The Failed Promise of Equality
Oct 20, 2009 Ron Goodwin
Sharecropping replaced slavery as the southern labor system after the Civil War and became just as restrictive to the freedoms of blacks.
As repulsive as slavery is, it is merely a form of forced labor. No one group owns it nor should be identified by it. However, in this country, slavery will always be associated with black Americans and their supposed inferiority to whites. Even though the Civil War abolished slavery, any form of social and economic recovery would not be possible until a new labor system replaced slavery in the South. Sharecropping did eventually replace slavery, but it eventually became just as restrictive to the social and economic freedoms of blacks.
Forty Acres and a Mule
Overwhelmingly, Southern blacks gravitated to farming after emancipation and believed the government would support General William Sherman’s idea of confiscating Confederate lands and redistributing them to former slaves. Following his epic march through Georgia, Sherman confiscated approximately 400,000 acres of land, which he divided into 40 acre plots, along the Atlantic Coast. He proposed giving this land to the approximately 18,000 former slaves already living in the region so they could be economically independent landowners and farmers.
However, following the death of Abraham Lincoln, southerner Andrew Johnson succeeded him as president and believed the South had suffered enough. As a result, a majority of blacks failed to acquire title to the lands they were working, and the dream of economic independence through landownership became an unfulfilled promise; a casualty of the new sympathies given to the former slave owners.
A Return to the Cotton Fields
For most of the former slaves, the only economic alternative to landownership was a return to the cotton fields owned by their former masters. While the idea of sharecropping initial seemed a definite improvement over slavery, over time it proved just as disastrous. By the 1870s, sharecropping became a new form of slavery. Sharecroppers lived on credit until their crops were sold and the landowners would often cheat them out of their share of the profits. Thus a vicious cycle of debt evolved where blacks became tied to the land until the debt was paid. Of course the debt would never be paid.
During the 1930’s Depression, surviving slaves recalled the expressions of joy upon learning of the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery. Many former slaves said they wept for joy believing their prayers had been answered. Unfortunately, they also remembered the new realities of sharecropping, debt, and mistrust. Many were aware that their former masters were manipulating crop prices and profits so that they would remain indebted indefinitely. They also remembered how the promises of economic independence and social equality were tied into failed promise of “forty acres and a mule.” For most former slaves throughout the South, this was an unfulfilled promise
Read more at Suite101: Forty Acres and a Mule: The Failed Promise of Equality;