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SHARECROPPERS

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Prior 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 Rent Law.

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.



© Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical
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

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