to the Civil War, 70 percent of Southern farmers tilled soil they
owned. A legacy of the destruction and social and economic reorganization
that war produced was the reversal of that statistic: afterwards,
70 percent farmed land owned by others.
They did so as either sharecroppers or share tenants. In the sharecrop
system, the landowner provided the land, of course, plus shelter,
and equipment from seeds to plows to the mules that pulled them. Most
importantly, the owner was also involved in the credit that allowed
the cropper to charge food, clothing, and other necessities pending
the harvest of the crop. Sometimes the owner guaranteed the cropper’s
credit; often, they owned the store itself. The sharecropper contributed
only his labor toward making the crop.
According to their agreement, when the crop came in they shared it
according to the contribution of each. Considering the greater contribution
made by the landowners, they obviously thought they deserved the majority
of the crop, or of its value. But then the farmer had to pay his charge
account, and when he did so he usually discovered that nothing was
left of his share of the yield. Likely, he learned that he was in
debt to the storekeeper/landowner, who allowed the cropper to start
the process anew. Prices at the stores could be manipulated by the
unscrupulous to insure this outcome, even in years of high yielding
crops, and thus bind the cropper to perpetual poverty on his part
and ever-present labor to landowners.
In 1914, a banker from Temple
named James E. Ferguson announced his candidacy for governor of Texas.
Though a successful banker and businessman, Ferguson so identified
himself with rural Texans that soon he was called “Farmer Jim.” One
of the ways he earned that nickname was by advocacy of a Farm Tenant
Ferguson proposed legislation that would limit the landowners’ share
of the crop to one quarter of cotton and one third of grains. This
would insure that the majority of the crops would have gone to the
men who raised them by the sweat of his brow. No one knows if this
would have worked. The Texas legislature passed the law in response
to Ferguson’s advocacy, but it was challenged instantly and ruled
unconstitutional in 1921. Perhaps the proposal represented only political
opportunism, but it did endear Ferguson to rural folk.
April 24, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical
Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and
author of more than 20 books on Texas