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About Sharecropping Essay, Research Paper


Trudier Harris

A practice that emerged following the emancipation of African-American slaves,

sharecropping came to define the method of land lease that would eventually become a new

form of slavery. Without land of their own, many blacks were drawn into schemes where they

worked a portion of the land owned by whites for a share of the profit from the crops.

They would get all the seeds, food, and equipment they needed from the company store,

which allowed them to run a tab throughout the year and to settle up once the crops,

usually cotton, were gathered. When accounting time came, the black farmer was always a

few dollars short of what he owed the landowner, so he invariably began the new year with

a deficit. As that deficit grew, he found it impossible to escape from his situation by

legal means. The hard, backbreaking work led to stooped, physically destroyed, and

mentally blighted black people who could seldom envision escape for themselves or their

children; their lives were an endless round of poor diet, fickle weather, and the

unbeatable figures at the company store. Those with courage to match their imaginations

escaped under cover of darkness to the North, that fabled land of opportunity.

As a theme in literature, sharecropping stretches from the late nineteenth century into

the contemporary era. Charles W. Chesnutt would write in The Wife of His Youth and

Other stories of the Color Line (1900) as well as in his novels of the convict lease

system that imprisoned black men in the same manner as sharecropping. Jailed on false

charges of vagrancy, these men would in turn be hired out as cheap labor to local whites.

This new prison environment was practically inescapable. Sterling Brown would paint

equally vivid pictures of the inability of sharecroppers to escape their plight and of

their paltry efforts to make do with what they had. His collection of poems, Southern

Road (1932), documents the lives of rural blacks tied to unyielding soil and

uncompromising landowners.

Sharecropping as an impetus to migrate north occurs in some of the works of Richard

Wright and John O. Killens. A different kind of freedom is suggested in "A Summer

Tragedy" (1933), a short story by Arna Bontemps, where a defeated elderly couple

simply get into their car and drive into a river. The story therefore captures the spirit

of despair that informs a lot of Wright’s works. For most of the characters in his Uncle

Tom’s Children (1938), freedom is not something they can begin to

visualize. Many of the characters in Ernest Gaines’s works find themselves locked onto the

Louisiana plantations where they were born, their futures dictated by local whites. Set

from the 1940s to the 1970s, Gaines’s works illustrate that not much had changed for black

people in some parts of the South.

Alice Walker’s characters would find sharecropping equally inescapable in The Third

Life Of Grange Copeland (1970). Grange finally manages to steal away under cover of

darkness, but his son Brownfield allows himself to become so damaged by the system that he

kills his wife. Walker, born to sharecroppers in Eatonton, Georgia, drew upon firsthand

knowledge of this practice when she wrote her novel.

In another literary portrait from this period, Jean Wheeler Smith’s "Frankie

Mae" (1968), a young girl who has learned rudimentary math skills finds that she is

no match for the figures at the company store. When at thirteen Frankie Mae questions Mr.

White Junior’s addition, the landowner barely restrains himself from shooting her and her

father. He sends her away with these words: "Long as you live, bitch, I’m gonna be

right and you gonna be wrong. Now get your black ass outta here." This defeat leads

to Frankie Mae’s realization that education can never provide the way out of her family’s

predicament. She gives up school and slumps into the destructive existence that

sharecropping engendered. At fifteen she has her first child; by nineteen she has three

more. She dies giving birth to her fifth child. Several years after Frankie Mae’s death,

her father, inspired by the civil rights movement, works for change by going on strike

against Mr. White Junior.

Sharecropping reflected the power and ownership whites wielded over black people in

spite of the Emancipation Proclamation. African-American writers have used this theme to

texture their portraits of Southern culture, to perpetuate the cultural myth (or warning)

of the South as a place of death for black people, and to enhance their portraits of the

realities of African-American life.

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.

Copyright ? Oxford University Press.

Southern Tenant Farmers Union

Mark Naison


the summer of 1934, a remarkable interracial protest movement arose among the

sharecroppers and tenant farmers of eastern Arkansas–the Southern Tenant Farmers Union

(STFU). Battered by the Depression and by New Deal crop reduction programs that led to

massive evictions from the land, black and white sharecroppers joined together to try to

gain economic security from a collapsing plantation system. Aided by local and national

leaders of the Socialist Party, they tried to lobby the federal government to win a share

of crop reduction payments and to resist planter efforts to drive them from the land. The

union, often led by black and white fundamentalist ministers, spread quickly throughout

the region. In 1935 it organized a cotton choppers’ strike to raise wages for day

laborers; it sent members to lobby in Washington, and it maintained interracial solidarity

in the face of fierce planter repression. By 1936, the organization claimed more than

twenty-five thousand members in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, and

had won national recognition for dramatizing the plight of sharecroppers under the New


However, external and internal pressures prevented the union from consolidating its

gains. First of all, planter terror–murders, beatings, arrests–made it impossible for

the union to maintain headquarters "in the field." After 1936, its organizers

had to operate from the relative safety of Memphis. Second, Socialist-Communist conflict

frayed the union’s solidarity. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed

a new agricultural affiliate, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America

(UCAPAWA), the STFU felt compelled to affiliate; its impoverished membership needed labor

support. Unfortunately, the president of UCAPAWA was a Communist ex-professor, Donald

Henderson, who regarded the STFU as a utopian agrarian movement rather than a legitimate

trade union. Upon affiliation, Henderson flooded the STFU with paperwork and dues

requests, demoralizing its membership and panicking its leadership, who regarded

Henderson’s actions as a Communist plot to take over the union. By 1938, the STFU’s

Socialist leaders were trying to leave the CIO, or to win a separate affiliation, while

Communists in the union were trying to win control of the organization. In 1939, amid a

famous protest demonstration by evicted sharecroppers in Missouri, the STFU resolved to

leave UCAPAWA. In turn, Henderson sought to persuade rebellious locals to remain in the

CIO. By the time the faction fight ended, Henderson had enlisted a few top-flight

organizers (Rev. Claude Williams and Rev. Owen Whitfield) but few members, while the STFU

had lost two-thirds of its locals. UCAPAWA thereupon left the agricultural field,

concentrating on food-processing workers, who were covered by the National Labor Relations

Board (and could therefore win federally supervised bargaining elections), while the STFU

evolved into a lobbying group for sharecroppers and rural workers. The collapse of the

plantation system, and the displacement of its work force, continued apace, unaffected by

either organization. But for a brief moment, the STFU had given voice to the poorest of

the South’s people, demonstrating that blacks and whites could be united around common

goals even in the heartland of Jim Crow.

From Encyclopedia of the American Left. Copyright ? 1990 by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul

Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.

Share Croppers Union

Robin D. G. Kelley

A predominantly black underground organization of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and

agricultural laborers, the Share Croppers Union (SCU) was the largest Communist-led mass

organization in the Deep South. Founded in Alabama in the spring of 1931, the organization

was first initiated by black tenant farmers in Tallapoosa County. Ralph and Tommy Gray

gathered together a small group of black tenant farmers and sharecroppers and requested

assistance from the Communist Party in Birmingham. Mack Coad, an illiterate black

steelworker originally from Charleston, South Carolina, was dispatched from Birmingham on

behalf of the Communist Party and became the first secretary of the Croppers and Farm

Workers Union. Based mainly in Tallapoosa and Lee counties, Alabama, under Coad’s

leadership the union built up an estimated membership of eight hundred within a two-month


In July 1931, the union faced its first in a series of violent confrontations with

local authorities. A shootout between union members and the local sheriff at Camp Hill,

Alabama, left Ralph Gray dead and forced many union and non-union tenant farmers into

hiding. Mack Coad was forced to flee Alabama for the time being, but the union regrouped

under the leadership of Young Communist League activist Eula Gray, Tommy Gray’s teenage

daughter. Once the union was reconstructed, it adopted the name SCU.

By the summer of 1932, the reconstituted SCU claimed six hundred members and a new

secretary was appointed. Al Murphy, a black Birmingham Communist originally from McRae,

Georgia, transformed the SCU into a secret, underground organization. SCU militants were

armed for self-defense and met under the auspices of "Bible meetings" and

"sewing clubs." Under Murphy’s leadership, the union spread into the "black

belt" counties of Alabama and into a few areas on the Georgia-Alabama border.

In December 1932, another shootout occurred near Reeltown, Alabama (not far from Camp

Hill), which resulted in the deaths of SCU members Clifford James, John McMullen, and Milo

Bentley, and the wounding of several others. The confrontation erupted when SCU members

tried to resist the seizure of James’s livestock by local authorities who were acting on

behalf of James’s creditors. Following a wave of arrests and beatings, five SCU members

were convicted and jailed for assault with a deadly weapon.

Faced with large-scale evictions resulting from New Deal acreage reduction policies,

sharecroppers flocked to the union. Its growth was by no means hindered by the gun battle.

By June 1933, Murphy claimed nearly two thousand members, and by the fall of 1934 the

official figures skyrocketed to eight thousand. Although most of those who joined the

union were victims of mass evictions, the SCU led a series of strikes by cotton pickers in

Tallapoosa, Montgomery, and Lee counties. Nevertheless by 1934 the SCU had failed to

recruit a single white member. The Party attempted to form an all-white Tenants League,

but the effort proved to be a dismal failure.

Murphy, who left Alabama in the winter of 1934, was replaced by Clyde Johnson (alias

Thomas Burke and Al Jackson), a white Communist originally from Minnesota who had had

considerable experience as an organizer in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Rome, Georgia.

Partially reflecting the new outlook of the Popular Front, Johnson made an effort to bring

the SCU out of its underground existence and transform it into a legitimate agricultural

labor union. He founded and edited the SCU’s first newspaper, the Union Leader, and

created an executive committee that elected Hosie Hart, a black Communist from Tallapoosa

County, as president. Johnson attempted to establish a merger with the newly formed,

Socialist-led Southern Tenant Farmers Union, but the leadership of the latter,

particularly H. L. Mitchell and J. R. Butler, rejected the idea, claiming that the SCU was

merely a Communist front.

Throughout 1935, despite the union’s push for legal status in the black belt, SCU

activists faced severe repression during a cotton choppers’ strike in the spring and a

cotton pickers’ strike between August and September. In Lowndes and Dallas counties, in

particular, dozens of strikers were jailed and beaten, and at least six people were


In 1936 the SCU, claiming between ten thousand and twelve thousand members, spread into

Louisiana and Mississippi. It opened its first public headquarters in New Orleans and, in

an attempt to transform the SCU into a trade union, officially abandoned its underground

structure. However, the SCU failed to deter the rapid process of proletarianization

occurring in the cotton South–a manifestation of mass evictions and the mechanization of

agriculture. Johnson continued to make overtures toward the Southern Tenant Farmers Union

throughout 1936, but all efforts to combine the two unions failed. Thus, with support from

Communist rural experts, particularly Donald Henderson, Johnson chose to liquidate the SCU

as an autonomous body. All sharecroppers and tenant farmers were transferred into the

ranks of the National Farmers Union, and the SCU’s agricultural wage laborers were

told to join the Agricultural Worker’s Union, an affiliate of the American Federation

of Labor. The latter soon transferred into the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and

Allied Workers of American in 1937.

Failing to solve the problems created by the New Deal and the mechanization of

agriculture in the cotton South, the Party’s decision to divide the organization "by

tenure" in 1937 marked the end of the SCU. Nevertheless, a few SCU locals in Alabama

and Louisiana chose not to affiliate with any other organization and maintained an

autonomous existence well into World War II.


Beecher, John. "The Share Croppers’ Union in Alabama." Social Forces 13

(October 1934).

Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln:

University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel

Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Rosengarten, Theodore. All God’s Dangers. The Life of Nate Shaw. New York: Vintage

Books, 1984.

From Encyclopedia of the American Left. Copyright ? 1990 by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul

Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.

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