With the southern economy in disarray after the abolition of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War, conflict arose between many white landowners attempting to reestablish a labor force and freed blacks seeking economic independence and autonomy. Many former slaves expected the federal government to give them a certain amount of land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era. Union General William T. Sherman had encouraged this expectation in early 1865 by granting a number of freed men 40 acres each of the abandoned land left in the wake of his army. During Reconstruction, however, the conflict over labor resulted in the sharecropping system, in which black families would rent small plots of land in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year.
Despite giving African Americans the rights of citizens, the federal government (and the Republican-controlled state governments formed during this phase of Reconstruction) took little concrete action to help freed blacks in the quest to own their own land. Instead of receiving wages for working an owner’s land–and having to submit to supervision and discipline–most freedmen preferred to rent land for a fixed payment rather than receive wages. By the early 1870s, the system known as sharecropping had come to dominate agriculture across the cotton-planting South. Under this system, black families would rent small plots of land, or shares, to work themselves; in return, they would give a portion of their crop to the landowner at the end of the year.
The sharecropping system also locked much of the South into a reliance on cotton, just at the time when the price for cotton was falling. In addition, while sharecropping gave African Americans autonomy in their daily work and social lives, and freed them from the gang-labor system that had dominated during the slavery era, it often resulted in sharecroppers owing more to the landowner (for the use of tools and other supplies, for example) than they were able to repay. Some blacks managed to acquire enough money to move from sharecropping to renting or owning land by the end of the 1860s, but many more went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation.
Read More: Sharecropping – Black History – HISTORY.com