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Sharecropping and Tenant Farming: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:02 The Post-Civil War Context
  • 1:15 Sharecropping
  • 3:25 Tenant Farming
  • 4:18 The Effects
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
After the end of the Civil War, two new forms of agricultural labor filled the vacuum of slavery. Learn about sharecropping and tenant farming, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Post-Civil War Context

Imagine two situations: In one, you run a business. You use the profits from selling your goods to pay a landlord for an apartment. In the other situation, you have no money, so your landlord takes the profits from your business as rent. But you can't sell your goods on the market, because the landlord demands control so he can receive rent money.

This was similar to the situation of landless farmers, black and white, in the decades after the Civil War and into the early twentieth century. These small farmers didn't own any land, so they were forced into labor systems called sharecropping and tenant farming. They paid the landlord - often through a portion of the crop they raised - to use his land. Sharecroppers and tenants rarely broke out of this system to become landowners themselves.

Since the Civil War ended slavery, all the money that was invested in slaves was wiped out. The plantation economy - huge farms producing cotton or tobacco or rice based on forced labor - was destroyed. In this vacuum developed two new labor systems: sharecropping and tenant farming.

Sharecropping

Sharecropping emerged from the conflicting interests of former slaves and former slave plantation owners. For planters, it was a way to resume agricultural production, as large plantations were turned into individual family plots. For former slaves, it moved away from the gang labor system and freed them from the constant supervision of white overseers.

In sharecropping, a family farmed someone else's land. The landowner demanded around half of the crop yield (usually cotton) in exchange for rent. But because the landowner provided the sharecropper with seeds, beasts of burden, farm tools, housing, and food, he often claimed a larger share.

Sharecroppers rarely were able to work their way up to become landowners themselves and were stuck in a cycle of dependency. Since the landlord demanded payment immediately after crops were sold, this left the cropper with little cash. Furthermore, because the cropper had put to up future crops for collateral, this bound him in debt to the local merchant. The inability of sharecroppers to grow their own food also made them dependent on the landlord or merchant for sustenance. And credit rates were always high in mostly isolated and rural areas of the South where sharecropping predominated. Finally, if cotton prices were low, which they increasingly were throughout the late 19th century, the sharecropper started the next season already in debt. It was extremely difficult for a cropper to break out of this cycle of dependency.

A black sharecropper in Alabama put it this way: 'The colored folks stayed with the old boss man and farmed and worked on the plantations. They were still slaves, but they were free slaves.' Although the majority of rural blacks were sharecroppers by 1900, there were actually more white sharecroppers than black. Sharecropping was indicative of the poverty of the South after the destruction of the Civil War.

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