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About Sharecropping Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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
From Encyclopedia of the American Left. Copyright ? 1990 by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul
Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.
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