The Accuracy of Sharecropping


There is a quotation that I like to use in the beginning of the year to give my students a sense of what they can expect in my class. It is a quotation that I feel helps them to get a quick understanding of how the course will present history for them, and so they can understand how we will explore the subject together. Usually my students don’t get the larger meaning of this quotation, as the first days of school are pretty overwhelming for an adolescent. They are consumed with distractions over classes, friends, sports, rallies, and so many other things.

The quotation is from T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding. It is a long and beautiful poem, but one portion of it is all I use in my class. I recommend you read it. I use this small section:

T.S. Eliot

“We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring , Will be to arrive where we started ,And know the place for the first time.”

I explain to my students that this is how we will experience history together over the school year. Most of my students know something about American History. They think they know about their own country’s history. Together we explore our common history, and together we reexamine the stories we know in common, but when we come to each we will see these stories as if for the first time.

I try to make the history of the United States new for my students, surprising them with facts and anecdotes that they have not heard, which once known remake the history for my students in a way that they did not know if before.

This week we are finishing up the Civil War. We have gone through the battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Bull Run and Antietam. We have discussed Lincoln’s first Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address. We have examined the reaction to Lincoln’s assassination, and the reorientation of the former Confederacy.

Honest Abe Lincoln
The era of Reconstruction is an extremely important and problematic time period of history. It offers great lessons for us today, as well, and in doing so it is perhaps the most significant portion of the Civil War story. How any nation ends a terrible and devastating conflict reveals not only how difficult ending wars really is, but also how sometimes the ending of conflicts give rise to even greater disasters than the one just finished.

Abraham Lincoln died knowing that his legacy was sealed in greatness. He had saved the Union, as he had long promised to do. His death so shocked the nation that it elevated him, rightly or wrongly, into near divine status. Indeed today there is a large white temple devoted to Lincoln in Washington D.C. where we may all visit and worship his greatest ideas and reflect on his legacy. It is a popular destination.

Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction offer a strange tinge to his image of greatness. Lincoln’s ten percent plan for readmission of the states is surprisingly limp and generous to the former Confederates who killed hundreds of thousands of our nation’s troops. Lincoln’s plan allowed the readmission of a former Confederate state into the United States if ten percent of the population would swear an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

Ten percent. Only ten percent.

I interpret this for my students in  using this example: “Suppose ten percent of you fail the test on this unit. Could I then claim that 100% of you had failed the test?” The answer is always a resounding no.

Nevertheless Lincoln’s ten percent plan allowed him to claim that he saved the Union if 10% of a state swore loyalty while 90% did not. Lincoln could claim that he saved 100% of the Union, when in fact it is more likely a hollow claim.

Klan Rally
So Reconstruction after the war meant that the South was largely still rebellious and unrepentant. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, organized by former Confederate officers to kill freed blacks and defend the Southern way of life is strong evidence that Lincoln saved the Union in name only, and left the South as a future battlefield for racism and white supremacy.

While readmission to the Union was relatively easy, the adoption of the 13th Amendment was significant. Slavery could not continue in the South, even if most in the area were unrepentant to the sins of rebellion.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
Furthermore the slaves had represented the backbone of the Southern economy, and thus the Southern way of life. The former slaves did not receive the forty acres and a mule that General William Tecumseh Sherman had promised, and nearly all had nowhere to go. Without resources and denied any education, the freedmen were essential to keeping the agricultural economy alive.

A deal was needed to preserve the South and help the freedmen.

Because African Americans could not be considered slaves to whites anymore, they now had to be employees of white landowners. Most former slaves stayed and worked for their former masters, but now they were paid and called by a new title of sharecroppers.

I ask my students to consider what their textbook says about sharecropping. We examine the textbook description which reads:

The textbook make great efforts to describe how sharecropping wasn’t just for African Americans. Poor Whites were sharecroppers too. The textbook describes sharecropping as a way former slaves might save money and keep all their harvest for cash.

With this “theory” of sharecropping ca focus of our discussion, I then ask my students to examine a sharecropping contract.

It reads as follows,

“To every one applying to rent land upon shares, the following conditions must be read, and agreed to. To every 30 and 35 acres, I agree to furnish the team, plow, and farming implements, except cotton planters, and I do not agree to furnish a cart to every cropper.

A Sharecropping Contract
The croppers are to have half of the cotton, corn, and fodder (and peas and pumpkins and potatoes if any are planted) if the following conditions are complied with, but-if not-they are to have only two-fifths (2/5).

All must work under my direction. All plantation work to be done by the croppers. My part of the crop to be housed by them, and the fodder and oats to be hauled and put in the house.

All the cotton must be topped about 1st August. If any cropper fails from any cause to save all the fodder from his crop, I am to have enough fodder to make it equal to one-half of the whole if the whole amount of fodder had been saved.”

I usually pause at this point to discuss and answer questions about the words or meanings of the sentences. This is a legal document, after all, and my eleventh grade class might not grasp the writing style easily.

Nevertheless, so far it reads fairly clearly. It is, “in theory” still possible for the Freedmen to save money and become a productive and independent citizen. They may only keep 2/5ths of their crop but they could, in theory, make money. It may be hard, I explain, but at this point it is still possible. At least in theory.

It continues,
“Every cropper must feed or have fed, the team he works, Saturday nights, Sundays, and every morning before going to work, beginning to feed his team (morning, noon, and night every day in the week) on the day he rents and feeding it to including the 31st day of December.”
Remember, I explain to the students, that these former slaves, know known as Freedmen, have nothing. The team of work animals needed to raise a crop had to be maintained by the freedman, with supplies borrowed from the landowner.

The contract continues,
“Every cropper must be responsible for all gear and farming implements placed in his hands, and if not returned must be paid for unless it is worn out by use.
Croppers must sow & plow in oats and haul them to the crib, but must have no part of them. Nothing to be sold from their crops, nor fodder nor corn to be carried out of the fields until my rent is all paid, and all amounts they owe me and for which I am responsible are paid in full.”

The duties and costs placed upon a sharecropper were considerable, I explain to my students. The tools were borrowed and had to be replaced if worn or broken. In addition to planting their own crop the sharecropper was responsible to plant, tend and harvest the crops of the landowner as well.

I ask my students if they think, at this point,  it is still possible for the sharecropper to make money; to be free and independent.

Because I intend it to be more of a rhetorical question, I go on explaining that there was no property given to former slaves after the war, as property was considered sacred and therefore was not confiscated from the slave owners to benefit the freed slaves.

As a result, everything from housing to clothing to food and medicine and tools and seed needed to produce a crop had to be bought from the landowner. And it had to be bought at interest. And the interest rate was decided by the landowner. Sometimes the interest rate was as high as seventy percent.

Most importantly, though, is the control over the timing of the work done by the sharecropper. No work may be done until the landowner is paid in full. As long as the sharecropper is indebted to the landowner the sharecropper must work when and how the landowner decides.

“The sale of every cropper’s part of the cotton to be made by me when and where I choose to sell, and after deducting all they owe me and all sums that I may be responsible for on their accounts, to pay them their half of the net proceeds.”

If a sharecropper could raise his own crop, then the harvest was determined by the landowner, not the sharecropper. This meant that the crop could be harvested too late. This also allowed the landowner to dictate when the sharecropper could take his crop to market for sale.

The time and the price of the sale was not determined by the sharecropper, but rather by his former owner and current employer, the white landowner.

The sharecropper could, in theory, make a profit, as the textbook claims. The landowner could also insure that the sharecropper never made a profit, and therefore remained a legal slave of the landowner.

But wait, I exclaim, tell me how this is possible if slavery is abolished! Abraham Lincoln saw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution before his death. It is a great and important achievement for which he should receive credit and praise!

And also, I ask my young students, could the freed slaves who are now sharecroppers not just run away if they were swindled by the white landowner? They were free after all, and they did not need to be abused anymore.

But what, I ask, would happen to an African American if he ran away from his employer to whom he owed a considerable debt, secured through a legal binding contract?

The same thing might happen to anyone who attempts to run away from a debt. That person could be tried and fined or imprisoned.

And what about the 13th Amendment? How might it serve to help African Americans enslaved by sharecropping?

It is at this point that I pull out a copy of the Constitution that I keep in my podium. The students are always amazed that anyone would keep something like the Constitution close by, and they usually squeal with laughter when I bring out my copy.

The 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution says, I announce to the room,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,…”

I pause here for dramatic effect.

“…except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,…”

I raise a finger when I emphasize the word except in this part of the amendment.

“…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

I usually add another dramatic pause here before I ask my students what might happen to a sharecropper who is tried and convicted of running away from a legal debt owed to the landowner.

The sharecropper can now be enslaved by the judicial system and leased as convict labor to work on the same farm where he was a sharecropper, and before being a sharecropper, a slave.

Convicts leased for labor

So it is important I tell them, that we try to understand how our textbook can accurately describe sharecropping as a way for African Americans to keep their crop and make money.

What possible motivation might the publisher of our textbook have in giving such a simple and inaccurate description of sharecropping, I ask my students.

Usually it is at this moment that I have them write down their answers, recording their shock and outrage at the obtuseness of the textbook that has been selected for them.

They always see the crime that was perpetrated against African Americans. The idea that sharecropping was a free and fair economic system is ridiculous. Even the idea that the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States is not even, in theory, correct.

In fact, I tell them, slavery never ended in the United States. Not even for a single day. The 13th Amendment allowed us to maintain slavery but use different language to avoid the pain of acknowledging slavery.

Slavery changed form, but it never ceased to exist.

In fact, I tell my class, sharecropping only ended in the 1950’s.

I usually end our examination of the textbook and the accuracy of sharecropping by urging my students to pay close attention to the equality promised to all Americans. As we proceed through the history of the United States, I tell them, point out the moment when African Americans achieved equality.

When you see it, speak up, I tell them.

If we can’t pinpoint the moment when African Americans stood on equal footing with the white majority of this nation, then we have to ask ourselves if it ever really happened at all.

And if it didn’t happen, then we are required to ask ourselves how accurately we understand our own times.

Perhaps after looking at sharecropping we have arrived where we started, just as the T.S. Elliot poem promised we would.

“…We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring ,
Will be to arrive where we started ,
And know the place for the first time….”

Perhaps we are starting to know our own history for the first time.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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