The Legacy of Sharecropping

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here

Over the past half century, no person has done more to analyze the conditions of the Southern tenant farmer, and advocate their reform, than sociologist Arthur F. Raper. Born in rural North Carolina at the turn of the century, Raper studied under Howard Odum at the University of North Carolina and went on to work for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in the 1920s. He and his family lived for extended periods among white and black farmworkers in Greene County, Georgia, and his powerful studies of the tenancy system — Preface to Peasantry, Tenants of the Almighty, and Sharecroppers All — reflect his direct experience and deep commitment. 

In early 1978, Raper sent the following letter to George M. McDaniel, a consultant with the Smithsonian Institution. McDaniel’s assignment was to recommend appropriate furnishings for a “sharecropper house” placed there a decade before. When Raper examined the house, which came from a tobacco farm in eastern Maryland, he noted it was quite superior in structure and maintainence to the typical sharecropper house in the lower South, where sharecropping had long been most prevalent. His letter outlines a number of reasons why the legacy of sharecropping and tenant farming remains a powerful force in modern America. It seemed to us an appropriate introduction to the following two articles and photo-portraits on the past and present life of one sharecropping family, Emma and the Gudgers. 

Now in his late seventies, Raper lives in active retirement on a farm in Oakton, Virginia. A 30 minute interview in which Raper reflects on many aspects of farming and the changing South is now available on 3/4-inch color videotape. It is based on an interview conducted last summer at the Oakton farm by historians Sue Thrasher and Larry Goodwyn, and supported by the National Sharecroppers Fund, where Raper has been an active board member for years. The program is ideal for groups or classes studying Southern history and/or rural development issues and is available in a videocassette from North State Public Video, P.O. Box 7, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514  


A Letter from Arthur Raper 

Dear Mr. McDaniel: 

I trust the Institution will be interested in exploring the desirability of setting up a typical lower South sharecropper house of the 1925-35 period. This should be done for a number of reasons: to recognize the presence in our society of the vast number of people who once lived in such houses; and to understand better the people who once lived in them and now account for a great proportion of the lower income people in the heart of the larger metropolitan areas of America. There is a dynamic relationship between the bleakness of these erstwhile sharecropper houses at the end of the first third of the century and the welfare problems of our big cities at present. The city eventually pays for rural poverty. 

Between 1935 and 1966, when the decrease of the farm population in the nation as a whole was less than 50 percent, the highest decreases were in the cotton South: Mississippi, 67 percent; Georgia and West Virginia, 66 percent; Arkansas, 65 percent; Louisiana, 64 percent; South Carolina and Oklahoma, 62 percent; Texas, 61 percent; and Virginia, 55 percent. 

In the Mississippi Delta, the heart of the cotton South, the percentage of cotton picked by machines rose from seven in 1950 to 55 in 1960 to 95 in 1967 to practically 100 in 1977. Beyond this, in recent years effective procedures have been worked out for machines to apply chemicals that control the growth of weeds and grasses, and so eliminate the need for hoe hands. The total number of share tenants (mostly sharecroppers) and farm wage hands in the area under consideration dropped from 83,000 in 1950 to 33,000 in 1959 to 22,000 in 1964, with the number continuing to decrease down to the present. Also, there was a sharp decline in seasonal labor used: in the spring of 1960, 30,150 people were employed an average of 16 days, whereas six years later 7,225 were employed four days; in the fall of 1960, 21,414 people were employed for 36 days as compared with six years later when 11,253 were employed for two days. 

In the first quarter of this century, the spread of the boll weevil across the South, from Texas to Virginia, sped the collapse of the old plantation system. As a result, millions of acres of cotton land shifted to livestock and tree farming, each of which was decidedly less labor-intensive than cotton, and each was on the side of the angels in terms of soil conservation — but each of them rendered surplus millions more farmworkers. 

It is well to reckon with the fact that the vast proportion of the people who left farms, and then left the Southern region, were not attracted out (excepting during the two World War periods) but rather were pushed out of their shrinking low economic niches in the cotton country. And, in so far as any of them may have been attracted out, it was not so much for hope of employment — for in the cities, too, hy the time the rural migrants got there, power-driven machines were digging the ditches and performing other menial and unskilled tasks that they might earlier have done — as the hope for welfare support of one type or another, with along the way much searing disillusionment, loss of hope, and, within the inner cities, rampant tensions, drugs, thievery, and other lawlessness. 

And how could it have been otherwise? For it was that element of the American population least equipped to cope with urban life who were being forced by circumstances to take up their precarious abodes in the inner cities of the nation. These migrants had come from the areas where housing had long been most inadequate and cultural life thinnest: in 1935, more than half of the sharecropper dwellings leaked when it rained, and more than half were without any kind of inside finish (just the upright studdings and the horizontal outside weather-panes; only one in 20 had screens on windows and doors, and less than two in 100 had fly-proof privies, while nearly half had no privy of any kind; a fifth had no printed matter in the house, while only an eighth subscribed to any newspaper, and most of these were local weeklies, of the who-visited-whom kind. 

A house in the Smithsonian Institution reflecting such conditions is warranted by the vast numbers of people who lived in them in 1930 — a total farm tenant population of more than 10 million people, four million of whom were sharecroppers, of whom nearly two and a half million were black — and by the vast number of people who have moved out of them to American cities. The percentage of blacks in the metropolitan areas of the nation rose from 21 percent in 1910 to 74 percent in 1970, and the end is not yet in sight, for whereas some urban whites and middle-class blacks are now moving back to the South, there is still a steady outflow from the rural South of impoverished blacks. 

The sharecropper house is a veritable backdrop for many of today’s urban problems. 

In this sharecropper house, on the average, lived a man and woman and four children: 

Who moved every two or three years from one house to another more or less like it. Who never owned any land or other taxable property. 

Who were accustomed to a diet of fatback meat, com bread, and blackstrap molasses, with sometimes turnip greens and other plain foods in season. 

Who commonly got along without the services of a trained physician except in dire circumstances, depending principally upon patent medicines, and for childbirth, untrained midwives, often illiterate and oblivious of the basic elements of sanitation. 

Who never voted, or sat on a jury, or were called “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” except by their equally poor and disfranchised peers. 

Who had no legal claim to any portion of the crop the family had grown until all furnishing bills had been paid in full, including “carrying charges” on advances at “credit prices” for the food and supplies used while producing the crop. 

Who frequently failed to pay out in full, and whose debt then would likely be carried over against their next crop, or if they moved to another plantation, the debt might be transferred to their account there. 

Who, if black, likely had heard from older kinsmen stories of advantages taken of mothers and daughters, of warnings of mob violence if this or that “stay -in-y our-place” expectation were ignored or violated. 

Who lived in a shabby house, built of a single thickness of rough, undried lumber, often with cracks in the walls and floors through which the wind blew until covered by cardboard or newspapers from the commissary or the big house. 

Who, accustomed to a limited diet, suffered much pellagra, especially among the womenfolk and children. 

Even so, in these houses there lived an occasional man, woman or child from whom came forth a work song, or a spiritual, or the intricate timing of ragtime or jazz, or the body movements that go with tap dancing, the Charleston, and so on. Many of these distinctive expressions were grounded on the insightful understandings these people had of their own predicament, of the powers that be, the riding-boss, Captain Jim, what went on in the big house, including such quarrels as occurred between him and Miss Sally, his wife. 

Yes, they knew they had to play the roles of nobodies, but within themselves some of them knew they knew what was going on: they knew they were somebodies, for they saw their songs and dances — often ridiculing those who thought themselves their lords and masters — appreciated and appropriated by them: We have company coming this weekend, so you all come up to the house about eight Saturday evening and do that song and dance you were doing on the way home from the fields this afternoon. 

The insights of the croppers were far beyond the ephemeral and the superficial, as seen in songs like “Go Down Moses — Let My People Go!” Took it right out of the white man’s Bible, and used it to melt the white man down! Repeated the Uncle Remus tales, in which the defenseless rabbit always wins. 

Out of these bleak houses went the millions of ex-sharecroppers and farm wage hands, first to Southern towns and cities, and soon — most of them virtual refugees — on to the great American cities, where within the sounds and smells of great affluence, they battened down for their next round with life. They were given no preparation for their abrupt transplantation. 

Surely it is not too much to hope, even believe, that the leadership of a great nation will soon take its bearings and welcome the opportunity to seek out the whole truth about so great a number of its own, and help them attain their full stature and thereby enrich us all by becoming a stronger and happier people. A long and tedious process it will be, but the sooner and saner undertaken the better. 



Arthur Raper