Slavery to Sharecropping to Slavery

Sharecropping was established soon after the end of the Civil War, when enslaved people were emancipated. After the Civil War, former enslaved persons sought out jobs and former slave owners sought  out laborers. Due to the absence of cash, or an independent credit system, led to the creation of sharecropping.

 

Sharecropping is a system where the land owner allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. This encouraged tenants to work to produce the biggest harvest that they could, but also ensured that they would remain tied to the land and unlikely able to leave for other, more beneficial, opportunities. In the South, after the Civil War, many African American families rented land from white owners and raised cash crops such as: cotton, tobacco, and rice. In many cases, the land owners, or nearby merchants, would lease equipment to the tenants; offerring: seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At the time of the harvest, the tenant and land owner, or merchant, would settle up, figuring out who owed what and how much

Unfortunately, high interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous land owners, and/or merchants, often kept tenant farm families severely indebted. This created a perpetual cycle of requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year or the next. Laws favoring land owners made it difficult, or even illegal, for sharecroppers to either sell their crops to others besides their land lord or prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord.

 

Statistics from the time period indicate that approximately 2/3 of all sharecroppers were white, and 1/3 were black. Though both groups were at the bottom of the social ladder, sharecroppers began to organize for better working rights, and the integrated Southern Tenant Farmers Union began to gain power in the 1930s. The Great Depression, mechanization, and other factors lead sharecropping to fade away in the 1940s.

In US Census records following 1865, I have been able to track some of my ancestors who were sharecroppers. My biological paternal great-grandfather, Henry Nelson, and his family appear in the US 1940 Census Record. Henry Nelson is a farmer in the state of Georgia, renting his land. The week prior to when the the census was taken, he had work 45 hours. He worked 40 weeks in 1939, but his income was marked as zero. He is working on his own account, but has no other income sources. It can be assumed, that Henry Nelson and his family were likely sharecroppers. Viewing census records can be telling. You can look at the neighbors to find clues. Surfing through pages, you may be able to identify the land owner. If this is the case, you can look back to older census records and other records. Perhaps the land owner that your ancestor is renting from was his slave owner. These small details can lead to big discoveries.

 

Next time you look at the 1940 US Census Record or other census records, keep in mind that sharecropping in the South was not uncommon. Many times, African Americans rented land from their former slave masters. Families were sometimes stuck in the cycle of sharecropping due to the unjust legalities put in place.

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