From Slavery to Serfdom -- Life for Black People in the "New South"

Sharecroppers picking cotton in Oklahoma, c.1900Sharecroppers pick cotton in the 1890s.

"The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."- W.E.B. Dubois

The (small) black middle class

Not every black person was a destitute sharecropper. In spite of the endemic racism of the south, there was room for some blacks to rise into the middle class by learning specialized trades, or by creating businesses that served the black community. In a few of the cities, such as New Orleans, Nashville, and Charleston, there were communities established that allowed some chance at autonomy and prosperity.

Some blacks achieved independence by opening funeral homes, becoming teachers or ministers, barbers, or by learning a skill such as carpentry of masonry. It was not unheard of for blacks to become doctors or lawyers. While these individuals made less money than their white counterparts, and had no chance of becoming eminent within their fields, they were better off than the truly destitute.

Others owned and farmed their land independent of the sharecropping system. Perhaps ten to twenty percent of the black farmers were independent. While they were discriminated against by the financial system, and tended to have more marginal plots, they were also free men who kept the fruits of their labor.

Later on in the nineteenth century, jobs became available on the railroads as well. The best of these jobs were always reserved for the white men, but there were still thousands who became porters or worked at other bottom level positions. Afforded the opportunity to travel widely, these men became important links in the social structure of the black south.

Work contracts, prison labor, and lynchings -- the mechanisms of control

For the great mass, the only thing to lean on was God and the church. Gone were the rights and protections and the promise of emancipation. In their place, the system of sharecropping became the dominant economic arrangement of the entire south.

What meagre savings that had existed were destroyed in many cases by the collapse of the Freedman's Savings Bank in 1874. This had been a bank set up in the aftermath of the civil war by the federal government, to provide a system of savings for the freed slaves. The deposits were squandered on poor investments or simply stolen in some cases, until the bank failed. Millions of dollars of uninsured deposits were lost, and the faith of the black people in the banking system was greatly shaken.

Work contracts were signed on an annual basis. The tools necessary for farming had to be rented from landowners, at high interest. Food and basic necessities had to be purchased at the planter's store, at high prices. Initially, it was standard practice for tenant and landowner to split the crops on a 50-50 basis. Gradually, it became standard for the contract to stipulate a 70-30 split, to the favor of the planters. Over time, a debt would be worked up to the planters that bound the sharecroppers to land in a state of peonage -- similar to the system of serfdom.

Those who were unable to meet their odious end of this bargain were evicted. Those who agitated for better conditions were evicted. Once evicted, it was hopeless to find another place in the area that would take a sharecropping family in.

Moving to a new town with no money or connections was a dangerous undertaking. In most places, blacks without a job or a work contract were considered to be vagrants. This class of people could be thrown in jail, and from there sent out to work in the chain gangs. Companies throughout the south contracted with the prisons for the services of these gangs, and they became not only a source of revenue for the state, but a valuable means of social control.

And always lurking in the arsenal of white supremacy was the outright threat of murder. The rate of lynchings was at its highest in the late nineteenth century. To be noticed as a black man was to run the risk of such a fate. Pliant adherence to southern social order was the best way to avoid it.

Breaking their backs in the cotton fields

The work of growing cotton, and of picking it, was not easy. While other crops lent themselves to the growing mechanization of the nineteenth century -- to the rise of the mechanical reaper for instance -- there was no good way to pick cotton except by hand. Physically the work led to back problems, bad knees, and arthritic hands. Shoes were not commonplace, and walking over the southern dirt for sixty hours a week or more led to hookworm and infection. Mortality was high, and generally higher for the blacks as opposed to the whites. For blacks, life expectancy was around forty years or slightly less (and maybe five to ten years higher for whites).

In the days after emancipation, many women retired from field work into their homes, and they made the maintenance of the home and family their highest priority. But this soon became untenable. For urban blacks, it was usually necessary for women to work as maids or find other menial jobs, to make sure that the rent was paid. In the countryside, the sharecropping agreements were strict enough that every spare hand was needed. Man, woman, and children would work side by side, from sunrise to sunset, laying in the cotton crop and later picking it.

Infant mortality was extremely high. Rough estimates for black children would be around 200 per 1,000 live births (compared to maybe 125-150 for white children). For purposes of comparison, the current infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is about 150 per 1,000 live births. The average black woman gave birth to six or seven children, assuming she survived long enough to do so.

For most of this period, the price of cotton was either in decline, or stagnant. The downward pressure on prices only worsened the poverty of the southern cotton farmers.

Trapped -- no escaping Jim Crow

It was during the end of the nineteenth century that the infamous Jim Crow laws were passed and enforced. Separate schools, restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, and accommodations were established for blacks and whites. When challenged, these laws were upheld by courts at every level of the American justice system.

There was little chance of escaping this system physically. A few thousand did make it out to the west, settling in Kansas or Nebraska. Others did travel north, but opportunities for employment there were scarce, and the level of racism was only slightly less. On top of this, it was dangerous to try and leave the south, or to offer assistance to those who did, due to violence and intimidation from the white supremacist groups.

Poll taxes and literacy tests -- killing two birds with one stone

During this time, most of the southern whites lived in abject poverty as well. Fewer and fewer of them held their own land as the nineteenth century progressed, and many of them were also forced into sharecropping and debt peonage. While their culture and history is a story unto itself, they too suffered from the poverty and stratification of southern society. They were often pitted against black people in the labor market, depressing wages and bargaining power, and spurring racial antagonism.

Girl working in cotton millA young white girl works in a southern cotton mill.

Many of the methods used to control the black community also applied to the lower classes of the whites. While poll taxes and literacy tests virtually eliminated the black vote in the south by 1900, they also greatly reduced the number of white men who voted. Consequently, the dominance of an extremely conservative wing of the Democratic Party was ensured in the south. This happened at the same time that populist and labor movements were gaining influence in other regions of the country.

As the sun rose on the twentieth century, the blacks of the south lived in an obverse shadow of the promise of Emancipation, the 14th Amendment, and Reconstruction. In all but name, most of them were slaves again.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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