Sharecropping is an offshoot of the old plantation system used in the United States prior to the Civil War. After the war ended, slavery ended in the U.S. leaving most ex-slaves without land and nowhere to go. Landowners had no labor but needed crops and income. The ex-slaves rented the land and equipment from the landowners. The landowners “shared” the profits (normally half) with the landless farmer. What started as a black-only idea grew to include as nearly as many whites by the beginning of the Great Depression. What type of crops did sharecroppers plant? That depended on the landowners and the land they farmed.
What type of crops did sharecroppers plant specifically? Mainly cotton, grain, and corn according to the University of Wisconsin. These were the most profitable to the landowners and not necessarily beneficial to the sharecropper. Most sharecropping operations were in the south or southwest where grain and cotton were the predominant crops. The land would be provided by the landlord. The seeds, equipment, and supplies for the family would be provided by the company, or farm store according to the University of Illinois.
The sharecropper would run a tab at the store through the year until the crops were harvested. The stores were usually owned by the landlord. In many circumstances, this allowed the landlord to dictate where, when and to what extent certain crops were planted with the goal being to bring the most profit to the landlord. The sharecropper hoped to break even enough to pay for food and not owe towards their obligation to the operation.
The impact of sharecropping became evident during the Great Depression. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, in 1930, 1,831,470 farmers in the South were sharecroppers. By 1935, nearly half of all white farmers and over three-quarters of all black farmers were sharecroppers.
When the Depression was in full force, many farms collapsed due to falling prices and lack of income. This forced sharecroppers to migrate west looking for new opportunities.
Most went towards California; these people were labeled “Okies” because a great number of them were leaving Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era when land became unusable. This was due to Oklahoma having the highest number of tenant farmers in the country says the Oklahoma Historical Society. In California, the sharecropper picked peas, potatoes, and fruit.
Sharecropping also saw the overproduction of cotton in states such as Mississippi. The Mississippi Historical Society states that cotton prices started a long decline from the 1860s through the Great Depression. By 1900 figures, 36 percent of white farmers and 85 percent of black farmers in the state did not own their own land. When there was no longer a profit for the landlord in manual labor, the sharecroppers were evicted as in Oklahoma. The impact of sharecropping was found in the number of displaced, homeless, migrant families with little or no subsistence.
By today’s modern standards with the use of machinery, it is difficult to comprehend what is sharecropping. There is still a variant of the sharecropper in the migrant workers found working from farm to farm today. While today’s standards are greatly improved for the welfare of farm workers, the stigma of the migrant worker stems from the days of the sharecropper who had little to show for their work but dirty hands and clothes doing work no one wanted.
University of Illinois – https://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brown/sharecropping.htm
Oklahoma Historical Society – https://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/T/TE009.html
Mississippi Historical Society – https://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/228/farmers-without-land-the-plight-of-white-tenant-farmers-and-sharecroppers
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