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The Origins of Sharecropping and Tenant Farming in Eastern NC

By Cameron Mooring


Agricultural society in America after the Civil War can be defined using two terms, sharecropping and tenant farming. After the partial abolition of slavery by President Lincoln via the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the total abolition of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, farming was drastically changed in the United States. The days of free unpaid labor were gone but as there were no labor laws yet, landowners could pay their workers, of whom formerly enslaved people made up a large proportion, the bare minimum.


Farm Security Administration photo of a sharecropping family in Georgia.


The two primary methods of “bare minimum payment” were sharecropping and tenant farming. Sharecropping provided the workers with a small percentage of the total crop yield for that season. This percentage was typically so small that it was just enough to survive on. Tenant farming, however, was slightly different as the landowner operated like a modern-day landlord and the tenants lived on and operated the farm sending either cash, crop, or both to the landowner each season. The rates and percentages of capital gained by the landowners were typically decided contractually between the tenant and landowner beforehand. Many people during this time saw these types of farming as “legalized slavery” as it was incredibly difficult to negotiate out of the contracts or save enough money to purchase your own land.


This was even more difficult for freedmen, as they lacked available resources such as equipment, funds, and lawyers, to help them negotiate out of these contracts. Even though slavery was now illegal, there was a sharp rise in racism and many southern lawyers refused to accept African American clients, trapping them in an endless cycle of working to barely make ends meet. Sharecropping and tenant farming became so popular partially due to the difficulty in purchasing your own land as there was no credit in the South at this time. The most common way to become a landowner was to have the land passed down to you by your family. Since African Americans could not own land during the antebellum period, they had no land to pass down.


Union General William T. Sherman. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The formation of sharecropping and tenant farming began during the Reconstruction period right after the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15 commonly referred to as “forty acres and a mule.” These field orders were set to give over 40,000 freed slaves 400,000 acres of land between South Carolina and Florida as compensation. The land was to be confiscated from plantation owners and former slave owners. Each freed slave would be given 40 acres to farm on. No mules are mentioned in the field orders, but rumors spread throughout the South that every freed slave would get 40 acres and a mule, hence the nickname. However, Special Field Order No. 15 never was never put into practice.


Shortly after its announcement President Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth. His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, a Raleigh, NC native, was quickly sworn in. Lincoln chose Johnson as his running mate as a last-ditch effort to unite the nation. Lincoln was a Republican abolitionist from the North. Many pro-slavery citizens were southern Democrats. President Lincoln believed that choosing a Southern Democrat as his running mate would help ease tensions between the North and South. This decision in time would backfire. After Lincolns death, President Johnson meticulously deconstructed the progress towards making freedmen equal citizens. One of his first acts in office was to veto Special Filed Order No. 15 and return all confiscated land back to its original owners. Thus, forty acres and a mule never happened and sharecropping, and tenant farming, were born.


Sources:

Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson. A History of the United States since the Civil War, Volume: 1. 1917.

Special Field Order No. 15 by General William T. Sherman (1865).


Cameron Mooring is our fall research intern. Cameron's research is made possible through a grant from Johnston County Unrestricted Endowment Fund and Cara Lee Powell Priest Endowment for Johnston County, component funds of the North Carolina Community Foundation. This blog post is an introduction to the research he is doing on the history of sharecropping as an agricultural practice in eastern NC from the 1880s through the 1950s.

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