Enslaved African-Americans performed most of the South’s productive agricultural work before the Civil War. After slavery was prohibited by the 13th Amendment in 1865, plantation owners needed a new labor source. The initial attempt came through Black Codes, laws that applied only to African-Americans. States could legally force people convicted of crimes to work. The Republican-dominated Congress, in response, passed the 14th Amendment, requiring equality under the law and rendering the Black Codes unconstitutional. With the federal government watching, Southern landowning elites embraced the sharecropping system. Under this arrangement, the former slaves would receive payment for growing crops. In return, landowners had access to a large labor supply. As newly freed persons, African-Americans had few resources. This stark reality played a hand in making the sharecropping arrangement of the 1800s less than fair for the workers.

Work

Sharecroppers grew crops on a plot of land provided by the owner. The usual contract allowed the sharecropper to purchase seed, equipment and other supplies on credit from the landowner. After the harvest, the two parties would settle the account, subtracting the items purchased from the profit. Widespread anecdotal evidence implies most former slaves never earned enough to pay off their debts. The result was a cycle of poverty that mired many in the African-American community.

Freedmen’s Bureau

The national government created the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid the freed slaves and poor Southern whites left ravaged by the war. A central duty of the agency was negotiating labor contracts. Leaders prevented owners from enacting harsh punishments, such as whippings, on African-American workers. Nevertheless, freedom of contract ruled the day. Under this 19th-century legal theory, every person was free to decide his own working arrangements. As a result, the Freedmen’s Bureau usually stepped in only when sharecroppers requested its help.

Agricultural Ladder

Not all sharecroppers viewed their occupation in a negative light. Instead, there was a sense of optimism in the post-Civil War South. Elites promulgated a myth that those who worked hard could one day achieve success and attempted to explain how to rise from the bottom to the top of society. Sharecroppers could hope to save enough money to one day become an actual rent-paying tenant.

Peonage System

The mechanism that kept sharecroppers from leaving before settlement day was the peonage system. Enacted throughout the South, these laws made it a crime to break a labor contract. African-Americans and poor whites who absconded from their farm assignments faced capture, return and imprisonment. Once convicted under a peonage law, the sharecropper would then have to work as an unpaid servant for the state or his previous landowner to pay off the debt and court fines. This system would continue practically unabated through the remainder the 1800s. The Department of Justice would finally end widespread debt peonage in the 1940s.