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A student-led group project from HIST 246

Sharecropping, In line with the wants of Freedmen?

For years a culture, established by the colonial powers of Europe, dominates the agricultural economic landscape of the entirety of the New World. In this system large plantations growing cash crops generated huge profits for planters, while exploiting Africans and Indians. In every one of these societies the institution of slavery came to an end in a different way. With the end of slavery new systems of producing the cash crops that were needed to support the economies of these regions. The solution in many places including the former Confederate States of America was often sharecropping. In the book “Nothing But Freedom,” author Eric Foner discusses the many issues and injustices that arose for the former slaves in this new system of sharecropping.

Two of the major ideas we discussed during this past week of class was “what did former slaves expect form emancipation?” and in turn “What did planters expect out of the former slaves in this new South?” Foner’s book addressed these questions and how they relate to the question of sharecropping. It was a trend in the American South, and in the Caribbean that freed slaves just wanted to have some time to manage their own lives and provide for their own families, while planters needed to get the agricultural economies biased on cash crops reestablished. Foner points to this sentiment held by the blacks stating: “The desire for land, sometimes judged “irrational” when viewed simply as a matter of dollars and cents, reflected the recognition that… land ownership ensured the freedman a degree of control over the time and labor of themselves and their families.” (43) This belief held by many freed blacks put the planters in a very difficult position because according to Foner “it was the necessity… of maintaining the plantation system that made labor such an obsession in the aftermath of emancipation.” (43) Because of these two opposing views of what southern society should be in the reconstruction years, there were many disputes over what labor blacks would do and how blacks were to be treated as laborers. (43)

What came out of these disputes was the compromise of sharecropping. That said there were many problems with the institution, blacks wanted more control of their lives and southern planters wanted more control over the labor force. Foner writes: “sharecropping afforded laborers more control over their own time, labor and family arrangements, and more hope of economic advancement, than many other modes of labor organization.” (44) In this sense share cropping was beneficial to the blacks, but southern planters continually tried to manipulate the system to resemble slavery, “[preferring] a closely supervised labor force working for wages.” (44) The struggle between blacks and planters never came to a clear conclusion, but the introduction of sharecropping allowed blacks to keep some autonomy and allowed them to move towards emancipation.

I am not sure that the progress made during reconstruction would have been accomplished, if blacks would have been given land and total autonomy, or if planters had won out and instituted a total wage driven system of labor. I believe that we would have seen many more instances similar to what was described in “Reading A,” from Thursday’s class, that equated to pseudo-slavery under a wage based system. Foner believes that “blacks stubbornly clung to the measure of autonomy in day-to-day labor relations assured by share cropping.” (72) This is one of the reasons why I say that sharecropping benefited freedmen. The system of sharecropping was not ideal, but it was the best solution for the day. Sharecropping obviously was partially opposed to the interests of freedmen, but it allowed them to retain their dream, and eventually obtain it. Had blacks been allowed exactly what they wanted we would have seen a continuation of the social injustices that occurred during the period of reconstruction long past when blacks gained substantial rights under the sharecropping system. Also had planters been given what they wanted, I believe that no progress would have been made by freedmen as they would still be subjects of their masters under a system similar to slavery. This is why I believe that sharecropping was not totally in line with what freedmen wanted, but sharecropping was essential in securing and maintaining the ideals of the freedmen for posterity.

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