When the calendars show the 9th of April 1965, and seven months later on when the 13th Amendment ratified by congress, Henry Blake and his family was finally free. He was a son of farmer family and as his family did, he farmed for most of his life. The conditions didn’t change much after their freedom, slavery replaced by a new labor system called sharecropping; ‘After freedom, we worked on shares a while. Then we rented. When we worked on shares, we couldn’t make nothing—just overalls and something to eat. Half went to the other man and you would destroy your half if you weren’t careful. A man that didn’t know how to count would always lose. He might lose anyhow. They didn’t give no itemized statement. No, you just had to take their word. They never give you no details. They just say you owe so much. No matter how good account you kept, you had to go by their account and now, Brother, I’m tellin’ you the truth about this. It’s been that way for a long time. You had to take the white man’s work on notes and everything. Anything you wanted, you could git if you were a good hand. You could git anything you wanted as long as you worked. If you didn’t make no money, that’s all right; they would advance you more. But you better not leave him—you better not try to leave and get caught. They’d keep you in debt. They were sharp. Christmas come, you could take up twenty dollars in somethin’ to eat and much as you wanted in whiskey. You could buy a gallon of whiskey. Anything that kept you a slave because he was always right and you were always wrong if there was difference. If there was an argument, he would get mad and there would be a shooting take place.” From the memoires of Henry Blake we see that although slavery ended, slavery-alike conditions survived after the emancipation. Is sharecropping, labor system which Henry Blake and many freedmen worked with the white planters, a continuum of the slavery? Is sharecropping slavery by another name? To answer this question, we need to check the consequences of the sharecropping which they will be presented in this paper. In summary, sharecropping brought massive economic dependence of black men to the white planters due to its nature and economic conditions of the black men. With the support of black codes which were emerged from the local governments, independence and free labor of freedmen restricted greatly. Twenty years after the emancipation, labor of black men who imprisoned by the ridiculous black codes, sold to the factories by the counties which arrested them. Freedmen had to work under dictated conditions of the factories as slaves, for a time which they had sentenced to be imprisoned. Until a hundred years from the emancipation, black people racially segregated by the law in all aspects of life from schools to public transportations. Although sharecropping is basically a market response labor system, it created a peonage environment for the freedmen which legally lasted hundred years, but it`s social and economic consequences are still a huge negative factor in black people`s lives.
After the Civil War, South was both physically and economically collapsed. Plantations and the factories were destroyed by the Union troops. Levees and canals were deteriorated because of the war. Monetary system was collapsed, Confederation bonds and currency worth nothing. The consequences of the defeat in the Civil War seemed even much bigger when the freedmen fled away from the plantations to enjoy their mobility, move to the settlement where black communities live or went away to find their families and relatives that slavery separated. According to Wesley Allen Riddle wealth in South decreased by 59% due to freedmen`s emancipation and influx. To emphasize the loss even more, by estimation the total labor force in the United States in 1860 was 11 million and almost 3 million of these labor force consisted of the slaves. Approximately 90% of the slaves engaged in agricultural labor which is still a huge amount when you considering the total agricultural labor force was 6.2 million in the United States. Many freedmen like Henry Blake, no matter how loyal they were, left their masters plantations to enjoy their mobility and freedom. For these emancipated slaves who worked in gang labors on the lands for their whole time, freedom meant: owning lands, mobility and having control over their own labor. Now, they could have own lands that once they forced to work by their white owners. They could harvest their crop (mostly cotton) that they were familiar with it more than any men. They had the mobility to go anywhere, they didn`t have to be stuck in the plantations anymore. They taught they had the right to own lands due to their support in the Civil War and countless unpaid labor that white men forced them to do during their slavery. However the reality was much bitterer than the fantasy. Eventually, they had to generate some income to provide themselves and their family. Freedmen`s dream of owning lands were crushed by the economic realities and the attitude of their former owners. Naturally, recently emancipated black men mostly didn`t possess enough money. Although after the Civil War, prices of the lands were quite low and planters usually couldn`t find any buyer for their fields even though they were very eager to sell, they refused to sell their lands to their former slaves. The ones who sold their lands to the black people or even considered to sell, faced with great pressure from their white communities. Freedmen`s Bureau possessed one-million acres of confiscated land after the Civil War. However, many of the lands distributed to the white Southerners back, in the name of the Redemption policies of the Federal Government. Ineligible to own lands and desperate to generate an income, freedmen`s return to the plantations brought bigger problem: What labor system should replace slavery?
Although there was clear cash shortage in the south due to collapse of banking and monetary system, many of the planters wanted to have wage labor. It was a system where planters still could dictate their terms, supervise their employees, has control on black men`s labor and would be able to decide what to pay on what they deserved. Planters were in large debts to the merchants, so they would only able to pay the freedmen’s wages after the harvest which would only mean guaranteed labor without any expense until the end of the contract. Wage labor also required gang labor and planters thought gang labor was best option to discipline their laborers. Although it would seem sweat deal for the planters, these conditions were conflicting with the freedmen’s idea of the freedom on every basis. Federal Government also supported the wage labor and expected it to rise the Southern economy. With the support from the Federal Government, local governments in South ratified laws called Black Codes to push the black men back into fields under the wage labor. Codes required freedmen to sign contracts immediately by defining mobility as vagrancy and claimed that it was a crime. In 1865 Freedmen`s Bureau established to help black people to stand up on their feet and prevent the exploitations that can be occurred because of the white planters and local governments, Bureau dismantled some of the contracts that contained obvious violations of free labor. However, Bureau also perceived compulsory contracts as in guidance to push freedmen into free labor. To clear the path between the wage labor and black labor, alternative ways of supply necessities such as hunting, fishing and gathering were increasingly restricted Despite of the all the efforts that made by the governments, wage labor usually abandoned after the first year of the end of Civil War.
Hammond discussed that the only reason of wage labor`s fail was black men`s idleness and involuntary behaviors on working. On the other hand, Riddle claims; wage labor`s similarity to the slavery, supervision costs to the planters and the planters` often irresponsibility on paying the wages (partly related to cash shortages in South) also caused abandonment of the wage labor. Wage labor required work in gangs, under the terms of planters and the under the watch of overseer. Planters had the absolute control over the freedmen`s labor and what to crop in the field. In some of the contracts, laborers couldn`t leave the plantations without of the permission of the landowners until the harvest season. Landlords forced these contracts unilaterally. According to Edward Royce black men rejected the wage labor because of hoping to enlarge their independence and power, by owning land or engage in similar labor activities. They compelled planters to adopt the sharecropping Economist Gerald David Jaynes claims that black laborers often felt cheated, lost incentive to labor as hard as they can under the wage labor, however, planters couldn`t offer higher wages due to cash shortage. As a result, despite of the huge amounts of labor shortage, wages didn`t rise. Thus, wage labor abandoned by the South
When the Civil War ended and all the slaves in the United States emancipated. However, freedmen continued to be exposed to white landowners` strict control over their lives, labor and families. Centralized labor and life continued around the landowners` lands. Political mobilizations of the Northerners against the Andrew Jackson and freedmen`s gain of citizenship rights in 1866-1867 gave freedmen the leverages on their contracts. Now with the labor they had, they could negotiate their demands with the landowners to obtain control over their labor and avoid exploitation of the white men. However, these leverages weren`t enough for the freedmen`s biggest desire; owning a land. Desire of economic independence led them to prefer sharecropping to wage labor. Freedmen believed owning land would complete their independence and without land there would be no economic autonomy and freedmen would be vulnerable to labor exploitation by former owners. Yet, Riddle presented that; “lands that provided to freedmen in South Carolina and Georgia didn`t raise the freedmen from the poverty.”(p.71) At the point where they were betrayed by the governments and lost all the hope for owning a land, sharecropping was the closest thing to their definition of the freedom. Rising cotton prices since the Civil War and labor shortage in the South pressured the planters to give concessions on the labor contracts with freedmen and compete with each other to attract black labor. Riddle claims that planters divided their lands to small parts to assign each parts to the family units on shares. The centralized life around the plantation broke by the sharecropping system. Sharecropping became the popular system to attract black labor in the South.
One Southern newspaper claimed in 1867 that this “new system” of labor originated in Mississippi, and it seems to have developed faster on the smaller farms of the Southern Piedmont than on plantations where employers clung to the hope of retaining gang labor. Of course sharecropping wasn`t something invented after the Civil War. We can see it roots going back until the Ancient China (722-481 BC). Although historians are not certain about the conditions and agreements of the sharecropping in Ancient China, sharecropping shown itself after in Ancient Greece, Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire with different names and versions. In United States, sharecropping was deeply related with the emancipation of slaves and their post-bellum conditions. When it emerged, planters were deeply concerned and desperate to retain labor. Black people`s increased skills on cropping and harvesting the cotton, gave planters dependence to the freedmen on farming cotton. When the wage labor failed (not just because of the freedmen`s preferences but also costs and cash shortages of the planters), increasing labor shortage, pushed the planters to give concessions. But why did South specifically needed black labor? As one planter commented, it was impossible to hire poor whites to “step into the shoes of the negro” on the plantations: “They most have small plots of land and prefer tending them, poor as may be the return, to lowering themselves, as they think it, by hiring to another.” Foner also claims that: Independence was crucial for the white men, as we have seen, was the credo of upcountry yeomen, and independence meant, among other things, freedom from debt. Thus, for these large numbers of labor demand required especially black labor.
“When I lived back there in South Carolina, my people they sharecropped, sometime we would come out behind. We raised [?], cotton, [peas?], potatoes, and vegetables. The landlord would take half of it like corn and cotton. If we did not make enough to pay way he would take it all, but the vegetables. Sometime if you [?] out you could have [a?] of cotton left for your part. During the year he would furnish you so much a month that would run to the size of your family. They just figu’ out how much it takes to do you month.” Sharecropping is a market response labor system, where peasants rent portion of the landowners` fields and cropped the fields for agreed amount of time without any wage of pay. Landowners mostly obliged to supply the plantation expenses and tools for his tenant. In many of the cases, landowners also would supply food and other necessities to his tenant on debts. When the harvest season came, landowner take the agreed amount of harvested crop to himself, leaving his tenant with the rest of the shares. Croppers would sell off these shares either by their landowners or merchants. According to Wesley Allen Riddle the shares that left to the tenants was about quarter of the crop in 1868 but because of the bargaining power of the freedmen by 1870 this shares increased to one-half of the crop.
Rise of sharecropping was highly rapid in the South. Besides of the market`s effects, political powers also boosted the sharecropping among the freedmen. The Union Leagues, which were anti-slavery union grops, encouraged blacks’ quest for economic autonomy. “Their leaders,” complained a South Carolina planter, “counsel them not to work for wages at all, but to insist upon setting up for themselves.” The main reason of this rapid popularity was freedmen`s preferences and their bargaining power on their contracts against the landowners. Sharecropping in theory contained no supervision of overseers, freedmen could control their labor independently and most importantly freedmen was responsible from their share of the field which gave freedmen the closest thing to the being a landowner. Freedmen used the sharecropping as escaping from the gang labor which mostly reminded them their peonage days. In sharecropping, freedmen would be able to choose their coworkers, as in most cases from their families and relatives. They persisted on the work independently, without any supervision as family units rather than working as gangs. They were working much less and earning much more compared to slavery era. They had job security until the end of the contracts and mobility on whether they renew the contract or not. In addition, sharecropping would give freedmen the less collective and more isolated life which they didn`t have before their emancipation. Although Foner quoted from an 1870 report of the Department of Agriculture, which claimed that sharecropping didn`t develop as “a voluntary association from similarity of interests, but an unwilling concession to the freedman’s desire to become a proprietor” and also he claimed that “many planters continued to resist the system because, under the conditions of Reconstruction, it failed to allow for adequate supervision of the labor force even when, as was sometimes the case, share contracts contained detailed instructions as to what corps were to be raised and how.” Sharecropping presented many advantages to the landowners as well. As Riddle claimed earlier, one of the reasons of the failure of wage labor was supervision costs of the landowners. These supervision costs didn`t exist in the sharecropping, because by renting a share of the land to the croppers there wasn`t need for the supervision. Freedmen would take care of the land as it belongs to them since they had shares on the crop. Also, landowners had still power to decide on which crop to grow. Which was mostly cotton because of the revenue it brings. Although freedmen didn`t want to produce cotton since cotton was the slavery crop, cotton`s increasing prices and demand help freedmen to make concessions. Unlike in wage labor, freedmen wouldn`t idle or leave the plantations before the harvest since they had own share on the harvest. Cash shortage would affect the planters less compared to wage labor in sharecropping since they wouldn`t need to pay anything until they had their harvested crop. Sharecropping was a partnership rather than a patronage of landowner, they could work without any supervision. But how the labor system that was in theory so efficient, failed so significantly that led to exploitation and segregation of black people for more than hundred years?
King Cotton, was the term for cotton referred to how indestructible was the Southern economy and the Confederation which is supported by cotton production and trade against the Union Army before the Civil War. After the Confederation`s collapse and Southern economy`s nearly destruction, cotton and black labor expected to be front horse of the Southern economy. Increasing prices and demand of the cotton also thrilled the Southerners. Despite of their debts due to cash shortage and economic destruction after the Civil War, Hammond stated that “farmers borrowed more money and invested high on cotton trusting in the high prices of cotton.”(p.122). Where did farmers borrow money? In 1867, Act to Secure Advances for Agricultural Purposes ratified by local governments and legalized a crop lien system which was a common credit system in South even before the Acts. Due to cash shortage in the South, many of the farmers borrowed money from certain merchants to invest on their farming. After the Acts ratified, any men whether he is planter or sharecropper could go to certain merchants to borrow money in return of their share of the crop with exorbitant interest rates which they were often exceeded 50%. Riddle discussed that the purpose of the crop lien system was to help croppers and workers to escape dependency on their employers. However, the debts to the merchants gave merchants the power of deciding what crops should be planted by the croppers and landowners. As cotton prices declined, many croppers found themselves in debt and not enough income to settle their accounts.