What Was Sharecropping?

Agricultural System That Kept Formerly Enslaved People in Poverty

Photograph of sharecropping former slave in front of his cabin.
Formerly enslaved people found themselves mired in poverty as sharecroppers. Getty Images

Sharecropping was a system of agriculture instituted in the American South during the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It essentially replaced the plantation system which had relied on the stolen labor of enslaved people and effectively created a new system of bondage.

Under the system of sharecropping, a poor farmer who did not own land would work a plot belonging to a landowner. The farmer would receive a share of the harvest as payment.

So while the formerly enslaved person was technically free, he would still find himself bound to the land, which was often the very same land he had farmed while enslaved. And in practice, the newly freed person faced a life of extremely limited economic opportunity.

Generally speaking, sharecropping doomed freed formerly enslaved people to a life of poverty. And the system of sharecropping, in actual practice, doomed generations of Americans in the South to an impoverished existence in an economically stunted region.

Beginning of the Sharecropping System

Following the elimination of enslavement, the plantation system in the South could no longer exist. Landowners, such as cotton planters who had owned vast plantations, had to face a new economic reality. They may have owned vast amounts of land, but they did not have the labor to work it, and they did not have the money to hire farm workers.

The millions of freed formerly enslaved people also had to face a new way of life. Though freed from bondage, they had to cope with numerous problems in the economy.

Many freed formerly enslaved people were illiterate, and all they knew was farm work. And they were unfamiliar with the concept of working for wages.

Indeed, with freedom, many formerly enslaved people aspired to become independent farmers owning land. And such aspirations were fueled by rumors that the U.S. government would help them get a start as farmers with a promise of "forty acres and a mule."

In reality, freed formerly enslaved people were seldom able to establish themselves as independent farmers. And as plantation owners broke up their estates into smaller farms, many formerly enslaved people became sharecroppers on the land of their former enslavers.

How Sharecropping Worked

In a typical situation, a landowner would supply a farmer and his family with a house, which may have been a shack previously used as a cabin for enslaved people.

The landowner would also supply seeds, farming tools, and other necessary materials. The cost of such items would later be deducted from anything the farmer earned.

Much of the farming done as sharecropping was essentially the same type of labor-intensive cotton farming which had been done under enslavement.

At harvest time, the crop was taken by the landowner to market and sold. From the money received, the landowner would first deduct the cost of seeds and any other supplies.

The proceeds of what was left would be split between the landowner and the farmer. In a typical scenario, the farmer would receive half, though sometimes the share given to the farmer would be less.

In such a situation, the farmer, or sharecropper, was essentially powerless. And if the harvest was bad, the sharecropper could actually wind up in debt to the landowner.

Such debts were virtually impossible to overcome, so sharecropping often created situations where farmers were locked into a life of poverty. Sharecropping is thus often known as enslavement by another name, or debt bondage.

Some sharecroppers, if they had successful harvests and managed to accumulate enough cash, could become tenant farmers, which was considered a higher status. A tenant farmer rented land from a landowner and had more control over the management of his farming. However, tenant farmers also tended to be mired in poverty.

Economic Effects of Sharecropping

While the sharecropping system arose from the devastation following the Civil War and was a response to an urgent situation, it became a permanent situation in the South. And over the span of decades, it was not beneficial for southern agriculture.

One negative effect of sharecropping was that it tended to create a one-crop economy. Landowners tended to want sharecroppers to plant and harvest cotton, as that was the crop with the most value, and the lack of crop rotation tended to exhaust the soil.

There were also severe economic problems as the price of cotton fluctuated. Very good profits could be made in cotton if the conditions and weather were favorable. But it tended to be speculative.

By the end of the 19th century, the price of cotton had dropped considerably. In 1866 cotton prices were in the range of 43 cents a pound, and by the 1880s and 1890s, the price never went above 10 cents a pound.

At the same time that the price of cotton was dropping, farms in the South were being carved up into smaller and smaller plots. All these conditions contributed to widespread poverty.

And for most formerly enslaved people, the system of sharecropping and the resulting poverty meant their dream of operating their own farm could never be achieved.

The system of sharecropping endured beyond the late 1800s. For the early decades of the 20th century it was still in effect in parts of the American South. The cycle of economic misery created by sharecropping did not fully fade away the era of the Great Depression.


  • "Sharecropping." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk, vol. 2, Gale, 2000, pp. 912-913. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Hyde, Samuel C., Jr. "Sharecropping and Tenant Farming." Americans at War, edited by John P. Resch, vol. 2: 1816-1900, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 156-157. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "What Was Sharecropping?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/sharecropping-definition-1773345. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). What Was Sharecropping? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sharecropping-definition-1773345 McNamara, Robert. "What Was Sharecropping?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sharecropping-definition-1773345 (accessed June 8, 2023).