Children of a sharecropper on the porch of their Montgomery County, Alabama, home in 1937. The exploitative system of sharecropping trapped many Black people in poverty for generations after the abolition of slavery. (Library of Congress)

The widespread economic exploitation of the Black community continued for generations after slavery’s end, due to discrimination, violence, and terrorism. In addition to convict leasing systems that re-enslaved Black people through criminalization, and lynching that enforced white supremacy through terror, sharecropping and disenfranchisement created a system of unchecked racialized economic domination.

Within years of Emancipation, discriminatory laws and lending practices largely barred Black people from land ownership: in Georgia in 1910, for example, more than 40 percent of white farmers were landowners, compared to just 7 percent of Black farmers, while more than 50 percent of Black farmers were sharecroppers or wage workers. Through sharecropping, white landowners hoarded the profits of Black workers’ agricultural labor, trapping them in poverty and debt for generations.

Black people who challenged this system of domination faced threats, violence, and even murder. Whites violently attacked and murdered Black people attempting to form sharecroppers’ unions in communities throughout the South in the early 20th century, including in Elaine, Arkansas (1919); Camp Hill, Alabama (1931); and Lowndes County, Alabama (1935).

This exploitation persisted as legal and political protections ignored the plight of Black workers. Through poll taxes, grandfather clauses, felon disenfranchisement, and violent intimidation, Black citizens were banned from the democratic process well into the 1960s, prevented from electing officials to represent their interests. Today we continue to grapple with the economic and political effects of the racialized exploitation that characterized the century following Emancipation.