Farmers Without Land: The Plight of White Tenant Farmers and Sharecroppers
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Mississippi was an overwhelmingly agricultural state. While farming provided a route to economic success for many white Mississippians, a number of whites could always be found at the bottom of the agricultural ladder, working as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, a status more typically associated with black Mississippians in the century after the American Civil War.
Before examining the history of Mississippi’s white tenant farmers and sharecroppers, some definition of these terms might be helpful. Both tenant farmers and sharecroppers were farmers without farms. A tenant farmer typically paid a landowner for the right to grow crops on a certain piece of property. Tenant farmers, in addition to having some cash to pay rent, also generally owned some livestock and tools needed for successful farming.
Sharecroppers, on the other hand, were even more impoverished than tenant farmers. With few resources and little or no cash, sharecroppers agreed to farm a certain plot of land in exchange for a share of the crops they raised. The exact amount of crops the sharecropper gave over to the landowner depended on the agreement with the landowner.
The tenant/sharecropping system
Although the tenant/sharecropping system is usually thought of as a development that occurred after the Civil War, this type of farming existed in antebellum Mississippi, especially in the areas of the state with few slaves or plantations, such as northeast Mississippi.
Not all whites who emigrated to even the poorest parts of Mississippi in the years before the Civil War had the funds to purchase a farm. As a result, most of the men who headed these households worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Many rented land from or farmed on shares with family members and typically received favorable arrangements, but some antebellum tenants or sharecroppers had to deal with landlords who were primarily concerned with making profits rather than helping struggling farmers move toward landownership.
Consider the sharecropping arrangement that Richard Bridges of Marshall County worked out with his landlord, T. L. Treadwell, in the 1850s. Treadwell provided Bridges with land, livestock, and tools; the landlord also advanced Bridges some food. Bridges grew corn and cotton, and at the end of the year, he had to give Treadwell one-sixth of the corn he grew and five-sixths of the cotton raised. From his share of the crop, Bridges also had to pay Treadwell for the use of the livestock and tools and for the food advanced. Obviously, Bridges worked the entire year primarily for the food he needed to live. He had no opportunity to make any money from this arrangement and accumulate the capital that would allow him to purchase his own farm.
The postbellum farmer
After the Civil War, tenant farming and sharecropping became a way of life for the vast majority of Mississippi farmers. Freed African-American slaves generally had no resources or access to credit to purchase land, and most of Mississippi’s black population that worked in agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries became sharecroppers. With Mississippi’s devastated economy in the years following the Civil War, increasing numbers of white landowning farmers were also reduced to the status of landless farmer.
Many of Mississippi’s small white landowning farmers, also known as yeoman farmers, had not been heavily involved in the cotton economy before the Civil War; however, after the war, a number of factors led the white yeoman farmers to turn increasingly to cotton cultivation. They needed cash to pay off debts acquired during four years of war and the increased taxes levied during Reconstruction and beyond. In addition, new railroad lines built after the war improved access to distant markets and encouraged the development of commercial agriculture among formerly subsistence farmers (subsistence farmers are those who grow crops primarily to feed themselves, their families, and their livestock, rather than to make a profit).
Unfortunately, the price of cotton began a long period of decline in the late 1860s, and many of those white yeomen who had staked their future on cotton production lost their farms. When they did, they frequently became tenant farmers or sharecroppers. By 1900, 36 percent of all white farmers in Mississippi were either tenant farmers or sharecroppers (by comparison, 85 percent of all black farmers in 1900 did not own the land they farmed).
The crop-lien system
For the postbellum tenant farmer or sharecropper, life became an endless cycle of landlessness, debt, and poverty. Sharecroppers faced the most hopeless situation, as most became enmeshed in what was known as the crop-lien system. An 1867 Mississippi law provided that landlords could claim a lien on the crops of their workers for any debts incurred during the growing season.
Almost all farmers who worked as sharecroppers did have to acquire debt. Most sharecroppers began the crop year needing to buy supplies, not only to help raise their crop, but also to keep themselves and their families alive until harvest time. The only thing they had to offer for collateral was the crop they were going to try to raise. So, the sharecropper would turn to a “furnishing merchant,” who might be the landowner or perhaps a neighborhood merchant, who would exchange food and supplies for a lien on next year’s crop. Some landowners who provided a “furnish” (supplies and food) might merely require a greater share of the crop as payment at year’s end. For instance, Elizabeth Brown, whose family oversaw black and white sharecropper families in Perry County in the early 20th century, remembered that the typical share paid by sharecroppers was one-fourth of the crop they raised, but “when we furnished them, we got half of the crop.”
Other furnishing merchants kept accounts during the year of the debts incurred by their sharecroppers, and at the end of the year, at “settlement time,” the merchant would deduct these charges from the sharecropper’s share of the crop. Oftentimes, the debt exceeded the amount the sharecropper made from his share of the crop, and his only alternatives were to sign on for another year with the same landowner/merchant or move on to another farm. In both cases, the cycle of debt and landlessness remained unbroken.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act
While tenant farmers were perhaps somewhat better off than sharecroppers,
most tenant farmers were only one bad crop away from slipping into the
cycle of debt common among sharecroppers. Both tenant farmers and sharecroppers
were significantly poorer than their landed neighbors. Struggling from
year to year to acquire the basic necessities of life, tenants and sharecroppers
rarely acquired the consumer goods that were increasingly available in
the 20th century. A 1942 study by the state of Mississippi found that
only 10 percent of white sharecroppers had refrigerators, while only 14
percent owned radios. Landowners in the state were three times as likely
to own these same items.
The AAA did provide Mississippi landowners with much-needed cash, and in the 1940s and 1950s, landowners used these funds to take advantage of technological advances that improved their ability to raise crops like cotton. Landowners bought tractors to break the land, bought newly developed cotton harvesters to pick their crops, and bought pesticides to rid their fields of weeds (previously “chopped out” by tenants and sharecroppers). In the process, Mississippi’s system of farm tenancy and sharecropping quickly came to an end.
Charles C. Bolton, Ph. D., is chair and professor, department of history, University of Southern Mississippi, and co-director of the university’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. He is the author of Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi, and co-editor of The Confessions of Edward Isham: A Poor White Life of the Old South.
Posted March 2004
Bolton, Charles C. Poor Whites of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.
Bond, Bradley G. Political Culture in the Nineteenth-Century South: Mississippi, 1830-1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Ownby, Ted. American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Woodman, Harold D. New South—New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Mississippi Oral History Program, Vol. 91, University of Southern Mississippi.
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