Three detailed views of this image:
Sumter, like Greene and Macon, was a county of landless families attempting to survive by growing cotton "on shares." As many have pointed out, these families had almost no chance of coming out ahead. By the time Lange took this photo, most had given up farming and moved out to find jobs in cities.
Cotton would eventually regain its antebellum status as a profitable cash crop, but only after mechanization had entirely displaced the sharecroppers of the 1930s. Seeing this photo of a plow-wielding teenager, a survivor of those times recently recalled how "my grandfather used to tell tales of walking all day behind one of these bottom plows, all day, one row at the time. There are still very many of these one-row plows stored away and forgotten sitting under barns all over Georgia to this day. Today we have air conditioned cabs and 10+ row plows that can do in less than an hour what it would probably take this boy the better part of a week to do."2
Jimmy Carter was raised in Sumter County. His memoirs tell how mechanization would eventually force sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and most wage-earning farm laborers off the land.3
They also tell how, during the 1930s Georgia landowners, like his own father, resisted this trend. Labor was plentiful and cheap and until government subsidies began to take effect, the county, like most others in the state, was cash poor but land rich. Most rural transactions of goods and services depended on credit or barter.
The town-dwelling merchants, bankers, and lawyers benefited most from this situation. Landowners were next most prosperous in the economic hierarchy of the times. They ran "commissaries" for their tenants and were likely to own the country stores and filling stations that dotted the rural landscape.4
The landless farming families were kept poor by their numbers, lack of educational opportunities, and a host of other factors, but mostly because of their dependence on landowners for all aspects of their bleak livelihood. This dependence was particularly brutal for African Americans, whose legal rights were practically non-existent. Carter tells an anecdote on this subject, one that I've seen in other sources as well. He writes:
One of the old stories told around the filling stations and stables was about the landlord who finished settling up with his sharecropper and said, "Well, Jim, you almost broke even again this year. You just owe me twenty dollars." Jim replied, "Boss, I thank the Lord for this good year! I have one more bale of cotton in the storehouse not ginned yet." The landlord said, "Well I think I forgot about the interest charges. We'll have to figure your account one more time." -- An hour before daylight: memories of a rural boyhood by Jimmy Carter (Simon and Schuster, 2001)----------
Sharecropping in Georgia
Sumter County, article in the New Georgia Cyclopedia
Sumter County, Georgia
An hour before daylight: memories of a rural boyhood by Jimmy Carter (Simon and Schuster, 2001)
Why not the best?: the first fifty years by Jimmy Carter (Bantam Books, 1976)
A Short History of Sumter County, 1825-36
A Chronology of Americus and Sumter County, Georgia 1915 - 1961
Local Black History Chronology
1 Previous posts in this series of photos by Dorothea Lange:
- sharecropper families of the 1930s
- the Whitfield and Lyons families, North Carolina,1939
- Wheeley's Church
- sharecropper cabin on hillside farm
- Caroline Atwater
- Whitfields, Bains, and a heritage of slavery
- wasn't anything to steal
- working families
- better than money
- in the front row of the white folks' church
- aint much of a hand at going to town
- stories of the rural South in the 1930s
- a farmhouse morning
- a people bound up
- Sams, Trollope, & Lange
- old cars
- farming cotton on shares
- men of Macon County, July 1937
3 Here are excerpts from Carter's memoirs:
4 As in Greene County: "Small town mercantile stores became the very center of commerce and life in Greene and the rest of the South during the years prior to the turn of the century. Supplies, fertilizer, provisions, and feed were all procured on credit, the loan itself often procured from the storeowner." -- History of Greene County, Georgia.. cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee... Genesis 3:17, 18No one bore a heavier burden than those who owned no land but worked the fields with increasing hopelessness and despair.
[The farming system of sharecropping could be and was abused.] But it would have been difficult if not impossible to devise a reasonable alternative.
Many white farmers didn't own land and had to rent or work on shares, but I don't usually think of white sharecroppers, because none of them lived on our place and my personal involvement was with the black families that I knew. The tenancy arrangements depended on the type of crops grown, the amount of manual labor required, the fertilizer used, the availability of competing day laborers, and the personal preferences of the landowners and tenants. Workers were plentiful and there were enough experienced farmers who did not own any land to provide a reservoir of eager tenant families. I was familiar with two basic arrangements that formed a framework for our economic system.
Those who did not own land, mules, equipment, or tools other than a hoe and an ax had almost the same lowly status as day laborers and usually worked "on halves." The landowner would allot the family as much land as they could work, and usually furnish two mules, a wagon, necessary equipment for plowing, fertilizer, and seed, plus a cabin and a garden plot. Depending on the size of the family they were expected to work from twenty to forty acres of land, relying almost entirely for income on cotton and peanuts. They had the right to cut firewood as well. When the harvest came in, the owner received half of everything produced on the farm, and collected what the cropper had borrowed, or "drawn," to meet the needs of his family during the year. A typical draw might be $3 or $4 a week, as mutually agreed in advance of the planting season. It was expected, of course, that almost all of this would be spent at the owner's commissary. These stores were an important source of income for landowners who could abuse their tenants by charging unscrupulously high prices and credit charges for the loans and supplies. One study in the South showed that credit and interest charges averaged about 25 percent. I presume that these rates prevailed in our area.
Unlike most other landowners around Plains, Daddy disliked this arrangement of working on halves, and traded with more dependable and competent families to work our land. They had their own livestock and equipment and worked on "thirds and fourths." In exchange for use of the land, the family allotted one-third of the cash crops and one-fourth of the corn to the landowner. Various formulas, were used to decide who furnished how much of the seed and fertilizer. Where the tenants were able to furnish all of it, a common agreement was for a specific amount of the cash crop in bales of cotton or tons of peanuts or some combination of the two, to go to the owner as "straight rent."
In all too many cases, the poorer sharecroppers failed to produce an adequate cash crop to pay their accumulated debts. They would go from one year to the next seeing their obligation to the landowner increase each time, or at best, stay the same. For all practical purposes. their negotiating freedom was lost, The planters kept the books, and in some cases the landowner's year-end settlement was unfair. Even if a barely literate tenant kept rudimentary records or carried the owner's records to someone else for analysis and found them to be in error, there was little he could do. The Influence and legal presumption lay with the owner of land, and to question his honesty was a serious matter indeed. If the tenant was black (about 80 percent in our area) and the owner white, such an accusation was almost inconceivable. In some cases an owner was known by his white peers to be harsh or unfair, and commiseration was felt with the unfortunate families who came under his financial domination. But nothing was done to help them.
-- An hour before daylight: memories of a rural boyhood by Jimmy Carter (Simon and Schuster, 2001)