For almost a century after Reconstruction, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slavery with serfdom.
When slavery ended in 1865, African Americans in Georgia faced a dilemma that is difficult for us to imagine today. After generations of slavery, the words “you’re free” may have been frightening. Though many freed slaves eagerly set out in search of new lives, many more stayed where they were. They knew no other life than the one they had lived, knew no other land than that which had been beneath their feet as slaves, and often knew no other family than their former masters.
Told now that they were free to go, the inevitable question was: “Go where?”
On the other side of the dilemma were former slave owners. Returning from the war to a ruined economy, they had hundreds of acres of land and no means to cultivate it. Even in cases where former slaves remained on the land, landowners had no money with which to pay them for their labor.
Out of this dilemma arose sharecropping and tenant farming. From the end of Reconstruction to the middle of the 20th century, this system dominated Georgia’s agriculture.
The system worked like this: The landowner provided housing, tools, equipment and seed. At harvest, the landowner kept a portion of the crop–usually half, but often as much as two-thirds. Workers dependent upon the landowner for seed and implements were called “sharecroppers.” Those who were able to provide their own tools and upkeep were “tenant farmers.” Tenants paid a smaller portion to the landowner, as little as one third, and held a slightly higher social status.
From the portion that fell to the sharecropper or tenant, the landowner deducted the cost of upkeep and those things which he had provided the tenant. In addition to this, merchants who extended credit to tenant farmers placed liens on their crops to secure the debt. Thomas Allen Scott, writing in Cobb County Georgia and the Origins of the Suburban South, estimates that in 1880 the average tenant farmer paid the equivalent of 59 percent interest annually.
These deductions and debts often resulted in a net loss for the workers. If they were lucky, they broke even, but very few of them made a profit.
Contracts for this labor typically renewed annually, but since many sharecroppers found themselves in the landowner’s debt at the end of the season, they were legally obligated to renew the contract each year. As a result, slavery in Georgia was replaced with a type of serfdom that bound black and white alike.
According to the 1880 census, 45 percent of farm operators in Georgia were tenants. By 1900, the number had risen to 60 percent. It peaked in 1930 at 68 percent.
The number was slightly lower in Cobb County than in the state overall. Many historians attribute this to the fact that Cobb had never been a large cotton producer and, therefore, had fewer farms and plantations that depended on slave labor before the war.
After its peak in the 1930s, sharecropping declined as workers left the rural counties in search of industrial jobs. Although sharecropping disappeared from Georgia in the 1960s, a very small number of Georgia farmers today still work under a tenant arrangement.