Bottom Rails

Bottom Rails

Reviewed by Rebecca Sharpless

Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 25-27

The Origins of Southern Sharecropping, by Edward Royce (Temple University Press, 1993, 279 pages).

Statistics on the South today are as bleak as ever: the highest poverty rate in the U.S., the highest infant mortality rate, the highest school drop-out rate. And we ask: How did things ever get this bad? How did the South become the nation’s poorest region?

Historians of the South point to the aftermath of the Civil War in explaining the roots of some Southern poverty. In 1865, four million slaves were freed with no means of supporting themselves, and the region has been paying the price ever since. Out of the crumbling plantation system arose a form of agricultural labor known as the crop-lien system. Under the crop-lien system, a landless farmer and his family worked a designated plot of someone else’s land in return for a portion of the crop. This organization of agriculture remained dominant throughout the South until the New Deal. (The term crop lien encompasses two forms of agricultural labor: tenant farming, in which the farmer owns his own tools and receives three-quarters of the cash crop and two-thirds of the corn that he raises; and sharecropping, in which the farmer provides only his labor and that of his family, and receives half of the cash crop and corn in return. I will use the two interchangeably, as does Royce.)

Historical discussions of how the crop-lien system arose often resemble the arguments regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.1 In fact, two of the players in the struggle to find the origins of the system finally declared in frustration:

Despite the enormous amount of scholarship devoted directly or indirectly to this theme, historians cannot even agree on how to conceptualize either antebellum or postbellum southern society, much less on how to explain the transition from one to the other.2

But the problem of the origins of the crop-lien system continues to tantalyze scholars. The newest addition into the mix is The Origins of Southern Sharecropping by Edward Royce, an associate professor of sociology at Rollins College. To examine the origins of the crop-lien system (which he inelegantly and inaccurately lumps under the rubric of sharecropping), Royce employs a perspective which he calls “constriction of possibilities,” a term gleaned from E. L. Doctorow’s novel, The Book of Daniel. He begins with the premise that the crop-lien system was a compromise that gave neither plantation owners nor freed slaves exactly what they wanted in a labor system. He then seeks to examine what they did want and what happened to keep them from attaining their desires. For planters, a return to slavery would have been their first choice. Barring that, they wanted a work force that would be just as controllable as slaves. Freed slaves, with very few options for nonagricultural employment, primarily wished for their own family farms on which to raise subsistence crops. The bulk of The Origins of Southern Sharecropping looks at what could have happened to give one or both of these groups a satisfactory outcome—and didn’t.

Disagreeing with historians who see sharecropping only as a response to market pressures, Royce portrays both the freedpeople and the planters as active agents in determining their fates. He quotes philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Men make their history on the basis of real, prior conditions. It is the men who make it and not the prior conditions” The first result of the active freedpeople was the end of the gang-labor system which had prevailed on antebellum plantations. Despite the best efforts of planters, the U.S. Army, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, former slaves absolutely refused to work in gangs. Coercion and even terror from the Ku Klux Klan could not force freedpeople into the cotton fields as gang labor. This failed coercion thus became one possibility which freedpeople effectively blocked. Planters did not get the ultimate labor control that they believed to be necessary.

Royce next examines why freedpeople did not get their desired autonomy. Loss of nerve on the part of the U.S. government bears significant responsibility for denying freed slaves the “forty acres and a mule” which they so much wanted. Despite some attempts at land redistribution during and immediately after the Civil War, the

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federal government restored almost all confiscated lands to their previous owners by the end of 1865. With virtually all farmland in the hands of its antebellum owners and no money of their own, freedpeople had little opportunity to acquire land. The “best estimate” is that fewer than 5 percent of the former slaves had purchased land by the “first few years after the war.” Their wishes to become independent land owners were thus a second constricted possibility.

Faced with what they perceived as a recalcitrant black labor pool, planters sought other groups of workers as farm laborers. The South had never attracted many foreign immigrants, but postbellum planters believed that they could lure workers from China and Europe, especially Germany, to tend the crops. Neither group was willing to come to the South, and the efforts failed miserably. Poor labor conditions restricted immigration as a possibility.

Another tack discussed by some southern planters was the colonization of former slaves. Some planters believed that if freedpeople would not work under the conditions that the planters dicated, they should be deported, perhaps to Central America. Blacks opposed colonization during Reconstruction, declaring that they had a right to stay on the lands which they had cultivated for generations. A few whites removed themselves to Central or South America, unable to bear living in a land with freed slaves. But for both groups, black and white, emigration remained an impractical solution to the problems of Reconstruction.

Having exhausted other possibilities, according to Royce, Southern planters and freedpeople eventually settled into the crop-lien system. It is here that Origins is weakest, as Royce conflates the end of gang labor and the credit system which was based on the expected harvest. Blacks vehemently opposed gang labor, remembering the days under the overseer’s lash. The decentralization of plantations into individual farm plots was indeed a victory for freedpeople, giving them a measure of autonomy and privacy. It did not, however, result in the crop-lien system per se. Royce argues that freedpeople also wanted the crop-lien system, wherein a family would work the crop and receive a portion of the harvest in lieu of cash wages. The family would feel that the crop was their own and that they were not “mere hirelings.” Royce’s argument and documentation are unconvincing at this point. Why would a family defer payment for an entire year to receive income at harvest? Although planters denied it, the crop-lien system gave them considerable control over their tenants: no harvest, no payment. Royce also does not give adequate attention to the collapse of the southern financial system, which left few planters with enough cash to pay their tenants.

On its face, the crop-lien system does not look all that bad. A family worked the land; if the crop made well, the family theoretically took home a corresponding payment. Royce is concerned with origins, not effects, but his lack of focus on the credit system gives short shrift to the most pernicious aspect of the crop-lien system as it took hold on the South for the next seventy years. Under the crop-lien system, a sharecropper planted what the landlord told him to. That was always the cash crop: cotton or tobacco. Neither was edible for humans. Concentrating on the cash crop, sharecropper families rarely grew enough food to feed themselves. Instead, they purchased food on credit arranged by the landlord, with the debt to be paid out of the crop. With no cash, they also charged cloth for clothing, doctors’ fees, kerosene for their lamps—any and everything went on the credit bill. As a result, families ended up in debt year after relentless year, never able to earn a profit or create a decent way of life. Steady diets of fat pork and corn resulted in widespread cases of pellagra. Inferior water supplies created endless cases of typhoid fever. And shacks with no screens on the windows let in clouds of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Royce discusses only freed slaves as sharecroppers, and it is beyond the scope of his study to investigate the spread of the crop-lien system throughout the South. Studies by Steven Hahn, Kyle Wilkison, and others explain how white farmers, too, eventually became sucked into the crop-lien system, so that by 1920, 75 percent of the farmers, black and white, on the Texas prairies were sharecroppers or tenants. This gradual slide into tenancy led to wretched conditions for millions of southern rural families.

The New Deal brought an abrupt end to the crop-lien system as it had existed since the 1860s, but it did not end Southern poverty. Acreage allotments induced landowners to turn their tenants off of the farms, despite the fact that the tenants had nowhere to go in the middle of the Great Depression. Former tenants left for the cities, lacking educations or marketable skills that would help them in the urban world, bringing the misery of deprivation to the cities without the familiarity of the countryside. Because of the urbanization of Southern rural poverty, as well as for other reasons, the South today continues to lag economically.

In The Origins of Southern Sharecropping, Edward Royce has made a valiant attempt to shed new light on the puzzle of the crop-lien system through the theory of “constriction of possibilities.” He is to be commended especially for the agency which he attributes to freed slaves, but one of his central arguments remains unconvincing. In examining the roads not taken, he has cer-

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tainly gazed down some paths that others have overlooked. His perspective is different, but not superior to, many of the predecessors whom he attempts to revise.


Rebecca Sharpless is the director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.


1. Some of the most important works on the southern agricultural economy following the Civil War include: Stephen J. DeCanio, Agriculture in the Postbellum South: The Economics of Production and Supply (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1974); Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (1977); Charles L. Flynn, Jr., White Land, Black Labor: Caste and Class in Late Nineteenth-Century Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Thavolia Glymph and John J. Kushma, eds., Essays on the Postbellum Southern Economy (College Station, Texas: Texas AM University Press, 1985); and Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

2. Frederick A. Bode and Donald E. Ginter, Farm Tenancy and the Census in Antebellum Georgia (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986), p. 1.