Sharecropping in a Depression2021-02-18T13:19:43-05:00

Resource

Sharecropping in a Depression

Photographs of women sharecroppers taken by agents of the Farm Security Administration.

Sharecropper’s wife chopping cotton

Lee Russell (photographer), Sharecropper’s wife chopping cotton, Southeast Missouri Farms Project, May 1938. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Sharecropper and his wife stripping and grading tobacco

Marion Post Wolcott (photographer), Sharecropper and his wife stripping and grading tobacco. Near Carr, North Carolina, September 1939. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Tobacco sharecropper’s wife disposing of dishwasher

Dorothea Lange (photographer), Tobacco sharecropper’s wife disposing of dishwasher. Person County, North Carolina, July 1939. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Sharecropper wife preparing midday meal

Lee Russell (photographer), Southeast Missouri Farms. Sharecropper wife preparing midday meal, May 1938. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Wife of sharecropper putting baby to sleep near Pace, Mississippi

Lee Russell (photographer), Wife of sharecropper putting baby to sleep near Pace, Mississippi. Background photo, Sunflower Plantation, January 1939. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Wife and child of sharecropper near Gaffney, South Carolina

Dorothea Lange (photographer), Wife and child of sharecropper near Gaffney, South Carolina, 1938. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Wife and child of young sharecropper in cornfield beside house

Dorothea Lange (photographer), Wife and child of young sharecropper in cornfield beside house. Hillside Farm, Person County, North Carolina, 1939. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Wife of a Mexican sharecropper near Bryan, Texas

Dorothea Lange (photographer), Wife of a Mexican sharecropper near Bryan, Texas, 1937. Farm Security Administration; Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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Background

In the years after the Civil War and the end of slavery, sharecropping became an integral part of Southern agriculture. In a sharecropping system, landlords provide tenants with parcels of land on which to plant, cultivate, and pick crops. In exchange, tenants pay for seeds, tools, and housing provided by the landlord and split the profits from the crops with the landlord.

The life of a sharecropper was difficult. Even in the best of situations, sharecropping families lived in a house and on land that was not their own. At any time, they could be evicted by their landlord. In the worst situations, tenants could be forced to pay exorbitant fees and split profits in an unfair way. Some tenants were part of a vicious cycle in which they constantly owed their landlord money.

Despite the hardships of sharecropping, over 1.8 million Americans were tenant farmers by 1930. Both Black and white families were part of this system. In 1935, 50 percent of all white farmers and 77 percent of all Black farmers were sharecroppers.

Because a sharecropping family’s survival was dependent on a successful harvest every year, every member of the family contributed. But expectations fell disproportionately on women. On top of helping to plow fields and pick crops, women were responsible for maintaining the home. Wives cooked, cleaned, gardened, and raised children. The work was constant and exhausting.

The Great Depression spurred the beginning of the end of the sharecropping boom, which left many families in challenging situations. New Deal policies intended to help both landlords and tenants ultimately hurt tenants. Landlords often used government funds to purchase equipment or eliminate crops that were no longer profitable. As landlords mechanized and downsized, evictions incr