The system of sharecropping which arose during the period of Reconstruction in the Southern United States has had profound economic impacts for citizens of the U.S.
Reconstruction is the name given to the time period immediately following the Civil War. During the initial stages of this period, many actions were taken to reduce the inequality between black and white citizens in the South. One of the first actions of the federal government was to seize private land, particularly plantations, from its owners. The Freedman's Bureau was also created to assist newly freed slaves obtain education and jobs. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed course on this progress and ordered all federally seized land back to its original owners. The Freedman's Bureau also began to be hindered by the passage of the Black Codes and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
With no land available to them, and little help from the federal government to receive an education and find a new job, newly freed slaves were left with no choice but to return to the only occupation they knew: farming. However, they had no inherited land to return to and no money to purchase new land. As a result, they were forced to return to the same land and land owners as before, this time not as slaves but as sharecroppers. As sharecroppers, black farmers owned nothing. The farming materials were provided by the land owner and living materials were obtained by opening a line of credit with a local merchant. At the end of the harvest, a predetermined amount of the crop would be given to the land owner. Enough crop would be given to the merchant to pay of the debt from the extended line of credit. If the sharecropper could not give the merchant enough harvest to pay off the line of credit, he would go into debt. This system made it impossible for sharecroppers to accumulate and save wealth as the white land owners obtained the means of production (i.e. capital) and after paying back the merchant, sharecroppers were left with only enough harvest to provide for themselves. This system kept Black Americans poor, in the fields and at the mercy of the white-dominated society.
Once farming became mechanized in the mid-1900s, sharecropping was no longer a profitable venture. Sharecroppers were kicked off the land and found themselves in a position similar to the one they were in during Reconstruction: no land, no money, no education and no job. This time, millions of Black Americans left the South during the Great Migration and settled in cities in other regions of the country. However, with no money and no education, few could find a good job in their new homes. As a result, a large proportion of newly resettled Black Americans were forced to take low-paying jobs and live in high-poverty neighborhoods. As before, this made wealth accumulation and social ascension incredibly difficult. Black Americans were once again poor and at the whim of the white-dominated society, but this time, the inequality was happening in the cities and suburbs.
The system of sharecropping prevented Black Americans from receiving an education, owning land and accumulating wealth. It allowed white land-owners to remain wealthy and black farmers to remain poor. The effects of sharecropping are still felt today, as the education and wealth gap between Black and White Americans is a direct result of the implications of this system.
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