After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved people were forced into sharecropping, which became the dominant form of labor in the South. Combined with discriminatory Jim Crow laws and brutal racial violence, sharecropping relegated African American families to extreme poverty. Pictured: white manager weighs cotton picked by African American sharecroppers circa 1870. (© CORBIS.)
Newly emancipated black farmers were coerced by violence, necessity, or deception into signing abusive contracts requiring them to work the land for a share of the crop under terms that maintained the control wielded by white planters and overseers before the Civil War. Black farmers were obliged to take high-interest loans to purchase necessities at exorbitant prices and were allowed to grow only the chosen cash crop. Families typically were unable to pay off the season’s debt, which rolled over to the next year, trapping sharecropping families in an inescapable cycle of debt.
When black farmers sought to enforce contracts at the end of the season or negotiate better ones, they were met with violence from land owners or organized “regulators” who used terror to force agreement.
African Americans found no recourse in a legal system designed to maintain white supremacy, and those who sought protection under the federal Peonage Act of 1867 faced violent reprisals. In 1921, Georgia planter John Williams killed 11 black men who had been working in slavery-like conditions on his plantation to prevent them from testifying against him in a federal peonage prosecution.
The economic exploitation of African American men, women, and children persisted well into the 20th century, ensnaring several generations in poverty.