Updated: Mar 28
Sharecropping has a bad reputation not because it’s a bad idea, but because it was not protected from exploitation. In fact, it’s a good idea, but it only works in a climate of justice.
After Black soldiers won the Civil War, they wanted “forty acres and a mule,” which they deserved but didn’t get. They didn’t want to work for wages, because it looked too much like a return to slavery. The third option was sharecropping. As the historian Eric Foner has pointed out, sharecropping seemed to fit the bill.
While sharecropping did not fulfill blacks desire for full economic autonomy, the end of planters’ coercive authority over the day-to-day lives of their tenants represented a fundamental shift in the balance of power in rural society, and afforded blacks a degree of control over their time, labor, and family arrangements inconceivable under slavery.
Reconstruction: American’s Unfinished Revolution 1863 – 1877. New York: Perennial Classics, 2002, p. 406
The basic idea was that farmers would contribute their labor and the landowner would contribute the land and the seed. When the farmers didn’t have their own tools, the landowner provided them and sometimes a mule, to grow and harvest the crop. The crop was then shared, usually 50/50.
Although this looked like a good deal, it didn’t turn out that way. The sharecroppers were dependent on the landowner’s credit until the crop was harvested with the result that their shared as taken to pay their debts. They were also forced to buy provisions from a company store and to sell their share to the company owners. Consequently, the domination of white landowners smothered the black farmers desire for a place and a space.
I propose that the past gives us places from which we could imagine a different future than the one we are facing, and the sharecroppers desire and vision is such a place. Their vision of living with the Earth and with each other could give us possibilities today. No better formulation of this vision than the Creed of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union:
All actual tillers of the soil should be guaranteed possession of the land,
either as working farm families or cooperative associations of such farm families. The earth is the common heritage of all, and the use and occupancy of the land should constitute the sole title thereto; This organization is dedicated to the complete abolition of tenantry and wage slavery in all its forms, and to the establishment of a new order of society wherein all who are willing to work shall be given the full products of their toil
in “Introduction: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: A Movement for Social Emancipation,” in Kester, H. Revolt Among The Sharecroppers. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1997
One lesson we learned from the Pandemic is that we are all dependent on workers. Remember the “essential workers”? The bus drivers and clerks, the care givers in nursing homes, the garbage collectors. They kept the city alive. They were “essential.” In a climate of justice, they would receive their due.
Sharecropping in the United States is not the only story of sharecropping. It has been practiced throughout the world. In the nineteenth century, the philosopher, John Stuart Mill, described sharecropping in Northern Italy that was quite successful, because it was based, as he said, on cooperation rather than competition. In this case, both farm workers and farm owners belonged to the same community.
Sharecropping does rest on the assumption that relationships among unequals can be fair. Not everyone is the same. There are laborers and owners, renters and landlords, even doctors and patients. There are social differences. In a climate of justice, these groups world cooperate with each other for the benefit of all.
If we were so lucky!
In our climate of injustice, the more forceful exploit the more vulnerable. That’s the history of sharecropping in the United States. And it’s not just cotton. It’s also housing and company profit. It’s all forms of exchange between people and groups who are socially unequal. The question: “How should we share the crop?” has never been more relevant than it is today.
Given our current climate of injustice, we should not expect white supremacists and their ilk to cooperate with today’s “sharecroppers.” They have not in the past and they probably will not in the future. Cooperation, of course, would be nice. In its absence, we must rely on the rule of law. That’s what a government is for: to promote justice, and in this case, to protect those who are vulnerable and rely on the policies of others.
To have a share of the earth for one’s family and a share of the crop for living is not a bad idea. One way to realize it (maybe the only way) is to return to the sharecroppers’ desire and vision, and this time to enforce the laws that protect their civil rights.