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Reconstruction, Freedom for Blacks

cotton states, freed African Americans, soil depletion, sharecropping, sharecroppers

Emancipation was a momentous experience; to former slaves, it represented autonomy and freedom from white control. Freedom brought waves of migration within the former Confederacy. Newly freed peoples moved to cities or to other plantations, sought out family members from whom they had been separated, and secured legal marriages, sometimes in mass ceremonies. They also formed new institutions. Black churches provided former slaves with spiritual support. Seeking literacy for themselves and their children, former slaves started freedmenís schools. The Freedmenís Bureau and Northern philanthropy helped establish more than 4,000 African American schools and some advanced institutions, such as Howard University in Washington, D.C. In several locales, blacks strove for integrated public facilities. In 1875 Congress passed a Civil Rights Act to bar segregation in public places. Typically, former slaves sought not integration with whites but freedom from white interference.

A paramount black goal was to own land, which signified independence, but Southern whites retained control over the land. Reconstruction did not redistribute land in the South, and most former slaves lacked the resources to buy it. From 1865 to 1866, newly freed African Americans began to sign labor contacts with planters to do field work in exchange for wages, housing, food, and clothing. But they found the new system too similar to slavery, and planters disliked it, too. The labor system that evolved, sharecropping, seemed preferable. Under this system, landowners divided plantations into small units and rented them to blacks for a portion of the crop, usually one-third or one-half. Former slaves favored the new sharecropping system, which provided more independence than the wage system. Planters also appreciated the sharecropping system because they retained control of their land and split the risk of planting with sharecroppers. Owners of large plantations held on to their powerful positions in society.

A major depression in 1873 drove many white farmers into sharecropping as well. By 1880 sharecroppers, black and white, farmed four-fifths of the land in the cotton states. Many sharecroppers were forced into a cycle of debt; rural merchants who loaned money to buy supplies charged high interest rates for the loans and secured them with liens or claims on the next yearís crop. Frequently the loans could not be repaid, and sharecroppers fell into debt.

Sharecropping bound the South to easily marketable cash crops that brought in the most income. Southerners did not diversify their crops or protect their land against soil depletion. As a result, the productivity of Southern agriculture declined over the years.

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