The Southern Economy after the End of Slavery


By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

After the Civil War, white Northerners’ question was: “What system should be enacted to restart the Southern economy?” For two and a half centuries, the default had been slavery. But the war ended the practice, and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished it forever.

Painting of workers working on a plantation as part of a sharecropping arrangement
Sharecropping was one of the solutions the Federal government thought of for managing the Southern economy. (Image: US Capitol/Public domain)

Nobody Wanted to Give African Americans Land

One possibility was redistributing the millions of acres of plantation land that had been abandoned or confiscated during the war. White Northerners showed very little interest in land redistribution. They lacked faith in the ability of African Americans to be self-motivated farmers. But they also had very little appetite for punishing those who took up arms against the federal government.

In addition, they had no interest in providing reparations to African Americans.

A Federal Solution

Instead of placing land directly in the hands of freed people, federal officials restored the property rights of ex-Confederates. They also insisted that freed people remain on the plantations of their enslavement and sign annual contracts with their former enslavers.

Freed people knew this was a terrible idea. They had no reason to believe that the people who only months earlier had bought and sold them at will and whim would suddenly treat them fairly, paying them an agreed-upon wage after paying them nothing for a lifetime of labor.

And they were right. Plantation owners withheld significant portions of freed people’s monthly wages until the end of the year, forcing them to remain in their employ until after the harvest or lose the wages they were owed. They demanded that freed people buy food and supplies through them and regularly charged them for goods they never purchased. And they docked freed people for hours that had actually been spent hard at work. 

Ironically, most plantation owners couldn’t pay freed people even if they wanted to, and most clearly didn’t want to. The war had bankrupted them. But they did have one thing in abundance—land—because the federal government allowed them to retain their property. But that, too, wasn’t worth much if they couldn’t get freed people to plant, tend, and harvest their crops.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Was Sharecropping the Answer?

Plantation owners were in a bind: They had land but no labor. Freed people were in a bind, too: They had labor but no land. And neither group had enough cash to walk away from the other. Everyone, including federal officials, recognized the situation for what it was—untenable. And since there was no going back to slavery, the way forward required a new economic arrangement, but one that was still dependent on Black labor. Out of this uncertainty emerged sharecropping.

In theory, sharecropping was equitable. The landowner provided the worker with housing, seed, and tools—everything the worker needed to get a crop in the ground in the spring and harvested in the fall. In exchange, the worker provided the labor needed to cultivate the crop. At the end of each year, each party received half of the earnings from the sale of the crop.

A Vicious Cycle

But the practice of sharecropping differed substantially from the theory. Freed people had to purchase everything they needed to run the agricultural year on credit. They had to do the same for their household costs. And their only source of credit was the landowner or a designated furnishing merchant. Other plantation owners would not lend to them, and neither would white-controlled banks, a practice designed to keep Black workers obligated to the person on whose land they worked.

Image of cotton flowers and crop
Plantation owners would decide what crops would be planted on the land, and their decision was almost always cotton. (Image: Thsulemani/Shutterstock)

To secure the advance, the landowner placed a lien on the worker’s share of that year’s crop and claimed extraordinary rights as a result, including dictating what crop had to be planted, which was almost always cotton, regardless of its market price or the needs of the worker’s family. Landowners also took what they were owed first.

Sharecropping: An Unfair Practice

But the worker’s share of the crop almost never covered the cost of the advance because landowners always calculated what was owed and what was earned in their favor. The balance that remained carried over to the next year, trapping African Americans in a cycle of perpetual debt.

No matter how much cotton they cultivated, when it came time to settle up with the white landowner, African Americans always came up short. And coming up short mattered. In the post-emancipation South, law and custom dictated that an agricultural laborer could not leave an employer until they paid them what they owed. In this way, debt bound Black workers to plantation owners, transforming the new labor arrangement into a new kind of involuntary servitude.

An Unsatisfactory Result

By the late 1870s, the Southern economy was up and running again, but not as anyone had envisioned. It did not match the wage labor system that white Northerners tried to install. It did not look like the slave labor system that white Southerners wanted to recreate. And it did not resemble the independent Black landowning system that African Americans imagined.

No one was completely satisfied with it, especially not African Americans, but at least sharecropping—and later tenant farming, which involved renting land for cash rather than for a share of the crop—allowed them to work in family units without daily white oversight. But even as sharecropping took root, dragging tens of thousands of Black families into a lifetime of debt, African Americans clung to the freedom dream of becoming landowners.

Common Questions about Southern Economy after the End of Slavery

Q: Why did White Northerners show little interest in land distribution after the Civil War?

White northerners were interested in reviving the southern economy with land distribution. They didn’t think African American workers were self-motivated enough to work on their own land. Also, they weren’t that interested in providing African Americans with reparations.

Q: What was the Federal government’s decision on distributing land in the South?

To restore the southern economy, the Federal government decided to restore the property rights of ex-Confederates. The government also insisted that freed people stay on the land they were working and sign annual contracts with the landowners.

Q: Why was sharecropping an unfair practice?

African Americans had to stay on the land they were working on if they owed the landowner. The problem was that the landowners would calculate everything in their own favor, always leaving African Americans in debt which would carry over to the next year. This ensured that the southern economy worked as long as African Americans were working on the plantations just like they used to.

Keep Reading
The Process of Black Colonization in the American Civil War
The Slavery Abolition Act and the End of Slavery
Black Soldiers in the American Civil War