The Planter's Domain

The system of sharecropping, in which individual families rented portions of a plantation, arose in large measure as a compromise between planters' desire for a disciplined labor force, and blacks' insistence on controlling their own day-to-day labor.

Detail of "Rice Culture on the Ogeechee," Harper's Weekly, January 5, 1867. Detail of "Rice Culture on the Ogeechee," Harper's Weekly, January 5, 1867.

Many planters were devastated economically by the Civil War. The loss of capital invested in slaves, and life savings that had been patriotically invested in Confederate bonds, reduced many to poverty. Some were compelled, for the first time in their lives, to do physical labor. Those who managed to resume production believed it would be next to impossible to prosper using free black labor.

It was widely believed that African-Americans would work only when coerced. Charges of "indolence" were directed not against blacks unwilling to work at all, but at those who preferred to work for themselves rather than signing contracts with planters.

Many landowners wrote into labor contracts detailed provisions requiring freedpeople to labor in gangs as under slavery, and obey their employers' every command. But contracts could not create a submissive labor force; because of the labor shortage, dissatisfied freedpeople could always find employment elsewhere.

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Copyright 2003
A New Birth of Freedom: Reconstruction During the Civil War he Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction Introduction The Ending of Reconstruction Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution Resources Credits for this Exhibit