Was sharecropping an acceptable substitute for economic freedom?

Quick answer:

For most, sharecropping was not an acceptable substitute for economic freedom. This system kept tenant farmers in a state of permanent debt to landowners and tied them to the land. They performed hard work that mostly benefited the landowners, as the farmers saw few profits from their own labor.

Expert Answers

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While sharecropping was an improvement over chattel slavery, it was still extremely exploitative of African Americans. Even though most sharecroppers were white, this system was meant to keep the tenant farmers in a state of subservience bordering on servitude.

After emancipation, many former slaves still needed work. Plantation owners offered to let them work a part of the land in exchange for a significant share of the crop that they produced. Merchants or the plantation owners themselves would rent the sharecroppers equipment and sell them seed on credit with high interest. This often resulted in sharecroppers being in a state of perpetual debt to plantation owners and white merchants.

Furthermore, there were often local and state laws that made it impossible for sharecroppers to sell their crops to anyone but the landowners. Other laws, more often applied to African American sharecroppers than white ones, dictated that they could not leave the land or stop working as long as they were in debt to the landowner. Given all this, sharecropping did not provide much in the way of economic freedom. It was designed to keep the tenant farmers in a state of permanent poverty in which they relied on the landowner and worked more for their benefit than for their own. It would not be until unionization and the New Deal reforms of the 1930s that sharecropping was replaced by more acceptable labor systems.

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