controlled by the planter class, devoid of civil rights, and limited in their mobility as free laborers. This effort ran counter to the wishes of the former slaves as well as of many Radical Republicans, who believed that the plantations should be broken up and distributed to African Americans as family farms. When the federal government refused to endorse the distribution of plantation lands, blacks throughout the South tried to use their labor power to resist being returned to the plantation as agricultural laborers under the close supervision of their former owners. They insisted, often with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau and supportive Republican carpetbaggers, on working as farmers in family units relatively free from close supervision and on paying a share of the crop as rent. They preferred this arrangement over fixed wages paid at the end of the year, which they knew were liable to fraud and beyond their control.
Faced with an army of occupation and a vigilant black population, southern landowners had little choice but to accept the sharecropping arrangement as a temporary solution, often leasing their lands to northern speculators and merchants, who then contracted with African Americans to work the land as sharecroppers. The system also allowed landowners to get their land into production at a time when few had the cash or the credit to pay fixed wages on a weekly or monthly basis. But after the end of Reconstruction, the system left sharecroppers and tenants impoverished and deeply indebted to their suppliers and landlords, with all decisions about farming made by these merchants and landowners.
Part of the reason for this change in the character of sharecropping reflected the high crop yields that depressed prices and pressured landlords to use every means available to control the supply of labor and limit its cost. Landlords and furnishing merchants charged high interest rates not only to offset risks but to increase profits by extracting as much income from the workers as possible. As a result, few black farmers ended the crop year free from debt, and this debt prevented them from moving to find better terms of labor.
Although the larger economic context was important, sharecropping became firmly entrenched principally as a consequence of white landlords’ and merchants’ success in creating a political economy that enabled them to control the labor power of the formerly enslaved and to eliminate all possibility of political reform of the system. They did so via the law, racial violence, and class politics. In Mississippi and much of the rest of the South, a series of laws and legal interpretations by the courts privileged merchants’ and landlords’ claims to crops—the crop lien—over claims by farmers; defined sharecroppers as wage hands rather than tenants; limited croppers’ ability to contract or move while in debt; and protected creditors’ claims for advances to make the crops. These legal mechanisms also disfranchised southern blacks, in cooperation with whites of every class, by imposing impediments to voter registration such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements. The Mississippi Constitution of 1890, for example, essentially ended black suffrage in the state, thereby removing all possibility of political reforms that might have addressed the situation. Moreover, these laws complemented Jim Crow social behavior (virulent and violently enforced segregation and lynching) aimed at relegating all blacks to the status of an inferior caste of people without civil or economic rights.
Although sharecropping lasted until the middle of the twentieth century in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the New Deal agriculture relief programs fundamentally undermined the system. New Deal subsidies to southern cotton planters designed to encourage crop reductions and achieve higher crop prices were seldom passed on to sharecroppers. Instead, landlords simply evicted croppers from the land, and the federal subsidy dollars were used to mechanize cotton picking and planting. In addition, minimum wage laws after World War II further motivated the owners of large-scale plantations to abandon what little sharecropping still existed and even to reduce the use of fixed-wage hands. By 1965, a century after the Civil War, few southern farmers or farmhands worked as sharecroppers or share tenants.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Ronald L. F. Davis, Good and Faithful Labor: From Slavery to Sharecropping in the Natchez District, 1860–1890 (1982)
- Gerald David Jaynes, Branches without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South (1986)
- Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1989)
- Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (1977)
- Harold D. Woodman, New South, New Law: The Legal Foundation of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum South (1995)
- Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (1986)