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Southern Farm Tenancy: 1936

Southern Farm Tenancy: The Way Out of Its Evils

By Edwin R. Embree in Survey Graphic, March, 1936

Editor’s Note: Edwin Rogers Embree (1883–1950) was one of the former vice presidents of the Rockefeller Foundation, president of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (also known as the Rosenwald Fund), and president of the Liberian Foundation.

Farmer stands on porch with large bags of cotton. Resettlement Administration photograph by Rothstein
Resettlement Administration Photograph by Rothstein
Image: Survey Graphic, 25(3), 149.

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON used to say, “To keep a black man in the gutter a white man must stay in the gutter to hold him there.” The cotton tenants have gone Booker T. Washington one better. Two white men are in the sharecrop mire for every one Negro. Two million families, about eight and a half million people, are living in desperate conditions bordering on peonage in the southern cotton fields. These cotton tenants and sharecroppers make up seven percent of the total population of the nation. Economically they are at a bare subsistence level; mentally and morally they are dependents, without control over their own destinies, with little chance for self-respect or the exercise of individual responsibility, with so little hope that a defeatest attitude spreads like a pall amidst their squalid huts and straggling fields.

The facts are now widely known. The play “Tobacco Road” and the sharecroppers’ insurrection in Arkansas have dramatized the story. Careful studies by many southern scholars have presented both the bizarre details and the appalling totals.

The whole jigsaw picture has been brought together recently in a booklet, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy,[*] in such clear and simple form that he who runs may read.

The question is what we are going to do about it? A decadent nation lets such evils grow and fester. If America still has vitality and courage and imagination, we will not sit idly by while a great group of the population deteriorates, while a whole section of the country goes to ruin. Reorganization will not be easy and will be opposed by natural lethargy and by the complaisance of conservatives. But the issue is so acute, the area and the population concerned are so huge that it is not an overstatement to say that for the rural South the alternatives are reform or ruin.

Brief recital of main points will bring the picture before us. A wide belt extending 300 miles north and south and stretching 1600 miles from the Carolinas to western Texas is devoted almost exclusively to the single commercial crop of cotton. Over 60 percent of those engaged in the production of cotton are in this class. Furthermore tenancy for decades has been steadily increasing. It is an evil that, far from tending to remedy itself, is spread like a dismal infection. The number of farms operated by tenants in the South was high enough in 1880 when 36 percent were run by tenants. By 1920 the percentage of tenancy in the South had reached 49 and by 1930 it wet above 55. These figures are for the South as a whole. In the cotton belt the percentage is still higher. Out of every hundred cotton farms over 60 are operated by tenants.

Southern Black sharecroppers. Resettlement Administration Photograph by Shahn
Resettlement Administration Photograph by Shahn.
Image: Survey Graphic, 25(3), 150.

Southern tenancy is also becoming increasingly a white problem. Up to the Civil War, cotton laborers were Negro slaves. After Emancipation, however, white people began to compete with Negroes for the new kind of slavery involved in tenancy. The white tenants have increased steadily and rapidly, filling the new openings in the expanding industry and taking places left vacant by Negroes who migrated from the plantations to northern or southern cities. In the decade from 1920 to 1930, white tenants in the cotton states increased by 200,000 families—approximately one million persons. During the same decade Negro tenants decreased by 2000 families as the result of mass movements to cities. Today the total number of individuals in cotton tenancy runs to approximately five and a half million whites and slightly over three million Negroes.

Southern sharecropping must not be confused with the condition of farm tenants elsewhere in the country. In many places in the North and West, where farming has a different tradition, tenants are an honorable and independent group. The evil is not in renting land; it is in he traditions and usages which have grown up about the share tenant group in the old South. The kingdom of cotton was reared first upon the backs of black slaves and, while today white workers in the cotton fields outnumber blacks almost two to one, the old pattern of “boss and black” persists. The system is shot through with the master and slave relationship. Practices which were set up “to keep the Negro in his place” have been transferred in large part to the whole group of dependent tenants, whether colored or white. Every kind of abuse and exploitation is permitted because of the old caste prejudice. Because of their insistence on degrading three million Negro tenants, five and a half million white workers continue to keep themselves in bondage.

TENANCY, as the term is commonly used in the South, does not include renters who hire land for a fixed price in money or commodities. It applies to those who use the land in return for a share of the crop which they raise. A difference is often made between share tenants and sharecroppers. The former furnish some of their own tools and work stock and in return pledge only a quarter or a third of their crop. The latter usually have nothing to offer but their labor and in return pledge half of the crop to the owner. In addition, both the share tenant and the sharecropper must pay out of their portion of the crop the cost of everything which the owner or commission merchant has furnished him—seed, fertilizer and often the supplies which the tenant and his family have consumed during the year. The difference in returns and in dependency is simply one of degree. As a matter of fact, over one third of all tenants in the South and over half of the Negro tenants are in the lowest category of poverty and dependence.

Mississippi cotton field. Resettlement Administration Photograph
Mississippi cotton field.
Resettlement Administration Photograph by Rothstein
Image: Survey Graphic, 25(3), 151.
“White people have competed, since Emancipation, for the new kind of slavery involved in tenancy”

As a part of the age-old custom in the South, the landlord keeps the books and handles the sales of all products. The owner returns to the tenant only what is left over of his share of the profits after deduction of all items which the landlord has furnished to him during the year, plus interest on all indebtedness, plus a theoretical “cost of supervision.” The landlord often supplies the food—”pantry supplies” or “furnish”—and other current necessities through his own store or commissary. Fancy prices at the commissary, exorbitant interest, and careless or manipulated accounts make it easy for the owner to keep his tenants constantly in debt.

The plight of the tenant at annual settlement time is so common that a whole folklore about it has grown up in the South.

A tenant offering five bales of cotton was told, after some owl-eyed figuring, that this cotton exactly balanced his debt. Delighted at the prospect of a profit this year, the tenant reported that he had one more bale which he hadn’t yet brought in. “Shucks,” shouted the boss, “why didn’t you tell me before? Now I’ll have to figure the account all over again to make it come out even.”

Of course every story of this kind, and such stories are innumerable, can be matched by tales of unreliability and shiftlessness on the part of the tenant. The case against the system cannot be rested on any personal indictment of landlords any more than it can be vindicated by stories of the improvidence of tenants. The fact is that landlords generally act as they find it necessary to act under the system; tenants do likewise. The development of bad economic and social habits of whatever kind on the part of both landlords and tenants is direct evidence of a faulty system.

The cultural landscape of the cotton belt is a miserable panorama of unpainted shacks, rain-gullied fields, straggling fences, dirt, poverty, disease, drudgery, monotony. Submerged beneath the system which he supports, the cotton tenant’s standard of living approaches the level of bare animal existence. The traditional standards of the slave required only subsistence. The cotton slave—white or colored—has inherited a role in which comfort, education, and self-development have no place. For the type of labor he performs, all that is actually required is a stomach indifferently filled, a shack to sleep in, some old jeans to cover his nakedness.

Although living on abundant land in the southern part of the temperate zone, tenant families have probably the most meager and ill-balanced diet of any large group in America. Devotion to the single cash crop makes it virtually impossible under the system to raise vegetables or to maintain cows, chickens, and other means of nourishing diet. Because the growing of his own produce does not fit into the economy of a cash crop, it is not encouraged by landlords whose prerogative it is to determine the crops grown. As a result the diet is limited largely to imported foods made available usually through the commissaries and local stores. This diet can be and commonly is strained down to the notorious three M’s—meat (fat salt pork), meal and molasses. Evidence of the slow ravages of this diet are to be found in the widespread incidence of pellagra and in the general lack of robustness and energy throughout the tenant population.

The housing is as bad as the diet. A Children’s Bureau study in the cotton-growing areas of Texas showed 64 percent of the white and 77 percent of the Negro families living under conditions of housing congestion—in spite of the common belief that overcrowding is a phenomenon of the city. The general condition of tenant houses is not exaggerated by the statement made by a tenant in Alabama: “My house is so rotten you can jest take up the boards in your hands and cromple ’em up. Everything done swunk about it.”

The Landlord Suffers with the Tenant

FARM system might not be regarded as an unmitigated evil if only the laborers suffered. But in the case of cotton culture the owners are almost as much at the mercy of the system as the tenants. Even under slavery the chief capital supporting cotton cultivation was not available in the South, a situation which kept the whole area in a secondary slavery to the capital of the North. Throughout the whole history of cotton there has been a lack of short term credit to finance annual operations either of production or consumption.

Loans on cotton crops are speculative and this risk increases the cost. The hierarchy of these loans, with risk and service charges, brings an insuperable accumulation of credit costs for the groups lowest down. The credit merchant becomes an inescapable part of the credit structure. He is a response to the erratic nature of farm income under the exclusive one crop economy. These credit costs on the basis of studies made by the Department of Agriculture have been shown to drain off 25 to 30 percent from the operating capital of the small dependent farmers. The recent introduction of federal credit agencies has relieved the situation, but the old customs are so persistent in the South that the old habits, including the credit merchant, hang on. Since the owner is almost as dependent upon outside credit as the tenant, the landlord, as well as the workers, is in slavery to the system.

Louis Fourteenth of France observed with a grim irony that “Credit supports agriculture as the cord supports the hanged.” Throughout its existence, cotton culture has been strangling under an almost impossible system of finance. Only a very favorable world market for this staple has permitted survival of the system and of the complex of social institutions bound up with it. Now, with increasing problems of production and consumption, cotton culture faces finally and perhaps fatally the consequences of unsound credit and an inhuman system.

King Cotton Doomed

MANY factors lead one to believe that King Cotton is doomed. Not only is the tenancy system intolerable on grounds of humanity but the dominance of cotton as a great commercial crop is threatened. The following are among the factors which threaten the wealth and prestige of the kingdom of cotton:

Loss of soil fertility: One of the major indictments of the one crop system is that it encourages waste and improvidence on the part of both landlord and tenant. Huge areas of the Old South have been literally worn out by the constant iteration of cotton crops. The tendency. has been not to preserve existing acreage but to move ever westward until today cotton is produced chiefly and most successfully in Texas and the adjoining states rather than in the Old South. The fertility of the new land in the Southwest, together with its freedom from boll weevil and its adaptability to mechanical efficiencies, gives it an advantage which probably dooms the prestige of cotton in the Old South.

Loss of world markets: When the glut of overproduction or underconsumption brought world depression, cotton was at once recognized as a commodity in which production must be immediately and drastically curtailed if the collapsed prices were to be restored. The irony of half-clothed field workers destroying cotton because people were not able to buy it is now an old, if unpleasant, memory. But unless we are to move out of a money economy into a realm of production for communal needs, it is evident that cotton will never again be grown profitably in America in anything like its former quantity. Huge areas elsewhere in the world have proved their capacity to grow this commodity much more cheaply than we. India, Egypt, Brazil, large parts of Africa and of the Far East have increased their production enormously; Russia has proved able to supply her own needs and may later be ready to add a surplus to the world market. In 1921, for example, Russian cotton production was a bare 43,000 bales. In 1932-33 it jumped to 1,800,000 bales.

Competing fabrics With the rise of other fabrics, the old position of cotton is menaced by factors other than barren soil and new areas. Rayon, made from wood pulp, is the most formidable of these new competitors. This industry, which was first confined chiefly to Europe, has recently made important strides even in the United States. In 1920 the world production of rayon was 50 million pounds. By 1932 this had been multiplied ten fold to 516 million pounds. The production of rayon in the United States has increased more than one hundred fold in two decades, from just over one million pounds in 1912 to 131 million pounds in 1932. In addition to rayon, other synthetic fabrics which can be cheaply manufactured are preferred to cotton for many types of wearing apparel and are gaining ground with menacing rapidity.

Just one word about the AAA. While this may have been a wise emergency measure to rescue the farmers from a collapsed market, it was never of any substantial benefit to the southern tenant. In many cases the farm owner, in reducing his acreage, simply turned off surplus tenants, who thus exchanged a previous miserable subsistence for future starvation or government relief. Where the tenants were supposed to receive a part of the government compensation, the “boss and slave” tradition again came into play. The recompense to the tenant was often simply “credited to his account” by the landlord who pocketed the cash. Harrison County, Texas, perfected a system, widely used throughout the South, whereby tenants endorsed their checks over to the company store by blindly signing the blank backs of the checks under instructions from the landlord or storekeeper that “the government wants you all to sign these here crop reduction contracts.”

Significantly enough, as benefit payments for crop reduction increased, the relief load also increased in the same counties—clear evidence that the sharecroppers were losing rather than gaining by the program. Bolivar County, Mississippi, for example, up to August 1, 1934 received $380,394, the largest benefit payments in the state; yet from May 1933 to May 1934, the amount spent monthly on relief in the county increased from $1338 to $48,311. Sunflower County, with benefit payments of ‘l;275,875 to August 1, 1934, increased its relief expenditures between May 1933 and May 1934, from $5668 to $32,325. For the same periods, Dunklin County, Texas, received $164,524 in benefits, and increased its relief expenditures from $2584 to $10,909.

Neither the AAA nor its reversal by the Supreme Court has had much effect upon the tenant, except that each patching up of the existing order seems to be used to depress a little further this dependent group. The tenants’ plight requires much more drastic and constructive treatment than is involved in merely tampering with the present system.

The Way Out

THE only question that confronts American statesmen is what are we going to do to correct the evils of cotton tenancy? As to the evils themselves, there is no question. The system of cotton culture has been degrading and demoralizing to the workers, both white and colored, and has been neither satisfactory nor profitable to the owners. Furthermore, what profit there was in American cotton is likely to diminish rather than increase in the generation ahead.

The ideal, of course, is to transform the present tenants and sharecroppers into independent land owners. “A sturdy peasantry” is a phrase full of meaning where small farms are independently owned by the majority of the population. Yet it is clear that mere ownership will not transform overnight the habits and the competence of the great mass of farm workers who for generations have grown up in the dependence and shiftlessness inherent in the share tenant system. Provision must be made for supervision and guidance of these farm workers, even if they come into ownership of their own land. Furthermore some means of financing not only the purchase of the land but the necessary machinery, seed, and fertilizer must also be provided. And some form of farmers’ cooperatives is needed both for efficient production and successful marketing.

The Way Out

Below in brief outline are the suggestions advanced almost unanimously by students of farm problems, southern statesmen and government officials

1. That the federal government (through some special agency set up for that purpose) buy up huge acreages of farm lands now in the hands of insurance companies, land banks and others, and distribute this land in small plots of minimum size required to support farm families, probably twenty to forty acres in the cotton area. The land may be allocated to the new owners either on long leases or through contracts of sale on long-time payment under easy forms. The aim is to give the new farmers a sense of ownership or stability and to prevent them from selling or mortgaging the holdings or otherwise alienating their new birthright.

2. That service agencies be set up by regions and local areas to supervise, guide and aid the new homesteaders. These service agencies should not only give expert counsel, but also provide seed, fertilizer and even certain of the current supplies which were heretofore furnished by the plantation owner. In certain instances the service agencies will have to finance buildings and farm animals, but these capital investments should be held to the very minimum so that the homesteaders will not start with too burdensome a debt. It is believed that the project can succeed on a large scale only if the capital investment (including land and whatever buildings, repairs and animals are required) does not exceed one thousand dollars to fifteen hundred dollars per family.

3. That along with this general wide-scale distribution of lands, experiments be conducted in unified and carefully directed types of communities, such as (a) cooperative farm colonies, (b) communities with highly developed services in schools and health and recreational facilities, also with community incubators, breeding stock and marketing facilities, and (c) communities of the European type with homes and public services concentrated into villages with farm lands on the outskirts.

It is evident that only government funds and government direction can supply the needed reorganization. The pressing needs of the millions of tenants whose lives have always been barren and precarious and who now are in danger of being dispossessed from even the poor living they formerly had can be met only by some new distribution of farm ownership. On page 153 [above] are outlined the suggestions which have been advanced almost unanimously by students of farm problems, southern statesmen and government officials.

THE Re-Homesteading Project is intended to establish in farm ownership a huge number of families heretofore excluded from ownership and now being cut off even from tenancy or crop-sharing arrangements. To this end the provisions and stipulations must be few and simple.

The benefits are almost self-evident. First, hundreds of thousands of families will have a little land of their own. The effect of land ownership is striking and immediate in creating self-respect and stability. Second, the chief interest of a small farm owner is to raise food and supplies for his own use. A well-rounded diet and resulting improvements in health will come quickly if farm families are raising meat and vegetables and producing milk and eggs for their own tables.

Furthermore, many new cash crops can be developed: grapes, fruits, truck and dairy produce for nearby cities, livestock, and other new crops. A great variety of salable farm produce, needed in the South and throughout the country, can supplement cotton as a means of income.

Fortunately, these proposals are not entirely in the state of mere pious hopes. Through the federal and state relief administrations farm distribution, in general accord with the plans outlined above, has already proceeded to some extent in several of the cotton states. Through the large appropriation for public works voted by Congress in the spring of 1935, additional sums are made available for rural rehabilitation and resettlement. This makes possible expansion of the project for small farm ownership, and provides through work relief for the building and repair of homes and barns of schools and other community centers. Congress has be fore it a bill which has already passed the Senate which authorizes an issue of bonds to finance individual farm purchases on a wide scale. It looks very much as though, by these and other means, broad and effective measures may be taken to mitigate the tenancy evil and to rehabilitate area numbers of the population as self-supporting and self-respecting farmers.

It is of course not to be supposed that this scheme of land distribution, even if carried out wisely and on a wide scale, will solve all the problems of the rural South. There remain such severe ills as large stretches of worn-out soil; the long tradition of concentration on the single cash crop, cotton which the new farmers will find it hard to break away from; the vicious and enervating prejudice between the races which beclouds issues and makes almost impossible any concerted program of recovery and progress; and the traditions of dependence and the general shiftlessness and incompetence of the workers, both white and colored, who make up the large marginal farm population. But organization of the farm system is basic to reform in other matters. A group of independent farmers working together under competent leadership can begin to plan decent lives as well as a self-sustaining economy.

* University of North Carolina Press. 81 pp. $1 postpaid of Survey Graphic. This summary is based upon extensive researches covering more than two years, carried out under the auspices of a commission consisting of W. W. Alexander, Charles S. Johnson and Edwin R. Embree. The complete results of the study will be brought out in two scholarly volumes now in publication by the University of North Carolina Press. While the Rosenwald Fund took the initiative in the study, it was a joint effort with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the department of social science at Fisk University, conducted by the heads of the three organizations.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Embree, E.R. (1936, March). Southern farm tenancy. Survey Graphic, 25(3), 149-151. Retrieved [date accessed] from The Social Welfare History Project.

Source: New Deal Network, ,(March 19, 2014)