|Digital History ID 3100|
What the freed men and women wanted above all else was land on which they could support their own families. During and immediately after the war, many former slaves established subsistence farms on land that had been abandoned to the Union army. But President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat and a former slaveowner, restored this land to its former owners. The failure to redistribute land reduced many former slaves to economic dependency on the South's old planter class and new landowners.
During Reconstruction, former slaves--and many small white farmers--became trapped in a new system of economic exploitation known as sharecropping. Lacking capital and land of their own, former slaves were forced to work for large landowners. Initially, planters, with the support of the Freedmen's Bureau, sought to restore gang labor under the supervision of white overseers. But the freedmen, who wanted autonomy and independence, refused to sign contracts that required gang labor. Ultimately, sharecropping emerged as a sort of compromise.
Instead of cultivating land in gangs supervised by overseers, landowners divided plantations into 20 to 50 acre plots suitable for farming by a single family. In exchange for land, a cabin, and supplies, sharecrossers agreed to raise a cash crop (usually cotton) and to give half the crop to their landlord. The high interest rates landlords and sharecroppers charged for goods bought on credit (sometimes as high as 70 percent a year) transformed sharecropping into a system of economic dependency and poverty. The freedmen found that "freedom could make folks proud but it didn't make 'em rich."
Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy far greater than they experienced under slavery. As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields. Wives and daughters sharply reduced their labor in the fields and instead devoted more time to childcare and housework. For the first time, black families could divide their time between fieldwork and housework in accordance with their own family priorities.