Sharecropping is a type of farming in which families rent small plots of land from a landowner in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year. Different types of sharecropping have been practiced worldwide for centuries, but in the rural South, it was typically practiced by former slaves. With the southern economy in disarray after the abolition of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War, conflict arose during the Reconstruction era between many white landowners attempting to reestablish a labor force and freed blacks seeking economic independence and autonomy.

 

Forty Acres and a Mule

During the final months of the Civil War, tens of thousands of freed slaves left their plantations to follow General William T. Sherman‘s victorious Union Army troops across Georgia and the Carolinas.

In January 1865, in an effort to address the issues caused by this growing number of refugees, Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, a temporary plan granting each freed family 40 acres of land on the islands and the coastal region of Georgia. The Union Army also donated some of its mules, unneeded for battle purposes, to the former slaves.

When the war ended three months later, many freed African Americans saw the “40 acres and a mule” policy as proof that they would finally be able to work their own land after years of servitude. Owning land was the key to economic independence and autonomy.