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.
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