After the devastation left from the Civil War, many field owners looked for new ways to replace their former slaves with field hands for farming and production use. From this need for new field hands came sharecroppers, a “response to the destitution and disorganized” agricultural results of the Civil War (Wilson 29). Sharecropping is the working of a piece of land by a tenant in exchange for a portion of the crops that they bring in for their landowners.
These farmhands provided their labor, while the landowners provided living accommodations for the worker and his family, along with tools, seeds, fertilizers, and a portion of the crops that they had harvested that season. A sharecropper had “no entitlement to the land that he cultivated,” and was forced “to work under any conditions” that his landowner enforced (Wilson 798). Many landowners viewed sharecropping as a way to elude the now barred possession of slaves while still maintaining field hands for labor in an inexpensive and ample manner.
The landowners watched over the sharecroppers and their every move diligently, with harsh supervision, and pressed the sharecroppers to their limits, both mentally and physically. Not only were the sharecroppers just given an average of one-fourth of their harvest, they had “one of the most inadequate incomes in the United States, rarely surpassing more than a few hundred dollars” annually (Wilson 30). Under such trying conditions, it is not hard to see why the sharecroppers struggled to maintain a healthy and happy life, if that could even be achieved.
Due to substandard conditions concerning sharecropper’s clothing, insufficient food supplies, and hazardous health issues, sharecroppers competed on the daily basis to stay alive on what little their landowners had to offer them. Clothing is a necessity that is need throughout life for protection and comfort, especially in a lifestyle that leads one to have direct contact with the outside environment and a life in the fields. With the low income that a sharecropper and his family had to work with, being fashionable was not one of their top priorities. Even having sufficient clothing at all was a struggle for the family.
The clothing that they did have was “coarse, crude, and not warm enough” (Gentry 138). The typical attire for men was “denim overalls”, and women wore “dresses made out of cheap cotton goods” (Gentry 138). With children constantly growing and maturing, having suitable clothing for them was demanding. During these times, minimizing was the key for most families. Often this meant that items such as “shoes, socks and underwear were accessories” if any at all (Gentry 138). Due to this lack in appropriate clothing, many times “the family was held back from social doin’s’ because of their unkempt appearance” (Corder and Miller 42).
Along with the emotional embarrassment of their personal appearance, sharecroppers and their families suffered physical consequences. Often a lack of inadequate clothing left them more susceptible to illness, and in their circumstances, that was a risk they could not afford to take. Another important factor for the substandard conditions of sharecroppers was their significant lack of food. Having to survive off of low supplies of food is harmful to anyone, but to people who are lacking in so many other areas, it could be devastating.
Sharecroppers everywhere were already being cheated of how much of the seasons harvest was actually theirs, in addition to the impractical rules of what they could and could not own while they lived on the landowners farm land. “Nutrition standards of sharecroppers were already low,” and these regulations increased them (Walker 37). Many sharecroppers across the south “were not even allowed to have gardens, cows, or chickens” (Walker 18). Most of the time, the only field crops that sharecroppers could have as their own food were: orn, that was ground for biscuit meal, cane, that was ground for syrup and molasses, sweet potatoes, and cow peas. The only meat that was incorporated into their diet was salt pork or “sowbelly”. (Walker 37) Many sharecroppers have been known to comment that most “garden vegetables, milk, butter, and eggs have never been apart of their diet” (McKeon 280). As a result of this serious lack of food many sharecroppers and their families went hungry, which led to malnourishment, and in many cases came hand in hand with disease.
Finally, one of the most prominent sources for substandard conditions concerning sharecropping was increasing health issues. Most certainly, the environment and lack of protection from clothing that the sharecroppers experienced, along with the detrimental shortage of food, had a great impact on their physical tolerance against illness. These main points were the most common contributing factors to a sharecropper and his family’s decline in health. However, the whole health community itself seemed to be in shambles.
If anyone was sick, finding a place to get treated was a task in itself. A major “lack in sanitary facilities” and “suitable provisions” for illness did not help improve the chances of restoring one’s health (Jones 81, 183). “The average number of physicians per person in the United States in 1930 was 1 to every 1,085 people” (Corder and Miller 127). This also followed another shocking average of “210 persons per hospital bed” in the south (Walker 18). With these statistics, it is easy to see how the increase of illness became so out of control for the sharecroppers and their families.
Malnutrition was key in leading to illnesses concerning such epidemics as “pellagra, malaria, and the typhoid fever” (Wilson 30). One of the most “wide spread diseases associated with sharecropping was pellagra,” a dietary deficiency disease that marked victims with a rash and left many insane (Wilson 1394). Malaria was also spread among workers and families after they would become “run down after many hours of labor” (Corder and Miller 197). Typhoid fever was also very contagious in that it was “passed along through contaminated wells that sharecroppers used” (Gentry 114).
No matter what illness a sharecropper or his family was plagued with, they were pushed to the limit even more, and were never given time to stop to rest, or to regain energy. Unfortunately, in many cases, an early death was the result of the combination of all of these factors. The cycle of a sharecropper’s life would then be restarted. A landowner would begin to look for new laborers to take their place, and pushing off the family of the former sharecropper even further toward the poverty line.
The life of a sharecropper certainly was not one to be desired. They were dedicated, hardworking, and barely broke even in return for their duties. Eventually, by the end of the 1930’s “society and the ways of agriculture went through extensive changes, that did away with tenancy” altogether (Wilson 31). New technology had incorporated machines to do more fieldwork, more quickly. The mechanization and reduced need for cotton resulted in a lower need for people working on farms. A new system had been created, and the old had been replaced.
Unfortunately, looking back on the sharecropping system many faults have since been discovered. “Many times sharecroppers weren’t allowed access to federal subsidies that were given to all farmers. These federal programs were administered locally by a small class that controlled the counties. If they said that their county didn’t have the need for these checks they were returned, or in some cases pocketed by the landowners themselves instead of giving them to the sharecroppers. Kreisler internet) Would the system of sharecropping have worked out to be more effective, had they been able to take advantage of what the government had offered them? The lives of southern sharecroppers were the result of a greedy and corrupt system. The sharecroppers lives were subjected to substandard clothing, insufficient food supplies, and rising health issues due to a lack of respect and care for the hardworking man.