Perspectives

The horror and neo-slavery of sharecropping

By Jehron Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Sep 8, 2010 - 9:42:23 AM

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Photo courtesy, The Library of Congress Archives
(FinalCall.com) - During a recent visit to see my 91-year-old grandmother, I inquired about her move from Abbevelle, S.C. to Philadelphia. After the death of her mother, my grandmother, Francis Ramsey, said her sharecropper father decided there was no reason to stay and moved the family to Philadelphia. She was six years old when the decision was made and till this very day she still doesn't understand why there was such an abrupt relocation.

The backbreaking workload precipitated by a post slavery sharecropping economy that left Black farmers always in debt to their White masters is probably the answer behind the decision to move North.

According to the new book The Secret Relationships Between Blacks & Jews: How Jews Gained Control Over The Black American Economy Volume Two, under this slavery-like system, Black farmers “renting on the worst possible terms … had to pay half to two-thirds of their yearly crop to the landlord for the privilege” of sharecropping. And since the sharecropper needed “mules, tools, and seed, along with necessities including food, clothing and shelter, for himself and his family in order to get started in farming,” his only collateral—since he had no money to pay the merchant—was his future crop.

Never able to generate enough money to pay off this debt owed to the merchant and landlord, the Black farmer was resigned to working in a system geared toward enslavement through debt, while his White “masters” waxed fat off of his labor.

Some larger plantations, with many sharecropper farms, printed their own paper money and minted their own coins. These were actually advanced to sharecroppers against the following year's harvest and to guarantee purchases from plantation stores. The trouble was the money was legal tender only when used at the plantation store, and the price, in most cases, far exceeded the prices at the neighboring town market.

Other more creative methods to exploit Blacks were used including selling government-issued free goods that were supposed to feed the freed slaves. In addition the Whites, and in more cases Jewish merchants, also fleeced this poor sharecropping class by “cooking the books,” or charging more than was actually owed.

In one of the many portraits chronicling the sharecropping system, an intelligent young Black girl schooled in “rudimentary math” discovers she is no match “for the figures at the company store.”In Jean Wheeler Smith's “Frankie Mae,” (1968) the 13-year-old questions the landowner's calculations. Barely able to restrain himself from shooting the young girl and her father, the landowner sends them away with these words: “Long as you live, b---h, I'm gonna be right and you gonna be wrong. Now get your black a-- outta here.”

The incentive to leave the sharecropper existence was apparent and was a main reason for Black migrations to the North.

Since the landlords and merchants profits depended on Black labor, they were determined to keep sharecroppers in their place. Threats of violence, intimidation and actual brute force to keep tenants from leaving became the order of the day. When Blacks were discovered on trains trying to leave their meager existence, they were often pulled off and returned to their plantations. But this didn't stop the exodus to the North. In fact between 1920 and 1930, Chicago, a favorite destination of Blacks fleeing the South, increased from a population of 109,458 to 233,903. The growth was attributable to Blacks fleeing the South for the dream of better living conditions in the North.

As a child the desire to leave a slave-like existence and the sentiments expressed in “Frankie Mae” were actually shared with the author by 66-year-old Sakinah Muhammad, formally known as Johnnie Bynum. During a phone interview from her home in Baton Rouge, La., she talked about her sharecropping experience.

Between the age of 8 and 16, Johnnie (Sakinah), her mom and 8 of her 10 siblings, worked on a 20-acre farm in Baton Rouge picking cotton. She said her weekly wage between age 8 and 10 (obviously this wasn't effected by child labor laws) was “in vanilla wafers, cookies, cheese and a soda.” She said between age 10 and 16 her weekly salary increased to .25 cents. Though the conditions “were very harsh” and led her to often be “very sick,” she was still able—between age 8 and 10 to pick three bales of cotton per day and nearly double that output between age 10 and 16. She worked seven days per week from “dawn until sunset.”

“You missed a lot of school because you had to work the field,” she said.

She later via email recollected one of the reasons for her constantly being sick: “There wasn't any bathrooms for Blacks. My first year in the field, I would soil my clothes and my mother was not able to stop work to take me out of sight to relieve myself.”

Also growing up sharecropping and working the cotton field was literary giant Alice Walker and former Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod. During a recent CNN interview she explained her“back breaking” experience picking cotton in Georgia. “You had a sack, you know, that you put on and the sack went over,” Sherrod explained, “a (particular) shoulder.” She then gestured about “the opening” of the sack being a certain place in relation to her shoulder. “So you are bending over picking cotton and putting it in the sack. And when it gets full, you got to take it over to a burlap sheet and pour it in there and you did that all day long,” she said.

Alice Walker didn't like the feeling of revisiting slavery. According to Alice Walker: A Critical Companion (2005) by Gerri Bates, Walker, whose parents were sharecroppers, felt this post-slavery system “was worst than slavery,” because this system“took exploitation to a new level.”

Under slavery people were never compensated; under sharecropping they “worked and were rarely paid and ended up in debt.” This system like what occurred in literally thousands of Black households across the South “robbed her of her early life, which to her was a lifetime,” wrote Bates.

This robbing of a lifetime is why Sakinah Muhammad says she “cries each time” she picks up and reads The Secret Relationship Vol. 2. This chronicling of the post-emancipation system that forced Blacks back into a slave-like existence and robbed them of a chance to achieve economic parity is not only what “I've read,” she said, “it's what I actually experienced.”

(We'd love to hear from you. Many Black parents and grandparents have experienced much of what was written above. There are literally thousands of similar stories. But the problem is our relatives are up in age and we stand to lose this history unless it's chronicled. What we propose is that you interview your relatives that have held on to this information and then send those stories to the email provided. A Web site will be created for posting these stories and allowing the world to read and begin to show appreciation for the holocaust that Black people have suffered. You can email Jehron Muhammad at Jehronn@msn.com.

Related news:

Neo-slavery in the American South (FCN, 07-27-2010)

The Cotton Pickin' Truth: Still on the Plantation (FCN, 07-13-2010)

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