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 Toms 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 Womens Writing in the United States. Copyright © Oxford University Press.
Southern Tenant Farmers Union
In 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 Deal.
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 STFUs 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 period.
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 SCUs 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 killed.
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 SCUs agricultural wage laborers were told to join the Agricultural Workers 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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