Wolcott, Marion Post, photographer. Negro wagehand purchasing groceries after being paid off on Saturday in plantation store. Mileston Plantation, Mississippi Delta. Nov. 1939 Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017801702/>. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. The contents of the Library of Congress Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives are in the public domain and are free to use and reuse.
The expression on the man’s face is impassive. We do not know his name, but we can surmise his feeling: He knows he must be cautious, especially in the presence of a European American woman. He lives in Mississippi, a state where 654 lynchings were committed between 1877 and 1950 . African American men were often the victims of false accusations of sexual assault against European American women, and the lynchings that resulted terrorized the whole community.
The shopkeeper is smiling self-consciously. She may be flustered by the attention of a visiting photographer, but we don't know for certain. All that we know for certain is that these two people are playing out their roles in a ritual that was repeated millions of times, from Emancipation into the 1960s, in the southern United States.
In my documentary Sharecrop: Delta Cotton, Sylvester Hoover describes his 1960s childhood on a Mississippi cotton plantation. He recalls one year when his father went to the “boss” (plantation manager) at settlement time. The boss commented “You had a good year… you almost broke even. You owe me $200.” Hoover says there was no way his family could escape the cycle of debt: The boss controlled the books, and would always find some way to ensure people remained in debt. Then, he says, they would leave his father alone for a few days to think about how it was Christmas time and how he didn’t have anything for his kids, before coming to the house to tell his father that he could get things from the plantation store on credit.
The Farm Secuity Administration caption for the photo above says that the man is a “Negro wagehand” getting supplies at the plantation store after being paid off for the week. It is likely that he had few or no other places to shop. It’s also likely that the wagehand is caught in a cycle of debt, exacerbated by low wages, inflated store prices, and high interest rates on any advances he received. There were few rural stores, and landowners who operated stores exerted pressure on sharecroppers and workers to use them exclusively, as the American Battlefield Trust notes:
Farmers with large patches of land, such as old plantation farmers, established a “Plantation Store” on their property. These farmers required all sharecroppers farming on their land to use their store for farming equipment and personal shopping. Prices in these stores were highly inflated. Stores encouraged sharecroppers to buy items with credit.
In March, 1867, Congress outlawed peonage (debt bondage) in the United States. However, the practice of peonage multiplied through a maze of contract laws, local customs, and abuses of power by law enforcement. In his book and documentary, Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon documented how the convict lease system re-enslaved hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the Civil War to WW II. They were arrested for trivial or fictitious offenses and leased out to mines, corporations, and for road/railway work. Many died or suffered severe health problems due to horrific conditions and abuse by guards.
Peonage on plantations did not begin with an arrest, but started with the vulnerability of the sharecropper, who was reliant on the landowner for both housing and income. As Pete Daniel noted in The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South 1901-1969:
By the dawn of the twentieth century, peonage in the Southern cotton belt was a confusing mass of customs, legalities, and pseudo-legalities. Nearly every Southern state legislature had passed a contract-labor measure that in many ways resembled the black codes of Reconstruction...Local police in the cotton belt would arrest black laborers, hold them in jail until the planter arrived, and then allow the employer to deal with the prisoners as he would.
To understand the scene in the picture fully, we also have to understand the intersection of the South’s sharecroppers and wagehands with the phenomenon of the southern general store. General and plantation stores were often the hub of a community, and also the only place that workers could obtain supplies and credit.
In a previous article, General stores in the South were mercantiles, lenders, post offices and gathering places, I explored how southern general stores became de facto creditors, suppliers, and commodities brokers for the rural South:
After the Civil War, southern “furnishing merchants” evolved to meet multiple needs. These merchants allowed farmers to buy seed, fertilizer and goods on credit, purchased cotton and tobacco for resale, and often served as a center of the community. In some places the post office and even the local court might operate in a general store...Stores could act as a hub for related businesses for merchants who also owned cotton gins, farmland, livestock yards and other businesses...Another aspect of general stores' operation was that account books were not accessible to customers, especially African American customers. The ledger books were kept by the merchant, and debt was carried over from year to year.
After the Civil War, newly emancipated African Americans who had labored on plantations wanted to obtain farms of their own to provide for their families. In January, 1865 twenty African American ministers met in Georgia with General Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton. They hoped to obtain land to begin their new lives. Baptist Minister Garrison Frazier, who was born enslaved and purchased his own and his wife’s freedom in 1856, led the delegation at the meeting. When asked what African Americans needed, Frazier replied: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.
The meeting resulted in General Sherman issuing Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1865:
The order explicitly called for the settlement of Black families on confiscated land, encouraged freedmen to join the Union army to help sustain their newly won liberty, and designated a general officer to act as inspector of settlements...In a later order, Sherman also authorized the army to loan mules to the newly settled farmers...But the order was a short-lived promise for Blacks. Despite the objections of General Oliver O. Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau chief, U.S. president Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman's directive in the fall of 1865, after the war had ended, and returned most of the land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it.
This bitter disappointment meant that African Americans had their freedom but no land, and no funds they could use to rent land. Ultimately, most became sharecroppers for former enslavers. This meant they tended crops on borrowed land, using borrowed tools, and bought seed and other supplies on credit. Scholar Edward Royce argues that “the rise of southern sharecropping is best conceived as occurring through a ‘constriction of possibilities.’” African Americans wanted land of their own, but faced huge challenges in obtaining it. At the same time, former enslavers who wanted a return to the gang labor systerm of slavery had to accept that African Americans were now determined to work in family units.
Yet while they may have been forced into sharecropping, as Roy W. Copeland notes, African Americans didn’t give up their dream of farming their own land:
The quest for real property ownership by African Americans began immediately after emancipation...many states erected barriers that either prohibited land ownership by African Americans or imposed strict limitations on their ability to purchase real property. In the absence of de jure restrictions, there were de facto impediments that came in the form of violence against African Americans who either made land purchases or attempted to make such purchases and the outright refusal by Whites to sell land to them. Despite the many barriers and challenges faced by those who sought to own land, African Americans saw land ownership as a pathway to independence, and a confirmation of their freedom.
In absolute numbers, there were more European American sharecroppers than African American sharecroppers. After the Civil War there were approximately 7 million sharecroppers in the South, including approximately 2.6 million of the 4 million freedmen (1870 census). Thus, a far higher proportion (approximately 65%) of the African American population than the European American population were sharecroppers. African Americans also stayed on as tenant farmers/sharecroppers for decades longer due to discrimination that severely limited their options.
Some blacks managed to acquire enough money to move from sharecropping to renting or owning land by the end of the 1860s, but many more went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation.
In spite of daunting obstacles, by 1910 African Americans owned 14% of the farms in the United States. This was the peak of African American land ownership, which has now dwindled to about 1% of farms. Since 1910, violence, fraud and discriminatory practices in USDA programs have caused a steep drop in African American land ownership.
The 1959 US Census of Agriculture Final Report states that between 1950 and 1959, the number of farms dropped by 38% and that “The movement of people from farms was very heavy in the South…” The same report notes that 70% of commercial farms operated by African Americans were tenant farms (farms not owned by the farmer, including sharecroppers’ farms), versus 22% of commercial farms operated by European Americans.
Most European Americans moved out of sharecropping by the end of WW II. Many historians view WW II as the end of era of the tenant farmer/sharecropper. Farm mechanization and the lure of better work in cities accounted for much of the movement away from farms, but it’s important to note that almost half of African Americans stayed in the South, some of them on farms. In my article The ones who stayed: African Americans in the South during the Great Migration, I noted that:
While it is true that just over half (approximately six million) of the African American population relocated to the North and West between 1916 and 1970, a significant portion of the African American experience remains rooted in the South. Dr. King tacitly acknowledged this when he addressed the southern activists at the March on Washington: “You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
All of which brings us back to how ledger books were used to hold people captive. When the number of European American sharecroppers dwindled to a negligible level, the U.S. Census Bureau stopped counting sharecroppers in 1959. Yet thousands of African Americans families were still living and working on plantations. In the Mississippi Delta, many families cultivated and picked cotton by hand well into the 1960s. These families continued to operate within much the same constraints that had controlled the generations before them. Most importantly, they were told that they could not leave the plantations as long as they owed money-- and no matter how good a year they had, they always ended up owing money.
Historian Antoinette Harrell documented examples of this in Louisiana and other parts of the Deep South. We may never know exactly how many people were still caught in a cycle of debt and false imprisonment into the 1960s, but their struggle found a voice when Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, testified in Congress about the brutal beating she endured in 1963 for helping African Americans register to vote. A Smithsonian article describes her later efforts to found a farming cooperative, along with comments she made in 1968 that reflect the economic reality of her neighbors:
In the latter years of her life, Hamer remained at the forefront of the fight for black political rights. She established Freedom Farms, a community-based rural and economic development project, in 1969. While the initiative was a direct response to the high rates of poverty and hunger in the Mississippi Delta, Freedom Farms was also a means of political empowerment. “Where a couple of years ago, white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register,” she explained in 1968, “now they say, ‘go ahead and register—then you’ll starve.’” In the late 1960s and 1970s, she called out white Southerners who threatened to evict sharecroppers who registered to vote.
It’s painful to realize that some of our neighbors were held captive into the 1960s. Their families still live with the trauma and economic fallout of this brutal chapter of American history. Not only were our neighbors kept from voting, but the legal system abetted the theft of their labor and dignity. If we are to live up to our democratic ideals, we have to face this truth, and ask what can be done to mitigate the damage. Far from being divisive, asking this question is an expression of love for our country, because healing requires honesty.