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The New International, December 1939


Robert L. Birchman

The Negro in Southern Agriculture


Source: The New International, Vol.5 No.12, December 1939, pp.345-351
Transcribed: Daniel Gaido.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Under modern capitalist conditions no less than under chattel slavery the Southern plantation economy constitutes the main material basis for the exploitation and oppression of the Negro masses in North America.

The bulk of the Negroes in the United States live in the South. In 1930, 79% of the 11.9 million Negroes in the country dwelt there. The proportion of Negroes in the so-called Black Belt has remained constant since before the Civil War, comprising about 50% of the population. In 1860 Negroes numbered 2,461,099, or 56.4% of the total population of that area, and in 1930, 4,790,094, or 50.3% of the total population. They have maintained the rate of growth of the general population of the region and in addition, have migrated in thousands to the North.

Despite the great northward migration of the Southern Negro, about three-fourths of the Negro people, rural and urban, still live in areas directly influenced by the plantation system; yet, despite the proportions of the urban migration, and the growth of industry in the South, the Negro in America is still predominantly rural. The depression has acted as a serious deterrent on further migration to the cities during the last ten years. The decrease in the number of Negro farm operators, amounting to 8.5% between 1920 and 1930 and to 7.5% between 1930 and 1935, does not negate this fact. More than half the Negroes are still rural; most of these are farm operators; and almost all of the Negro farm operators (95.3%) are in the South. To grasp the fundamentals of Negro life today we must examine the plantation system that shapes and overshadows it.

From Slavery to Sharecropping

The abolition of slavery closed one chapter in the development of the plantation system and opened another. But the transition from the slave plantations to the present peonage of sharecropping and tenancy was not so great a break as is commonly supposed. After having been shattered by the impact of emancipation, the plantation system was reorganized upon a new basis, formally different from the old but little better in reality. This was the tenancy and sharecropping system.

After emancipation neither the state nor Federal governments made any real effort to enable the freedmen to achieve economic security on the land. The stricken bourbons, owning nothing but land, faced the masses of the ex-slaves possessing nothing but their labor power. A system was arrived at whereby labor was secured “without money wages and land without money rent.” This system, accepted at first as a temporary arrangement, developed into a permanent system.

The slave owner’s place was taken by the usurer-planter, who had a direct interest in maintaining and strengthening the survivals of slavery by means of sharecropping and tenancy. Henry Grady noted in 1881 that

“There is beyond question a sure but gradual rebunching of the small farms into large estates, and a tendency towards the reestablishment of a landowning oligarchy. Here and there through all the cotton states, and almost in every county, are reappearing the planter princes of the old time, still lords of acres though not of slaves.”

Today, as before the Civil War, the plantation system dominates the entire economic, social, and political life of the South, above all in the cotton areas. The plantation system supports a hereditary oligarchy similar in all vital respects to the slave-holding seigneurs of the Old South.

Character of Plantation Area

The cotton plantation area is characterized by a high percentage of tenancy, a high degree of concentration of landownership, a large percentage of Negroes, lower incomes for the tenants than for farmers in other sections of the country, a slight proportion of urban and village inhabitants, scarcity of non-agricultural industries, large families, poor school facilities, and a highly mobile population. Whole families are frequently on the move in search of better conditions.

These families are the vassals of King Cotton and the cotton nobility. Practically no other crop is grown on the plantations other than feed for livestock and a scant amount of produce for home consumption. The Negro is the principal victim of the semi-slave economy of these plantations, even though this economy, radiating from the plantations themselves, profoundly influences non-plantation farming and tenancy in the neighborhood, and encompasses increasing numbers of white workers.

Thus, today, the exploitation of black labor in one form or another is basic to the plantation system. Moreover, the concentration of plantation economy determines the degree of concentration of the Negroes. In his study, Landlord and Tenant on the Cotton Plantation, T.J. Woofter, Jr., states that in 1934, 84% of the tenant households were Negro in a sample survey of 646 plantations in six Southern states. Their general status is the same as in slave days. “Nowhere are ante-bellum conditions so nearly preserved as in Yazoo delta,” says Rupert B. Vance. “The delta planters compose the Mississippi aristocracy and, conversely, here the Negro is to be found at his lowest levels in America.”

The Extent of Sharecropping and Tenancy

Today, more than three-quarters of a century after the abolition of chattel slavery, the area of the old slave plantations and the modern peon plantations is much the same. This is the area of the largest concentration of Negroes and the area in which the largest proportions of Negro tenancy and sharecropping prevail. The basis for the strength of the economic survivals of slavery are the plantations where the majority of the tenants and sharecroppers are Negroes.

Moreover, the link between tenancy and cotton production is as close today as ever. In the South as a whole, 79% of the cotton farms were operated by tenants, as compared to 38% of non-cotton farms. In the cotton belt alone the percentage of tenancy is still higher. For example, in 1935, 68% of all farms in Mississippi, and 65.6% of all farms in Georgia, were operated by tenants. The tenant is predominantly Negro, but he is gradually being displaced by the whites. Today 77% of Negro Southern farmers are tenants, as compared with substantially the same figure, 75%, in 1900. During the same period the proportion of tenants among Southern white farmers jumped from 36% to 46%. Moreover, although sharecroppers are about equally divided between Negroes and whites, a far larger portion of Negroes is to be found in this lowest class of tenants. In 1935, 58.5% of the 629,301 colored tenants in the South were sharecroppers, whereas of the 1,202,174 white tenants only 28.9% were sharecroppers.

In Mississippi in 1935, 71.8% of the 147,693 Negro tenants were sharecroppers, compared to 69,871 whites of whom 45.1% were sharecroppers. In Arkansas, 68.3% of the 59,940 Negro tenants were sharecroppers, compared to 91,819 white tenants, of whom 26.7% were sharecroppers. In these typical plantation states sixty out of every hundred cotton farms are operated by tenants. 445 out of every 1,000 Negro farmers in the South are sharecroppers, compared to 170 out of each 1,000 white farmers.

There has been a steady decrease in the number of Negro tenants and a steady increase in the number of white tenants. Today the problems of the agrarian population in the South, and of cotton tenancy in particular, involve white, no less than black workers. Most white tenants are located on the non-plantation size farms. Tenancy on these is directly influenced by the semi-slave conditions on the plantations and has numerous features in common with them. This constitutes the main difference between Negro and white tenancy.


here are three types of tenancy in the South – sharecropping, share-tenancy, and renting.

The sharecropper owns nothing. The land to which he is assigned, implements and working stock he uses – all the means of production – belong to his landlord. The cropper has nothing but the labor of himself and his family. The average area cultivated by the Negro sharecropper in 1935 was 31.2 acres, compared to 52.8 by whites. But in such typical plantation states as Mississippi and Arkansas, with the largest number of Negro sharecroppers, the acreage is from 10 to 20 acres.

For use of the means of production the cropper must give the landlord a portion, usually half, of the crop; out of the other half the landlord deducts for “furnish,” i.e., all food, clothes, and other necessities advanced during the season, and the cropper’s share of fertilizer. These are supplied through the landlord’s own commissary or by arrangement with some merchant. The cropper has no control over the nature of his crops, the acreage, methods of cultivation or marketing of his crop, and is at all times under direct supervision by the landlord or his agents. The “settlement” at the time the crop is sold amounts to no more than this: After having received barely enough for subsistence from the landlord in the “furnishes” to enable him to continue working, he is occasionally granted a small cash bonus at Christmas during a good year. But usually the cropper finds himself in debt to the landlord after the cotton is picked and sold and is forced to remain until the debt is worked off. This state of affairs is legalized by means of vagrancy statutes and laws penalizing agricultural workers for failure to complete cultivation of a crop after having entered into a contract with a landlord. The oppression and degradation of the masses under this form of economic bondage is little better than those experienced under chattel slavery.

The cropper is a worker paid in kind with no claim on the crops upon which the landlord has first lien. The legal codes of some cotton states define a cropper as a “wage-laborer working for the share of the crop as wages” and the Georgia Supreme Court in 1872 decided that “the case of the cropper is rather a mode of paying wages than a tenancy.”

The slave received a bare subsistence, the entire product of his toil on the land being appropriated by the plantation owner. The sharecropper, on the other hand, gives the landlord one-half of the crop by virtue of the landlord’s ownership of the land and implements, thus assuring the landlord from the beginning a large portion of the surplus product produced by the tiller of the soil. But the remaining half also reaches the coffers of the landlord in the form of payments on the advances, fertilizer, etc., which the landlord usually fixes to equal the total wages of the sharecropper.

While the sharecropper does not appear as part of the means of production, as did the slave, the method by which surplus labor is extracted by the landlord differs but little from slavery. The only difference is that occasionally, when his labor is not essential on his patch of plantation, the cropper is paid partly in cash. But his position as a semi-slave is altered neither by this nor by the fact that he has a degree of freedom that permits him under certain circumstances to change masters. The sharecropper is bound to the soil by coercive measures, by contract enforced by the state for the period of the growing season, and then by debt slavery, made all the more coercive by the credit system of finance-capital.

The price the plantation owner paid for a slave was “the anticipated and capitalized surplus value or profit to be ground out of him.” (Capital, vol.III, p.934). The cost of the slave was a deduction from the capital available for actual production, and this capital ceased to exist for the plantation owner until he sold his slave once more. Additional investment of capital in production was necessary before the slave-master began to exploit his labor. With the sharecropper, the landlord is saved the initial deduction from capital in the purchase of the slave; he invests only in his advances to the cropper and in the costs of production. Under chattel-slavery the cost to feed and maintain a slave was about twenty dollars a year. Woofter, in his study of 646 plantations, found that advances to tenants and sharecroppers amounted to an average of $12.80 per family per month for an average of seven months of the year. (Landlord and Tenant the Cotton Plantation, p.59).

Considering that the sharecropper’s family usually has at least five and often as many as ten members, the actual cost of furnishing a cropper with the bare necessities of life is lower, at times, than the cost of maintaining a slave. If one considers the initial deduction in capital for the purchase of the slave, the investment is even less. The landowner is relieved of any necessity to provide for his labor in the months between picking and planting the next crop, or during periods of reduced production. The landlord, his contract protected by the state power, may force the croppers to remain cm the plantation without at the same time advancing food and other necessities. This is the prevailing state of affairs throughout the cotton area in periods of crisis or low prices for cotton.

Since the sharecropper owns no means of production, he is less a tenant than a wage-laborer. However, his relations to the landlord and the land keep him in a state of peonage worse than slavery.

There is no strict line of demarcation setting off tenants from sharecroppers. One often finds on a single plantation, sharecropping, share-tenancy, renting and wage-labor. On the 646 plantations in the cotton states he studied, Woofter found that sharecropping was predominant. Of these plantations 71% were mixed in tenure, with share-croppers predominant, 16% operated entirely by croppers, 6% by renters, 3% by other share-tenants and 4% operated entirely by wage-labor. Negroes and whites many times were employed on the same plantation. Of the above plantations 53% were operated entirely by Negroes, 42% by both Negroes and whites and only 5% entirely by whites.

Share-Tenancy and Renting

The share-tenant differs from the sharecropper by the fact that he owns part of the means of production and makes an investment in the enterprise. The tenant supplies labor, work stock, feed for the work stock, tools, seed, and three-fourths or two-thirds of the fertilizer. The landlord receives one-fourth or one-third of the crops. He must take advances from the landlord or the supply merchant and, caught in the credit net, is consequently subject to a considerable degree of supervision, including the sale of his crops.

The share-tenant is often but slightly distinguished from the sharecropper. As Robert P. Brooks states, “The share tenant is in reality a day laborer. Instead of receiving weekly or monthly wages he is paid a share of the crop raised on the tract of land for which he is responsible.” (The Agrarian Revolution in Georgia, 1865-1912, pp.65-66).

The renter most closely approaches the typical tenant of more developed capitalist areas. The landlord supplies the renter with house, land and fuel for which he is paid a fixed rental in either cash or its equal in crops. The renter furnishes all the means of production. When the renter is a small farmer, his work is often supervised by the landlord, who is interested in the crop for the rent and in many cases for advances of food and other necessities.

Differences between North and South

In the North, the rapid increase in tenancy since 1900 is an index of impoverishment, brought on by foreclosure, which deprives the farmer of his land, buildings and other capital. It is only as a much poorer capitalist that the dispossessed tenant can rent land, if at all, and continue farming. The complete expropriation of land, buildings, livestock, machinery and other capital since 1929, is reflected in the growth of an army of farm laborers rather than in the growth of tenancy itself. These laborers cannot even become small tenant farmers.

In the South the general basis of tenancy was the large plantations that continued to exist after the abolition of chattel slavery, while in the North tenancy was rather the result of the expropriation of landowning farmers brought about by finance-capital on the basis of capitalist relations of production. The same type of expropriation takes place in the South as in the North, but it does not constitute the main basis for the perpetuation of tenancy.

There is another important difference between the types of tenancy in the North and in the South. In the third volume of Capital, Marx points out that the progressive characteristics of the capitalist mode of production in agriculture are, on the one hand, the rationalization of agriculture which makes it capable of operation on a social scale, and, on the other hand, in the development of capitalist tenants. While capitalist tenancy has an adverse effect upon the advance of agriculture insofar as the tenants on the land hesitate to invest in improvements and many times permit the land to deteriorate, the development of capitalist tenancy does have progressive features. In contrast to pre-capitalist forms of agriculture it separates landownership from the relationship of master and slave, for the landowner or his agent is not, as under feudalism or slavery, the direct overlord of the tillers of the soil.

Capitalist tenancy “separates land as an instrument of production from property in land and landowners, for whom it represents merely a certain tribute in money, which he collects by force of his monopoly from the industrial capitalist, the capitalist farmer.” Land thus assumes the character of an instrument of production and is separated from private monopoly over a parcel of land, which enables its owner to appropriate a part of the surplus value in the form of rent. Marx points out that capitalist production brought this about “by first completely pauperizing the direct producers” (Capital, vol.III, pp.723-724). Capitalist tenancy, by making the landlord merely a rent collector, an expropriator of surplus value, and by depriving the actual farmer of landownership, prepares the road for the socialist revolution, which will abolish private property in land and make possible planned operation of agriculture.

Tenancy in the South does not exhibit any of the progressive characteristics of capitalist tenancy. Instead of separating on a broad scale landownership from the relationships of master and slave, it prolonged and strengthened such relationships, thus maintaining important survivals of chattel slavery in a highly developed capitalist country. Neither was there a separation of land as an instrument of production from private property in land, despite the intervention of rent in kind, which does not draw any sharp line of distinction between the relations of production and landownership. The landlord in the South maintains a direct supervision over production.

The tenant system in the South, while possessing none of the progressive features of capitalist tenancy, partakes of its worst evils. Tenancy hinders the rational development of agriculture by deterring the tenant from investing in improvements on the land, since they would only add to the capital of the landowner.

The failure to make improvements and the concentration of production upon a single crop, which does not permit the tenant to rest his land and rotate his crops, results in the deterioration of the land. The Soil Erosion Survey of seven Southeastern states found 10,900,000 acres practically destroyed for further cultivation and 11,000,000 more acres rapidly approaching the same condition. There are about half-a-million families living on such land. The dominance of semi-feudal types of labor relationships in the South has not excluded the penetration of capitalist relations of production. Wage-labor and machinery are the best indices of capitalist relationships in Southern agriculture.

Wage Labor

Along with an increasing penetration of capitalism into the agrarian economy of the Black Belt, there has been an increasing number of Negro farm wage-workers. Many plantations and some large tenant farms employ wage-labor exclusively and an even larger number employ wage-labor occasionally.

A part of the plantation is set aside by the operator for cultivation by wage-labor. The labor for working the 1andlord farm is supplied in part by wage-labor and in part by the tenants under forced labor conditions. The large plantation owners employ the greatest number of wage-laborers; the plantations having fifty or more tenants retained an average of 1,375 acres to be cultivated in this manner.

The typical plantation in 1934, according to Woofter, had three wage-laborer families who cultivated 45 crop acres each, eight cropper families cultivating 20 acres each, two share-tenant families cultivating 26 acres each and one renter family cultivating 24 acres. This reflects the close relationships existing on the plantations between capitalist and semi-feudal relations of production.

Census data on the use of wage-labor are not complete, but these data give us some indication of the low stage of capitalist development in Southern agriculture. In Mississippi, a typical plantation state, half the population are Negroes. In 1929, 64.5% of the managers of plantations and farms, 27.5% of the owners and 10.4% of the tenants, employed wage-laborers. In North Dakota, a state with highly developed capitalist methods of operation in agriculture, in 1929, 77.9% of the managers, 75.8% of the owners, and 71.1% of the tenants hired wage-workers.

Sharecropping and share-tenancy are being replaced by an even more vicious system of labor exploitation. The sharecropper of yesterday is the wage-worker of today, the man who peddles his brawn and muscle for twenty-five and thirty cents a day, lucky to get one day’s work a week during the winter months, and still luckier if he can collect his wage in cash rather than in corn meal or old clothes.

According to the 1930 census, there were 523,000 Negro agricultural laborers in the South. Counting the unpaid family workers they totaled over a million.

The shift from farming with sharecroppers to farming with wage-hands by many landlords, is taking place on a large scale in the Western cotton areas, in the Mississippi Delta, and in other areas.

The semi-feudal conditions in the plantation area weigh heavily upon the Negro farm workers. They get the lowest wages in the country, an average of $180 a year per family of wage-laborers, or $62 per capita, 17 cents a day on the plantations studied by Woofter. They labor the longest hours and are subject to strict supervision by plantation foremen. This army of Negro agricultural workers will inevitably play a leading role in the development of a revolutionary agrarian labor movement in the South.


The technical backwardness of agriculture in the South is a result of the plantation economy and its credit system. The average value of machinery and implements per Negro-owned farm in the South in 1930 was $108. For farms operated by Negro tenants it was $57.

In his study of Macon County, Georgia, a typical cotton plantation county, Charles S. Johnson found that out of 612 Negro farm families there were 289 who owned not a single farming implement and were using the same methods of cultivation as under slavery (Shadow of the Plantation, p.119).

Only 23% of the owners and managers and 6.8% of the tenants in Mississippi reported expenditures for implements and machinery in 1929. In North Dakota, a typical Northern agricultural state, 54.8% of the owners and 49.5% of the tenants reported expenditures for farm machinery the same year.

In the Eastern section of the cotton belt 80% of the farmers still used half-row cultivators in 1936. Fewer than 10% of the farmers in this area switched to the use of one-row or larger cultivators in the period from 1909-1936. In the Mississippi Delta, an area where nearly all land is in cotton plantations, only 9% of the farmers used half-row equipment. In the cotton area west of the Mississippi River most of the implements are two-row or larger. There is a definite tendency toward the use of tractors on the Mississippi Delta and Texas cotton plantations. The number of farmers using tractors increased from 5% in 1919 to 45% in 1936 in two Mississippi Delta counties, and from 1% to 41% for the same period in two Texas counties. This compares to an increase from 1% to 3% in seven selected counties in the Eastern areas.

“There is impending a violent revolution in cotton production as a result of the development of the mechanical cotton picker” (Johnson, Embree, Alexander, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, p.44). This is an event that has been awaited in the Cotton Kingdom with much more eagerness than the development of the cotton gin in the last century. When it is perfected, hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers, tenants and wage-laborers in the cotton belt will be automatically eliminated from production. Already a large number of sharecroppers and tenants have been displaced, especially in the Mississippi Delta and Western cotton areas, by the increased use of machinery in the pre-picking operations in the cultivation of cotton. This tendency is spreading eastward in spite of a persistence of the old methods in the old cotton areas.

The survivals of slavery have impeded the introduction of machinery. With the cheapest labor supply in the country on hand, the landlord is not likely to make investments in machinery, especially when his profits have been cut by a contracting market. Only the large plantation owners are able to purchase new machinery. By so doing, they accentuate the crisis in cotton production by piling up surpluses and thus hasten the expropriation of the small producers and displacement of the tenants and sharecroppers.

New machinery under present conditions will not abolish the semi-feudal plantation system. The increased use of machinery, especially on the Western plains, can result only in a greater exploitation of the tenants, sharecroppers and wage-laborers in the older plantation areas of the East. The increase in the use of machinery will promote the maturing of the conditions and forces that will eventually abolish “ten acres, a nigger and a mule.” Machine production can only accentuate this process, not substitute for it.

Negro Landownership

The extent of landownership among Negro farmers is a measure of the extent that freedom has been obtained from plantation bondage. According to Booker T. Washington and other bourgeois leaders, salvation for the ex-slaves would come under the capitalist system by the growth of a large Negro landowning class, which could serve as the basis for the growth of a Negro bourgeoisie. But capitalism has proved to be just as brutal in retarding the development of the Negro landowner and in expropriating him as it has been in the case of the small Negro businessman.

Such land as the Negro had been able to get has been to some extent expropriated in recent years. Landownership by Negroes reached its peak in 1910, when there were 218,972 Negro owners and part-owners with a total acreage of 12,847,348. But by 1930 the number of owners had fallen by 16.5% and the acreage by 14.5%. Most of this 10SStook place in the second decade; between 1920 and 1930 Southern Negroes lost 19.7% of their total acreage. Although there was an increase of about 2% in the number of Negro landowners from 1930 to 1935, during the same period the total acreage declined by about 5%. More and more, the tendency is to displace the Negro landowner.

And while the total acreage held by Negro farmers as a group has been steadily decreasing, the acreage held by any one Negro farmer, never large, has also decreased. In 1935 the colored farm owner in the South owned an average of 56.6 acres, compared to 63.1 acres in 1930. The average acreage per white Southern owner was 144.8 in 1935, substantially the same as in 1930. Many Negroes have farms even smaller than the average; 55% have farms of less than 50 acres, and 22% of less than 20 acres. Only 5% owned between 175 and 499 acres and only 9.7% 500 acres or more; that is to say, only 14.7% can be said to hold even a small plantation. Hardly a larger percentage have middle-size holdings. Most Negroes have small farms, and many have only minute farmlets.

The average value of Negro-owned farms decreased even faster than the acreage. In 1920 it was $2,459; by 1930 it fell by 17.5% and by 1935 by an additional 25%, to $1,133. In 1930 the average value of implements and machinery per Negro-owned farm in the South was only $106. The acreage per farm of the average Negro owner was less than half, his value of land and building about one-fourth, and his value of implements about one-third of that of the average white landowner in the South.

Generally the size of a farm is not decisive in determining the economic status of a farmer. A truck farmer often is able to conduct a reasonably profitable enterprise on a small holding. But the fact that Southern farmers generally have a less diversified crop than the ordinary truck farm tends to make a small farm more of a disadvantage. Moreover, to be profitable a small farm has to be intensively cultivated, and this takes machinery and fertilizer, neither of which the Negro farmer can afford. In addition, the land held by Negroes is in general the marginal land. Just as in cities there are neighborhoods from which Negroes are excluded, so there are rural areas where it is practically impossible for a Negro to purchase land. The Negro farmer, in general, is to be found in outlying sections, on back roads, and on the poorest land.

Ladder or Treadmill

The theory held by certain bourgeois economists that sharecropping and tenancy are progressive steps by which the farmer rises to ownership rather than a status into which they fall, has been proven false by the increase of tenancy in every sphere. Although the number of young farmers has decreased, the proportion of those who are tenants has increased steadily. There has been a general increase in the number of tenants over fifty-five years of age. “Many of these people,” writes Secretary Wallace, “have struggled for years, and yet in their old age have no home and no more security than when they started.” Harold Hoffsommer in his study The AAA and the Cropper (Social Forces, May 1935) states, “In Alabama ... of those who started farming as sharecroppers, nearly one-fourth still remain such. Less than one-tenth have become owners.” The agricultural ladder for thousands has become a treadmill.

The majority of Negro tenants and landowners can be classed as in the lower stratum of the rural petty-bourgeoisie. The croppers and most of the share-tenants, are petty-bourgeois only by aspiration. They hope to obtain land, a hope that has small chance of being realized under present conditions. This hope, however, is nonetheless a powerful lever for propelling the rural masses on to the path of revolutionary action.

Concentration of Landownership

The pre-Civil War plantations have persisted as a unit to a large extent. Some acreages have, it is true, been broken up into smaller plantations and into small farms. But large-scale operations are the general rule in the area that was characterized by plantations in 1860.

The 1910 plantation census, the only one to survey plantations, covered 325 counties in eleven cotton belt states. In most of the counties, Negroes constituted at least half of the total population. On the 39,073 plantations of five or more tenant farms, there was a total of 398,905 tenants or an average of 10 tenants for each plantation.

The large increase in the number of farms in the South and the decrease in the size of average holdings, do not reflect a breaking up of the plantation, but the division of the plantation tracts into tenant holdings.

In the 325 counties, 37.1% of the total number of farms were in plantations, 31.5% of the total farm acreage was in plantations, and 32.8% of the total value of land and buildings was on the plantations.

Plantations constitute only 3.3% of all farms in the plantation area but account for approximately one-third of the total farm acreage and value of land and buildings.

Today, in the Yazoo Delta, the most fertile area of the lower Mississippi Valley, 70% of all improved land is in cotton, 85% of the farm land is in plantations and 86% of the farms are operated by Negroes.

In 1910, 8.6% of the total number of plantations contained 28% of all tenant farms in plantations, 23% of all land in plantations, and accounted for 25% of the total value of all lands and buildings on plantations. Thus we see that approximately one-fourth of the plantation economy is concentrated in the hands of one-twelfth of the owners of plantations.

In 1934, 55.7% of all land in 20 Georgia plantation counties was in tracts of 260 acres or more. Such tracts were 16% of the total number of farms. There was an increase in plantations in the Atlantic Coast region and almost no reduction in the number of large plantations in the Black Belt. There was a rapid increase in the number of small holdings, indicating that a number of small farms were carved from large tracts without reducing the parent tracts below plantation size.

Many landlords hold non-contiguous tracts of land, another indication of concentration of ownership. Woofter found that on the plantations he surveyed, 39% of the landlords owned an average of 2.9 additional farms, ownership of more than one non-contiguous tract being a common practice among large operators. With this group of large tenant-operated plantation farming partakes of the character of big business.

Absentee ownership is extensive in many sections of the South. Widows, heirs, bankers, lawyers, merchants and corporations become owners of plantations, through inheritance, foreclosure and speculative purchase. Overseers are hired to supervise these plantations. Many landlords devote only a part of their time to their plantations. A landowner, having another occupation, is most often a merchant. Many landlords further concentrated their operations by renting additional land. On the plantations investigated by Woofter the acreage was distributed as follows: owned, 86%; additional rented, 14%.

Since 1929, large banks, mortgage and insurance companies have taken over large acreages through the plantation area. “It is estimated that areas amounting to 30% of the cotton lands of various states are owned by insurance companies and banks.” (Johnson, Embree and Alexander, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, p.33.)

It is apparent that since about 1880 there has been a progressive concentration of the better land of the South into large plantations under central control. Owners of plantations of the size surveyed do not constitute a majority of landowners in the South; but through their control over large acreages of the best land and of large numbers of tenant and laborer families, they still dominate the economic, political and cultural life. Landlord-tenant relationships on the smaller units in these areas were molded after those on the large holdings.

The Credit System

Louis XIV of France observed with a grim irony that “credit supports agriculture, as the cord supports the hanged.” Cotton culture has been strangling for years under a precarious credit system. A favorable world market and the social and economic relations bound up with its production have permitted cotton economy to survive. But with the increasing competition of other growing areas in the world, and the resulting contraction of the world market, the cotton economy faces the fatal consequences of the credit system. Even under chattel slavery, the cotton economy of the South was dependent on the finance capitalist of the North for credit, a situation that kept the entire area subservient to Northern capital.

The seasonal character of agricultural loans and bank deposits, and the speculative character of cotton loans result in unbearable credit costs for the small farmers, tenants and sharecroppers. The credit merchant is an unavoidable part of such a system under a one-crop economy. Credit costs are estimated to drain off 25 to 50% of the operating capital of the small farmers.

Under this credit system there is no hope for the small farmers and tenants. “The landlord and credit merchant, instead of promoting advancement in agriculture and social development, have been financing economic stagnation and backwardness.” (Johnson, Embree and Alexander, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, p.27.)

The credit merchant, very often a landlord, controls all credit facilities, not only for his own tenants, but of other renters and small owners. The credit merchant’s security is the entire crop, which when harvested and ginned, must be turned over to him in payment of the debt. The merchant keeps the books and sets the interest rates. The tenant rarely gets a statement of his account and usually finds himself in debt, or just breaking even after the crop is sold. The credit system forbids questioning of accounts by either Negro or white tenants.

The per annum interest rates in three selected cotton counties in Mississippi and Texas in 1934, varied from 16.1% to 23.3%. In addition to this, credit prices which were in excess of interest rates, made the total cost to tenants for their supplies more than 50% per annum. This is typical of the whole cotton area. Under this system, tenants and sharecroppers rarely get out of debt and the small owner is in constant danger of losing his farm. The enormous increase in tenancy and sharecropping shows how extensively this is happening.


1. Negroes are basic to the plantation system, even though large numbers of whites are now equally exploited by its semi-feudal methods of labor.

2. The plantation system, now fused with modern capitalist methods, dominates the entire agrarian economy of the South. This economy is the main basis for the exploitation and oppression of the Negroes in America.

3. Sharecropping and share-tenancy, the main characteristics of the plantation system, are direct survivals of chattel slavery.

4. There is a large and increasing concentration of land in the hands of plantation owners, banks, insurance companies and credit corporations.

5. Since 1910, tenancy has rapidly increased, with a decrease among Negroes in the last fifteen years and a proportional increase of white tenants, indicating that Negroes are being displaced by whites and the Negroes being driven into the ranks of wage laborers or unemployment. Since 1930, this has been the situation with white sharecroppers, as well as the Negroes.

6. Mechanization of the operations connected with the production of cotton is on the increase. Along with this there is an increase in the use of wage labor.

7. The income and living standards of the masses of tenants, sharecroppers, and wage-laborers in the South, both Negro and white, are the lowest of any section of the population in the country.

Such is the present economic situation of the Negro worker on the land in the South.

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Last updated on 29.5.2005