After emancipation, the freed former slaves wanted to get away from the gang-style field labor most of them had done while enslaved. Understandably, most wanted to live in family units on their own plots of land, to work when and how they wanted, to have control over their own actions and fortunes. Southern white landowners, on the other hand, wanted the African Americans to return to the fields, to work their land, preferably laboring in subservient large groups as before.
Out of these divergent desires arose a compromise, sharecropping. Under the system of sharecropping, families contracted to work a particular area of land, giving a percentage of the designated crop (almost always cotton) in exchange for limited autonomy.
While in theory this appears to have been a fair deal, in reality the white landowners quickly regained dominance over their African-American partners. By controlling the local stores that the tenants relied upon, by charging exorbitant interest on anything purchased with credit, and by assuming full control of the marketing of the crops, the landowners ensnared the black sharecroppers into a web of peonage.
In 1912, sharecropping was still dominant in the South, where over ninety percent of African Americans still lived and worked in agriculture, almost always for someone else.
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