MOOC | Origins of Sharecropping | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1865-1890 | 3.6.4


>> This whole question of whether facilities should be separate or not was murky and debated in Reconstruction, state by state, community by community. The early Presidential Reconstruction governments had begun to build facilities for whites. They said, forget about blacks. The federal government freed them, they got to take care of them. But they began to build hospitals, or asylums, or even schools, like in North Carolina, they actually began building a public school system for whites immediately after the Civil War. Then the Freedmen's Bureau ordered them to allow blacks into the school system, even if it meant setting up schools, separate schools, for blacks.

So if you're going to have public schools, they've got to have them for both. Whereupon (this is 1866) North Carolina abolished its public school system. They would rather leave white people uneducated than pay taxpayers' money to set up schools for blacks. This shows you the mentality coming out of slavery. But generally speaking, these public institutions were separated in some way during Reconstruction. And even in jails, the inmates tended to be separated. Even in the South Carolina Institute for the Blind, where people could not see race, [laughter] they were still separated from each other into different wings of the building. So as I say, the reason for this, as I say, is simply most African Americans felt that it was — what they were getting was public facilities for the first time. They were being recognized as part of the body politic, the citizenry, which they hadn't been.

So the issue of segregation or integration was really not nearly as important in 1867, '68 as it would become, you know, later on and in the 20th century. In terms of teaching at schools, another factor is that black parents wanted black teachers for their children. And they knew that whites would never send their kids to school to be taught by a black teacher. And so if you wanted black teachers, you had to have separate schools; that was the only way they would ever survive. I should say that all this relates to a kind of larger question, also murky, which — a sort of difference in emphasis, you might say, between my work on this and another very, very important book, which came out about ten years ago, on Reconstruction, by Steven Hahn, called "A Nation Under Our Feet," which won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2003 or '04. The title of Hahn's book, "A Nation Under Our Feet," gives you the argument, in a certain sense. His argument is African Americans thought of themselves as a separate nationality. They did not think of themselves as purely American citizens.

Even thought they talked about equal rights, it was sort of group self-determination that was more important to them. And he sets himself up (he's a good friend of mine and a very good scholar) he sets himself up against my book, which emphases more the desire for inclusion in the body politic, even though, with separate institutions like churches, but that in political issues I saw more of this emphasis on inclusion. Who's right, who's wrong? Well, I'm right, of course. [laughter] They're both important books, and Hahn's book is very important. But you know, in all these issues you have these currents floating around of how much separation, how much integration. There's no single answer to that.

But these issues are debated. And the Reconstruction governments are trying to deal with them and satisfy black constituents, without totally alienating the white population of the South, which is the majority in most Southern states. Now another area, of course, these governments had to deal with, maybe the basic area, was the economic plight of the South. Now, there was a lot of destruction in the Civil War, as we all know. Sherman, all this stuff. But an agricultural society can rebound quickly from destruction. The land is not destroyed, you know. It's not like factories you have to rebuild. The land is still there. You need to maybe build new fences. A lot of animals, livestock, etc., were killed in the war or taken by the army. There's a lot of rebuilding to be done, but it's possible to get going again.

But the question is how to do that. Now, African Americans still wanted land. That 40 acres and a mule was still out there as a political issue. But no state — Congress had made it clear they were not distributing land. But states can have all sorts of policies about land. But very few of them addressed this question directly. The one exception was, actually, South Carolina, which set up a state land commission, which would purchase land on the open market. And the value, the price of land had fallen enormously, so it was possible to purchase land if you had money in significant amounts.

The state would acquire land for the state, not give it away but sell it to, well, anybody who wanted it, but mostly black families in South Carolina. Sell it on very long-term bases with very low interest rates, easy payments, in other words, try to encourage — use the power of the government to gather up land and then settle black families on it.

And by the end of Reconstruction, something like 10% of the African American families had land (in South Carolina) land of their own, thanks to the South Carolina Land Commission. Whether 10% is a lot or a little, you can figure out for yourself, but it's certainly more than zero, although it's not everybody, by any means. As I mentioned last time, there were other measures to try to assist, you might say, or stand behind these agricultural laborers, but also these small farmers. There were these "stay" measures, that is, measures suspending the collection of debts. This tended to benefit more people who owned land, rather than — most blacks didn't have debts; they had nothing, you know. But no one's going to loan them money. So this benefited small farmers, maybe even planters, in some states. There were these homestead provisions I mentioned last time, whereby a certain amount of your property was exempt from seizure for debt. So even if you sort of went bankrupt, you could still hang on to your home and some small amount of land.

MOOC | Origins of Sharecropping | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1865-1890 | 3.6.4

How did these affect the mass of African Americans? It's not 100% clear. We know that land distribution failed. And what takes its place is the rise of a system that we call sharecropping, right? Sharecropping. As the name suggests — there are all sorts of variations within it, but sharecropping is basically that the employee works the land certain portion of land, for the year, and at the end of the year, the crop is gathered and they share the crop with the owner. The owner has land but needs labor. The laborers want land but can't get it and need to work. Sharecropping is a compromise. By the way, sharecropping is a system that exists all over the world in one form or another.

Some places it works in a perfectly rational way, or successful way, sometimes it doesn't. It didn't work very well in the South in the long period after the Civil War, not just a few years, for reasons we will explain in a second. Sharecropping was a compromise between the white need for labor and the black desire for as much economic autonomy as you could get under the circumstance. For example, it's not like slavery in that, putting aside that you're not a slave, there's no overseer telling you what to do, you're not working in a gang with other people.

They're working in family units. Each family has a plot of land, which they rent from the owner. They basically farm it as they see fit. There's nobody there day-to-day, telling them what to do, as under slavery. So there's more day-to-day autonomy. How they allocate their labor becomes a question for the family to decide. Nobody's telling you, go out in the fields at six in the morning, whether you want to or not. Nobody's telling you, your child has to go to work in the fields rather than go to the school down the road.

So it does, despite the economic inequality of it, it does give these laborers more autonomy than certainly they had under slavery. Moreover, it's a reflection of the fact that there's no money in the South. You can't really pay wages to people for working, because there's no money. The Southern economy is bust, basically. The financial system is bust. The planters didn't have enough money to pay wages to people.

That's why you share the crop. The valuable thing is the crop at the end of the year. Now there were many different variations in this. How they divide the crop depends on things like who provides the seed and the fertilizer. The more the landowner provides to the sharecropper, the more of the crop he gets at the end of the year. In the Gienapp book, there's a sharecropping contract, which sort of explains a little bit how this works. And one important fact, though, is that there is this serious legal distinction, which may not seem like much at the beginning, as to whether the sharecropper (the farmer, the farm family) are wage earners or renters. Are they working as employees of the owner? Or are they working as renters? Because then the question is, it basically boils down to: who gets the first crack at the crop when the year is over? Because both of them may be in debt.

They have creditors. If you're a wage earner, the crop belongs to the planter and the planter gives you your share out of that. If you're a renter, the crop belongs to you, and you give the planter his share as rent. What difference does that make? Well, what if the planter owes money to other people? What if he borrowed money from a bank? What if he borrowed money from a, you know, a merchant? There's a lot of people who he's beholden to at the end of the year, and the tenant may not be first in line. In other words, if it belongs to the planter, the merchant may take their part first, the bank may take their part first. There may not be anything left for the sharecropper when the planter's debts are satisfied. So that's a not good situation. On the other hand if you're a renter, you have the crop, and it doesn't matter what the planter's debts are.

You pay the planter out of your crops. So this may be obscure, but it's very important. Under Reconstruction, the law basically described the sharecropper as a renter. It shifted the balance of power. Even though it's an unequal situation, they try to shift the balance of power toward the sharecropper to protect his right to that part of the crop at the end of the year. Again, as soon as Reconstruction ends, the so-called redeemers change the law and they define the sharecropper as a wage earner with no claim to the crop at all until the planter gives you his share, and he may not have a share when the whole thing is over. So it's a very important, somewhat obscure but very important legal point as to how people actually experience this..

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