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The Promised Land

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 7 years, 6 months ago





The following questions are drawn from an excerpt from Nicolas Leham's The Promised Land.


Directions:  Describe sharecropping in Mississippi, providing facts, details, and descriptions for the following categories:

1. Living conditions:

2. Education:

3. Economic injustice:

4. Cycle of poverty

5. Similarities with slavery




The Promised Land 
 The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America 


This inside-Mississippi migration almost always ended with the family feeling that it had been badly gulled, because it turned out to be nearly impossible to make any money sharecropping. The sharecropper’s family would move, early in the year, to a rough two- or three-room cabin on a plantation. The plumbing consisted of, at most, a washbasin, and usually not even that. The only heat came from a woodburning stove. There was no electricity and no insulation. During the winter, cold air came rushing in through cracks in the walls and the floor. Usually the roof leaked. The families often slept two and three to a bed.


Every big plantation was a fiefdom; the small hamlets that dot the map of the Delta were mostly plantation headquarters rather than conventional towns. Sharecroppers traded at a plantation-owned commissary, often in scrip rather than money. (Martin Luther King, Jr., on a visit to an Alabama plantation in 1965, was amazed to meet sharecroppers who had never seen United States currency in their lives.) They prayed at plantation-owned Baptist churches. Their children walked, sometimes miles, to plantation-owned schools, usually one-or two-room buildings without heating or plumbing. Education ended with the eighth grade and was extremely casual until then. All the grades were taught together, and most of the students were far behind the normal grade level for their age. The textbooks were tattered hand-me-downs from the white schools. The planter could and did shut down the schools whenever there was work to be done in the fields, so the school year for the children of sharecroppers usually amounted to only four or five months, frequently interrupted. Many former sharecroppers remember going to school only when it rained. In 1938 the average American teacher’s salary was $1,374, and the average value of a school district’s buildings and equipment per student was $274. For blacks in Mississippi, the figures were $144 and $11.


Each family had a plot of land to cultivate, varying in size from fifteen to forty acres depending on how many children there were to work and how generous the planter was. In March, the planter would begin to provide the family with a "furnish," a monthly stipend of anywhere from fifteen to fifty dollars that was supposed to cover their living expenses until the crop came in in the fall. The planter also provided "seed money" for cotton seed, and tools for cultivation. He split the cost of fertilizer with the sharecropper. Thus equipped, the sharecropper would plow his land behind a mule, plant the cotton, and cultivate a "garden spot" for vegetables. Between planting and harvest, the cotton had to be regularly "chopped" – that is, weeded with a hoe – to ensure that it would grow to full height. The standard of living provided by the furnish was extremely low – cheap homemade clothes and shoes, beans, bread, and tough, fatty cuts of pork – but nonetheless the money often ran out before the end of the month, in which case the family would have to "take up" (borrow) at the commissary.


The cotton was picked in October and November and then was taken to the plantation’s gin, where it was separated from its seeds and then weighed. The planter packed it into bales and sold it. A couple of weeks would pass during which the planter would do his accounting for the year. Then, just before Christmas, each sharecropper would be summoned to the plantation office for what was called "the settle," The manager would hand him a piece of paper showing how much money he had cleared from his crop, and pay him his share.


For most sharecroppers, the settle was a moment of bitterly dashed hope, because usually the sharecropper would learn that he had cleared only a few dollars, or nothing at all, or that he owed the planter money. The planters explained this by saying that ever since the cotton crash of 1920 they hadn’t made much money either; what every sharecropper believed was that they were cheating. There was one set of accounting practices in particular that the sharecroppers considered cheating and the planters didn’t; a series of fees the planters levied on the sharecroppers over the course of the year. The goods sold at the commissary were usually marked up. Many planters charged exorbitant interest on credit at the commissary, and sometimes on the furnish as well – 20 percent was a typical rate. When tractors came in during the 1930s, the planters would charge the sharecroppers for the use of them to plow the fields. None of these charges were spelled out clearly as they were made, and usually they appeared on the sharecropper’s annual statement as a single unitemized line, "Plantation Expense."


Then there was indisputable cheating. There was no brake on dishonest behavior by a planter toward a sharecropper. For a sharecropper to sue a planter was unthinkable. Even to ask for a more detailed accounting was known to be an action with the potential to endanger your life. The most established plantations were literally above the law where black people were concerned. The sheriff would call the planter when a matter of criminal justice concerning one of his sharecroppers arose, and if the planter said he preferred to handle it on his own (meaning, often, that he would administer a beating himself), the sheriff would stay off the place. Some planters were allowed to sign their sharecroppers out of the county jail if it was time to plant or chop or pick, and pay the bond later on credit. (If a sharecropper committed a crime serious enough for him to be sent to the state penitentiary, in Parchman, he would pick cotton there too –it was a working plantation in the Delta.) If a planter chose to falsify a sharecropper’s gin receipt, lowering the weight of cotton in his crop, there was nothing the sharecropper could do about it; in fact a sharecropper was not allowed to receive and sign for a gin receipt on his own. If a planter wanted to "soak" a sharecropper, by adding a lot of imaginary equipment repairs to the expense side of his statement, the sharecropper had no way of knowing about it. As one Clarksdale planter puts it, quoting a proverb his father used to quote to him, "When self the wavering balance holds, ‘tis seldom well adjusted."


Everybody agrees that some planters cheated and some didn’t. Numbers are understandably difficult to come by. Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist from Yale who spent a year in the 1930s studying the town of Indianola, Mississippi, sixty miles down the road from Clarksdale, estimated that only a quarter of the planters were honest in their accounting.


The end of every year presented a sharecropper who had come up short with not many good options. He could stay put, piling up debt at the commissary until the furnish started again in March, and hope that the next year he would make a good enough crop to clear his debt. He could move to town, live in an unheated shack there, and try working for wages as a field hand or a domestic. He could, finally, try sharecropping on another place, and this was the choice that most sharecroppers made sooner or later. Some of them would pack up and move, and some of them would "slip off" in the night, to escape a too-onerous debt or some other kind of bad trouble with white people. The great annual reshuffling of black families between plantations in the Delta during the time after the settle and before the furnish is in retrospect one of the most difficult aspects of the sharecropper system to understand. The relatively few plantations where the sharecroppers regularly cleared money rarely had openings, so the families that moved usually wound up at another dishonest place where they would end the year in debt. The constant churning of the labor force couldn’t have been good business for the planters, either.


Many of the sharecroppers and planters obviously weren’t thinking all that far ahead. The more marginal the planter, the more likely he was to cheat, so that he could see some money himself at the end of the year. The more he cheated, the more likely he was to lose his labor after the settle. The sharecropper’s rationale for moving was, in part, some mix of optimism and disgust. John Dollard, the Yale psychologist who helped develop the theory that frustration leads to aggression, also spent time during the thirties in Indianola, Mississippi, and wrote the book Caste and Class in a Southern Town about it. Dollard explained sharecroppers’ moving by saying, "It seems that one of the few aggressive responses that the Negroes may make . . . is to leave a particular plantation . . . it is exactly what they could not do in prewar days, and it probably represents a confused general distrust, resentment, and hope for betterment. . . ."


The false-promise aspect of sharecropping, the constant assertion by planters that your poverty was your own fault -–you and he were simply business partners, your loss was right there is cold type on the statement – made it especially painful. As a sharecropper, you found your life was organized in a way that bore some theoretical relation to that of a free American – and yet the reality was completely different. There were only two ways to explain it, and neither one led to contentment: either there was a conspiracy dedicated to keeping you down, or – the whites’ explanation – you were inferior, incapable. Poverty and oppression are never anything but hard to bear, but when you add to them the imputation of failure, it multiplies the difficulty. 

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