Delta Dreaming: Sharecropping

For some, it was the end of a life filled with bitter disappointments. For some, it was the face of a miserable childhood. For some, it was the start of hope and a married life together. And, for some, it was slavery wrapped in new ribbons.


It was sharecropping, according to James C. Giesen, of Mississippi State University, an “…agricultural labor system that developed in Georgia and throughout the South following Reconstruction and lasted until the mid-twentieth century. Under this arrangement, laborers with no land of their own worked on farm plots owned by others, and at the end of the season landowners paid workers a share of the crop.”


Families moved from farm to farm, the family and few belongings carried in one wagon load. Some of the best descriptions of these migrations appear in the works of William Faulkner, complete with language typical of the age but no longer acceptable.


The Arkansas Delta used to be filled with the shacks provided for these families. They were usually three of four rooms in a row, the kitchen in the rear. These so-called “shotgun shacks” have almost disappeared, as has much of the housing for farm families.


My own parents began their married life as sharecroppers. My daddy used to say that if the two of them both worked hard from sunup to sundown, they could pick, between the two of them, a bale of cotton in a day. I don’t know if this is true or not. He said it was.


My mother used to tell how, when she would stop at the end of a row and slip into the woods to “be excused,” she would dream of finding a new, shiny wristwatch like the rich ladies wore. She owned a nice one when she died.


They don’t raise much cotton in the Arkansas Delta these days. When they do, you don't see any people picking it. Huge mechanical monsters consume the row of black stalks filled with white fluffy balls. They don’t even transport the gathered harvest in the old cotton trailers, but anyone who has ever ridden in one of those will never forget the smell. Some probably had rather.


Sharecroppers disappeared. Some, like my parents, used it as a stepping stone to a better life. Some escaped it by moving to the large cities where work was perhaps as hard but was more dependable and paid better.


Indications are that the ones who escaped from it worked hard to make sure they never had to go back. My folks certainly did.


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