Monday, September 16, 2019

Sharecropping in the 20th Century

When I was a kid, I was fascinated with people who just picked up everything and moved to a new town or out of state. I was in awe of anyone who went abroad … like the missionaries who came to speak at our church. Having lived in a total of three places my entire life, all within about 6-7 miles apart, I’m still intrigued by others’ ability to just pick up and go.

In farming parts of the country in the 19th and 20th centuries, it wasn’t unusual for families to move at the drop of a hat. I remember Mama telling me about one of her uncles who had a whole passel of kids. They’d just up and move in the middle of the night. One day they’d be there, and the next, they’d be gone. A few months later, they might show up on some other farm a few miles away. 

Cleveland, Mississippi, sharecropper with children.
1930s Farm Security Administration photograph.
Courtesy, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

This would have been in the late 1950’s, 1960’s, long before I was born. (Okay, not THAT long before… ahem!) The old tarpaper shacks they lived in wasn’t much, and they wouldn’t have had much to move, but still, I can’t imagine just piling everything in a wagon (or an old beat-up jalopy of the day) and lightin’ a shuck, at least not without a good bit of thought beforehand.

They were sharecroppers. They didn’t own any land of their own, but would agree to work for a landowner in exchange for a place to live and a share of the crops grown or some other form of payment. Cash was hard to come by, so in some cases, payment might mean a cow, horse, wagon, or simply the profit from their share of crops. If the crops failed, everybody lost… and it was going to be a hard winter. It wasn’t unusual for sharecroppers and tenants to work all year just to feed their family. And even that was in scarce supply some years.

Tenants and sharecroppers were similar, but also different. Tenants usually paid the landowner rent money, had his own tools, plows, and horses/mules. Obviously, the landowner and the tenant farmer could come to any agreement they chose, but the most common was that the tenant farmer would reap all the profit from the land he farmed, but he was also taking on all the risk, usually buying seed, feed, fertilizer, etc. on credit.

Sharecropper family on wagon in Lee County, Mississippi.
1930s Farm Security Administration photograph.
Courtesy, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Sharecroppers might have nothing more than a few changes of clothes and a bit of furniture. They depended on the landowner to supply everything needed to farm, and they received a percentage of the profit from the crops only after the crops were sold. If the crops failed, everybody lost… and it was going to be a hard winter.

There were good, honest, and fair landowners, and there were those who preyed on the poor. There were good, honest, hardworking tenants and sharecroppers and there were those who took advantage of their employer (the landowner). It was a beautiful thing when honest, hardworking farmers paired up and became successful together.

My father was one of the most hardworking men I ever knew. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He started out with nothing in the fifties. Married to my mother at 18, they were young (so young!), poor, and hungry, but they were hard workers. They had a couple of good experiences and a few not so good as sharecroppers.

My parents came in on the end of the tenant/sharecropper period in Mississippi. In the mid-20th century, landowners took advantage of new technology and began replacing tenant farmers and sharecroppers with tractors, cultivators, disks, cotton pickers, harvesters, and pesticides.

Woman and child picking cotton in Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
1930s Farm Security Administration photograph.
Courtesy, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Yes, it was a hard life, but life was hard on most everybody back then, and they didn’t really know any different. But even as hard as it was, my parents used their skills, determination and desire to succeed to make something of themselves. By the time I was born, they’d managed to purchase 40 acres of land, were in the process of clearing it and had started a Grade “C” dairy farm with a handful of Jersey cows. A few years later, they switched to Grade “A” milk. When Daddy passed away suddenly at the young age of 54, they had a thriving dairy farm and a herd of beef cattle.

He and my mom were truly part of the American Dream, made possible by sharecropping.

So, did you move around a lot as a kid? As an adult? Any sharecroppers here? Tenant farmers?

CBA Bestselling author PAM HILLMAN was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mississippi and spent her teenage years perched on the seat of a tractor raking hay. In those days, her daddy couldn't afford two cab tractors with air conditioning and a radio, so Pam drove an Allis Chalmers 110. Even when her daddy asked her if she wanted to bale hay, she told him she didn't mind raking. Raking hay doesn't take much thought so Pam spent her time working on her tan and making up stories in her head. Now, that's the kind of life every girl should dream of.


  1. As a child, we didn't move a lot after I was about 5. My mom went back to her childhood home and would never move away except for a short time when she worked and stayed out of town. As an adult I have moved 9 times in 45 years.

  2. My family weren't farmers, although my grandparents on my mom's side were from Alabama and lived near a small town called Peterman which is only a couple miles from Monroeville (home to Harper Lee & Truman Capote, which is another subject. My grandfather grew up on a farm but but don't know if his father was a sharecropper. I know my material great grandfather owned a couple of slaves. It would make for an interesting point of research to learn more about that. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and we did move a lot because my parents couldn't afford to buy a house. We always lived in rentals until I was in high school. We'd live in one house for a few years and then the landlord would want the house back and we'd move to another rental. It was only when my dad swallowed his pride and asked my maternal grandfather for a loan to make that elusive downpayment that he was able to buy a house and our nomadic way of life within our small town came to an end ... that is until my dad took a job in another city and he and my mom moved again. But by then I was out on my own.

  3. I haven't ever read about sharecroppers in America before. I only lived in two houses--both in the same town--until I moved out on my own. I still live there. We sold the house I grew up in last year when we moved Mom in with us. She'd lived there 64 years. No sharecroppers in my family--not that I know of.