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5.6: Sharecropping

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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After the Civil War, America debated how to handle the millions of freed slaves. The eventual outcome was a system of sharecropping, in which plantation owners retained possession of their land and allowed freedmen to farm small parts of it. In return, the landowner received a percentage of the crop. The documents below include a photograph of sharecroppers and a sharecropping contract. As you examine them, compare the sharecropping system to the Radical Republican’s plan to give each freedman “\begin{align*}40\;\mathrm{acres}\end{align*} and a mule.” Which would be better for the freed slaves? Which would be better for the landowners? Which would be fairer?

Black Sharecroppers Picking Cotton in Georgia

Source: Black sharecroppers picking cotton in Georgia, photograph by T.W. Ingersoll, 1898. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Figure below).


  1. Describe what you see in this picture. What is this a picture of? Why do you think that?

A Sharecropping Contract: 1882

Source: A sharecropping contract from 1882, from the collection of Grimes Family Papers held in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

To everyone renting land, the following conditions must be agreed to:

For every \begin{align*}30\;\mathrm{acres}\end{align*} of land (rented by sharecroppers), I will provide a mule team, plow, and farming tools. The sharecroppers can have half of the cotton, corn, peas, pumpkins, and potatoes they grow if the following conditions are followed, but--if not--they are to have only two-fifths.

For every mule or horse furnished by me there must be \begin{align*}1000\end{align*} good sized rails (logs) hauled, and the fence repaired if I so direct. All sharecroppers must haul rails (logs) and work on the fence whenever I may order. The wood must be split and the fence repaired before corn is planted. No cotton must be planted by sharecroppers on their home patches of land. No sharecropper is to work off the plantation when there is any work for them to do for me.

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

Nothing can be sold from their (sharecroppers’) crops until my rent is all paid, and all amounts they owe me are paid in full.

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

The sale of every sharecropper's part of the cotton to be made by me when and where I choose to sell, and after taking all they owe me.


  1. Sourcing: When and where was this contract written?
  2. What did the sharecropper have to do in order to use the plantation owner’s land, farming tools, and mules?
  3. Do you think this is a fair contract? Why or Why not?
  4. Close Reading: What parts of this contract do you think caused the sharecroppers to be in debt to plantation owners?
  5. Does this contract seem more or less extreme than the impression you had of sharecropping after you read the textbook? Explain.

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