The New Deal’s Impacts on Sharecropping and Tenant Farming in the US South: A History

Michael SlighHistory of Parity, Racial Equity

The impacts of the New Deal  parity system on the most vulnerable of southern farmers – sharecroppers and tenant farmers, many of whom were and are farmers of color – cannot be overstated.  The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was designed to incentivize farmers to reduce their surpluses in exchange for better prices, but it failed to extend its benefits to farmers who did not own land, instead throwing fat on the fires of injustice and inequity. This is merely a part of the larger historical and current agricultural context that continues to deny justice and fairness for farmers and food system workers worldwide. Yet, it is critical to understand that the AAA was embedded in this larger underlying neo-plantation system, which prevented fair access to farmland for the most vulnerable and landless farmers through predatory market behavior. This larger system, which still exists in many ways today, must be reconciled for farmers to regain the protection of parity as we take up the effort once again to design a new deal for the 21st century.

The AAA program was highly effective while in full force and is credited with helping to start the reversal of the Great Depression in US rural America. It is important to point out that the original version of AAA included specific requirements for large landowners to not harm or displace their sharecroppers and tenant farmers to ensure that the rise in rural prosperity would include all farmers – especially the landless ones.  The significance of this removed provision must be noted since decades after Reconstruction, farmland tenancy and sharecropping had become the way of life in the US South, especially in the Cotton Belt. By 1930, there were 1,831,470 tenant farmers in the South; and by 1935, half of the white farmers and 77 percent of the Black farmers were landless.[1]

Agricultural Adjustment Act Performance reporter Emmett Sehgo checking an aerial map with Tom Powell on his farm in Macon County, Georgia on May 8, 1940. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Forty Acres and a Mule: Lincoln’s Promise

To better understand why these landless farmer numbers were so large, especially the Black landless farmer numbers, we must look back to an unprecedented historic event that took place immediately after the Civil War and Emancipation. On January 12, 1865, in Savannah, Georgia[2], General Sherman – at the suggestion of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton – agreed to convene and ask a very radical question to an assembled group of 20 prominent Black Baptist and Methodist leaders led by Rev. Frazier of Granville, NC, who had himself been enslaved until 1857.[3] Sherman asked what these Black leaders wanted most for the Black community of nearly four million freed former slaves now that the war was over.

Their answers were concise and very clear: they sought a decent and fair pathway to land ownership and urged the Lincoln Administration to allot 40 acres of land to each of these formerly enslaved families in compensation, so they could work to pay for their own farms and get a fair start for taking care of themselves and their families. Sherman agreed to this historic agreement, and on January 16, 1865, issued Special Field Order No. 15[4] after approval by President Lincoln.

This order authorized the redistribution of 400,000 acres of former plantation farmland in a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands, and would extend thirty miles from the coast into the mainland, and be redistributed in 40-acre portions to the newly freed slaves. Over time this became known as the promise of “40 Acres and a Mule,” since Sherman had later ordered the Army to lend mules to the new farmers. So, by June of 1865, over 40,000 formerly enslaved people were already working these 400,000 acres.

However, after Lincoln was shot in April of that year, Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer, became President. Johnson revoked Order 15 in the fall of 1865 by returning these lands to the former plantation owners who had fought against the Union. These former enslavers with large holdings then needed to hire and pay labor to farm their land, thus instituting the neo-plantation model of sharecropping and tenant farming.

A Legacy of Broken Promises: Sharecropping and Tenant Farming

This is critical to understanding not only why there were so many landless Black farmers by the time of the Great Depression, but also that this event stands as a major turning point in the ongoing legacy of broken promises that has led to the Black farmer plight in the US today. The continuing lack of fair access to land by poor whites and Blacks became evermore critical during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when sharecropping and tenant farming were one of the only means of feeding your family in the rural South. We can only imagine how many of today’s injustices could have been avoided by simply keeping this promise from over a hundred years ago.

Sharecropping and tenant farming are somewhat distinct from one another. Sharecroppers usually had no house, land, seeds, equipment, tools, or mules, but could feed their families, since they knew how to farm if given the chance. Alternatively, tenant farming involved a farmer who had some equipment, livestock, and maybe a house, but no land to farm or any place to grow food for their family. The tenant farmer rented the land, and provided his own tools and mule, and received half the crop as payment. This was far less onerous, but still quite tenuous.

A typical sharecropper agreement would include cash advancements tied to the crop, as well as many detailed stipulations, and if a sharecropper failed to meet them by a set time for any reason, their share was diminished. This was a predatory technique that kept most sharecroppers and many tenant farmers always in debt against even the next year’s crop that had not yet even been planted.

Examples of such stipulations are illustrated by this excerpt from a sharecropper agreement from 1882:[5]

“…….To every 30 and 35 acres, I agree to furnish the team, plow, and farming implements, except cotton planters.

The croppers are to have half of the cotton, corn, and fodder (and peas and pumpkins and potatoes if any are planted), if the following conditions are complied with, but ¬– if not – they are to have only two-fifths (2/5).

  • Croppers are to have no part or interest in the cotton seed raised from the crop planted and worked by them. No vine crops of any description, that is, no watermelons, muskmelons,... squashes or anything of that kind, except peas and pumpkins, and potatoes, are to be planted in the cotton or corn.

  • All must work under my direction. All plantation work to be done by the croppers. My part of the crop to be housed by them, and the fodder and oats to be hauled and put in the house.

  • All the cotton must be topped about 1st August. If any cropper fails from any cause to save all the fodder from his crop, I am to have enough fodder to make it equal to one-half of the whole if the whole amount of fodder had been saved.

  • For every mule or horse furnished by me there must be 1000 good sized rails... hauled, and the fence repaired as far as they will go, the fence to be torn down and put up from the bottom if I so direct.

  • All croppers to haul rails and work on fences whenever I may order. Rails to be split when I may say.

  • Each cropper to clean out every ditch in his crop, and where a ditch runs between two croppers, the cleaning out of that ditch is to be divided equally between them. Every ditch bank in the crop must be scrubbed down and cleaned off before the crop is planted and must be cut down every time the land is worked with his hoe and when the crop is "laid by," the ditch banks must be left clean of bushes, weeds, and seeds. The cleaning out of all ditches must be done by the first of October.

  • The rails must be split and the fence repaired before corn is planted.

  • Each cropper must keep in good repair all bridges in his crop or over ditches that he has to clean out and when a bridge needs repairing that is outside of all their crops, then anyone that I call on must repair it.

  • Fence jams to be done as ditch banks. If any cotton is planted on the land outside of the plantation fence, I am to have three-fourths of all the cotton made in those patches, that is to say, no cotton must be planted by croppers in their home patches.

  • All croppers must clean out the stable and fill them with straw, and haul straw in front of the stable whenever I direct.

  • All the cotton must be manured, and enough fertilizer must be brought to manure each crop highly, the croppers to pay for one-half of all manure bought, the quantity to be purchased for each crop must be left to me.

  • No cropper is to work off the plantation when there is any work to be done on the land he has rented, or when his work is needed by me or other croppers.

  • Trees to be cut down on Orchard, house field, & fences, leaving such as I may designate.

  • Road field is to be planted from the very edge of the ditch to the fence, and all the land to be planted close up to the ditches and fences

  • No stock of any kind belonging to croppers to run in the plantation after crops are gathered.

  • If the fence should be blown down, or if trees should fall on the fence outside of the land planted by any of the croppers, any one or all that I may call upon must put it up and repair it.

  • Every cropper must feed or have fed the team he works, Saturday nights, Sundays, and every morning before going to work, beginning to feed his team (morning, noon, and night every day in the week) on the day he rents and feeding it to including the 31st day of December.

  • If any cropper shall from any cause fail to repair his fence as far as 1000 rails will go, or shall fail to clean out any part of his ditches, or shall fail to leave his ditch banks, any part of them, well-scrubbed and clean when his crop is laid by, or shall fail to clean out stables, fill them up and haul straw in front of them whenever he is told, he shall have only two-fifths (2/5) of the cotton, corn, fodder, peas, and pumpkins made on the land he cultivates.

  • If any cropper shall fail to feed his team Saturday nights, all day Sunday and all the rest of the week, morning/noon, and night, for every time he fails he must pay me five cents.

  • No corn or cotton stalks must be burned, but must be cut down, cut up and plowed in. Nothing must be burned off the land except when it is impossible to plow it in.

  • Every cropper must be responsible for all gear and farming implements placed in his hands, and if not returned must be paid for unless it is worn out by use.

  • Croppers must sow & plow in oats and haul them to the crib, but must have no part of them. Nothing to be sold from their crops, nor fodder nor corn to be carried out of the fields until my rent is all paid, and all amounts they owe me and for which I am responsible are paid in full.

  • I am to gin & pack all the cotton and charge every cropper an eighteenth of his part, the cropper to furnish his part of the bagging, ties, & twine.

  • The sale of every cropper's part of the cotton to be made by me when and where I choose to sell, and after deducting all they owe me and all sums that I may be responsible for on their accounts, to pay them their half of the net proceeds.

  • Work of every description, particularly the work on fences and ditches, to be done to my satisfaction, and must be done over until I am satisfied that it is done as it should be.

  • No wood to burn, nor light wood, nor poles, nor timber for boards, nor wood for any purpose whatever must be gotten above the house occupied by Henry Beasley – nor must any trees be cut down nor any wood used for any purpose, except for firewood, without my permission.”

It is clear to see that with such specific requirements and tricky details, failing to comply in some part could be a very common problem.

As either a tenant farmer or a sharecropper, one’s status was always in some peril since both were trapped in the larger “crop-lien” credit system, which created continuous indebtedness through cash advances for basic needs that were to be paid back at the end of the season. This system rarely allowed these farmers to get ahead or to just break even. There was little way out, except to keep paying or just abandon and flee. These land rental and crop-lien systems emerged during Reconstruction times after “40 Acres and a Mule” was revoked, but became quite dominant up to and through the Great Depression.

15th Amendment, or the Darkey's millenium: 40 acres of land and a mule. Source: New York Public Library Copyright: Public Domain

The AAA’s Sharing Clause and the Demands that Followed

Seventy years after Andrew Johnson’s betrayal, Roosevelt’s New Deal attempted once again to make amends to disenfranchised farmers by containing a clause that required landowners to share price supports with their sharecroppers and tenant farmers. These payments were critical to their very survival during the Great Depression.

However, if landowners were getting higher prices for crops and being paid to retire land, they hardly needed as many sharecroppers nor tenant farmers as before, and they could use this new money to mechanize their production and hire low-cost day labor, further dislocating the landless farmers. So, just as they had lobbied during Reconstruction, members of Congress from Southern states forced the weakening of this critical provision. This win by Southern members of Congress dispossessed thousands of farmers and motivated the creation of protest movements like the Southern Tenant Farmers Association, (STFA)[6], and National Sharecroppers’ Week[7], led by Black and white farmers in union. These and other such efforts were aimed at raising public support and called for restoring rights to these very vulnerable farmers. The demands[8] of these groups were clear and straight-forward:

  1. When new contracts are drawn, the labor clauses must have the binding force of law, without quibble or equivocation, and the full protection of the department must be extended to every man, regardless of race, color, or union affiliation, who has honestly performed his labor.

  2. The right of agricultural laborers to organize and bargain collectively should be proclaimed and recognition of this right written into all contracts.

  3. Tenants and sharecroppers should be given representation upon all boards and local committees set up to administer the AAA program.

  4. The labor of children under fourteen years of age in the fields should be forbidden by national statute. Many children now begin to pick cotton at the age of five and to "chop" at ten, at wages as low as three cents an hour.

Only the fourth demand has ever become US law, and in a weakened form at that. As a result, many landless farmers were evicted and out-migrated to the North and West. Powerful agribusiness interests exerted great pressure not to enforce, but to weaken or ignore the protections for the sharecroppers’ provision in the AAA program, stripping out all opportunities for the benefits of the New Deal to extend to sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

Contract Farming Is the Modern Crop-Lien System

Contract poultry farmers today represent a more sophisticated version of the neo-plantation and crop-lien system and are prime examples of how this system evolves but still remains in place. Contract chicken farmers buy the land and pay for the very expensive poultry houses, but do not own the chickens or the feed and must buy them from the company that is also the processor and buyer/seller of the finished chickens – so-called vertical integration, or contract farming. Such farmers must follow company practices and ongoing demands for poultry house upgrades without “speaking out” or risk retaliation of being cut off, thus losing their flock, and being forced into bankruptcy.

Currently over 50 percent of US farmers, according to the most recent US Farm Census, are still land-renters and not landowners, and this is most acute for farmers of color. This sets the stage for a growing national crisis as current landowners retire and age out. Who will own this land is a major national security question, and time for land reform is limited. It remains to be seen if the courage and political will can be mustered in time.

Righting these Wrongs with Future New Deals

One can only imagine how different our current society could be today if this agreement had not been stripped away. Our current society could have been reaping the long-term significant benefits of much broader and diverse land ownership all along, benefits which strengthen local reinvestments and ensure greater agricultural and environmental resilience against corporate concentration.

If these 19th and 20th century promises to farmers of color and poor white farmers
had not been broken, it would have changed the course of history and shortened the long length of the arc toward justice. Unfortunately, these are only a few examples of many such broken promises to farmers of color and Native Americans who still face ongoing discrimination by federal farm programs and credit systems that have resulted in millions of acres of farmland stolen from farmers of color to this very day.

This continuum from slavery and bondage to the neo-plantation models of today remains ripe for reform by replacing these predatory models with a farming system that rewards and restores full and fair rights for all farmers and workers across the entire food system based on environmental and social stewardship through fair and open markets. As our movement for a more sustainable agriculture takes up the task of creating a new parity system, we must address injustices in our current food system and right these historic wrongs by making certain that any agricultural legislation is inclusive, fair, and just for all farmers and workers – especially the landless – by ensuring fair and just pathways to farm-ownership for all.

History will judge us not only by what we do, but by whom we leave behind.


Negro sharecropper and his wife, Pulaski County, Arkansas by United States. Farm Security Administration, Sponsor Shahn, Ben, 1898-1969, Photographer, New York Public Library

5. [Sharecropping Agreement, Folder 388.] From the Grimes Family Papers (#3357), 1882, in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. Retrieved from