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The New Deal for Share-Croppers

William R. Amberson

Publishing Information

  1. THE social outlook of the Secretary of Agriculture is well known, and there can be no doubt that the higher administration of the department is genuinely interested in building a better life for all classes in our farm population. Thus the authors of the 1934-35 Cotton Acreage Reduction Contract, foreseeing the possibility of economic and social disorder in connection with the operation of their program, wrote into the document a section which was presumed to be a sufficient charter for the defense and protection of the rights of agricultural laborers. Section 7 of the contract reads as follows:

    [The producer shall] endeavor in good faith to bring about the reduction of acreage contemplated in this contract in such a manner as to cause the least possible amount of labor, economic, and social disturbance, and to this end, in so far as possible, he shall effect the acreage reduction as nearly ratably as practicable among tenants on this farm; shall, in so far as possible, maintain on this farm the normal number of tenants and other employees; shall permit all tenants to continue in the occupancy of their houses on this farm, rent free, for the years 1934 and 1935 (unless any such tenant shall so conduct himself as to become a nuisance or a menace to the welfare of the producer); during such years shall afford such tenants or employees, without cost, access for fuel to such woods land belonging to this farm as he may designate; shall permit such tenants the use of an adequate portion of the rented acres to grow food and feed crops for home consumption and for pasturage of domestically used live stock; and for such use of the rented acres shall permit the reasonable use of work animals and equipment in exchange for labor.

  2. The general intent of this section to protect cotton farm tenants and croppers from displacement is surely clear. A critical examination, however, reveals the essential weakness of its phraseology. The producer is not pledged "to bring about reduction" but only to "endeavor . . . to bring about reduction." "In so far as possible," twice repeated, and "as nearly ratably as practicable" further weaken the section, which now becomes scarcely more than a gesture of benevolence. As the section proceeds, however, it becomes stronger, permitting "all tenants to continue in . . . occupancy," and then guaranteeing access to rented acres and woods land without qualification other than the "nuisance or a menace" phrase.

  3. The right of tenants and croppers to share in the benefit payments is guaranteed by Section 10. Here it is found that the ordinary cropper, working on a fifty-fifty basis, without tools or teams of his own, is allowed 1/2 cent a pound for cotton not grown in 1934 as his share of the "parity payment"; whereas the owner receives all of the "rent," 3 1/2 cents a pound, and 1/2 cent of the parity payment. Concerning this curious eight-to-one division of the government benefits there has been much discussion. The croppers have aptly called their share the "poverty payment." Dr. Paul W. Bruton, formerly of the AAA legal staff, has written:

    The contract should have been drawn so that the benefit payments would have been made directly to landlords and tenants in proportion to their respective interests in the crop.... Under the 1934 and 1935 contract the landlord has everything to gain and the cropper everything to lose.

  4. Recognizing the validity of such criticism, the Secretary has recently announced that in 1935 rental payments will be diminished and parity payments increased. Unless carefully administered, the actual effect of this change is likely to be very different from that intended, since a new incentive is given to unscrupulous landlords to discontinue share-cropping entirely and go over to day labor.

  5. In the spring of 1934 a group of Memphis members and friends of the League for Industrial Democracy became interested in the operation of the reduction program as it was affecting the lives of the tenants and share-croppers. In collaboration with Norman Thomas, a survey of about 500 farm families was carried through, and the results of this study were submitted to Mr. Wallace early in May. The following conclusion was reached:

    The acreage-reduction program has operated to reduce the number of families in employment on cotton farms . . . due . . . to failure . . . to reduce acreage ratably, forcing some tenants into "no-crop" class . . . at least 15 per cent ... of all ... families.... Many plantation owners eliminate the share-cropping system . . . forcing . . . croppers to accept day labor instead.... Widespread replacement of white by colored labor . . .
    Shortly before the submission of this report the department's own investigator, Dr. Calvin Hoover, professor of economics at Duke University, reported to the Secretary as follows:

    The operation of the acreage-reduction program creates a motive for reducing the number of tenants on farms.... Contracts . . . have provisions designed to prevent . . . but the system of enforcement . . . has been inadequate.
    Secretary Wallace has similarly written:

    I am fully aware that acreage adjustment produces its unemployment problem just as the shutting down of factories in the cities.

  6. In spite of the conclusions of their own investigator, many of the officials of the Department of Agriculture refuse to recognize that the reduction program has created a new unemployment problem. Concerning this matter there can hardly be room for question, although the magnitude of the displacement of labor must indeed remain in doubt. Gordon W. Blackwell, after a study of 700 displaced farm families in North Carolina, concludes that "the fact that the landlord could no longer finance the tenant, the desire of the landlord to use the tenant as day labor rather than give him a crop, and the acreage-reduction program of AAA are the real reasons why there is a displaced-tenant problem." These findings closely parallel our own conclusions of last spring, except that in the richer Delta country there was relatively little unemployment until the winter of 1933-34, when the reduction program began to exert its influence. We believe it is fair to say that over the whole cotton belt about one-third of the present rural unemployment can be directly referred to the reduction program.

  7. As a result of such criticism of the program the department set up an Adjustment Committee headed by J. Phil Campbell. Several thousand complaints have been referred to it and some adjustments have been made. Our committee has observed the handling of cases submitted to Mr. Wallace in May. The committee found in one case that a large plantation had replaced many white sharecroppers with colored day laborers. The investigator reported that "there have been some evictions of white families, and . . . some substitution of share-croppers with day labor, but the extent . . . has been very small in proportion to the size of the operations"; as a result the plantation was cleared. In another case "it was found that a change had been made from share-croppers to day laborers, but as the croppers had been notified early in 1933 that this arrangement would be carried out in 1934, it was not considered that this change was made as a result of the cotton program." The committee holds affidavits from some of these people, all white, in which they swear that they received no notice until after January 1, 1934. Similar affidavits were submitted by them to the government investigator but were ignored. In a third case the investigator found that "the landlord had changed from share-croppers to day labor.... Contract suspended and cancellation recommended...."

  8. In some cases the investigations were so utterly superficial as to be valueless. A large cotton farm in eastern Arkansas, comprising some 14,000 acres, has long been notorious for its bad treatment of its tenants. Interest on "furnish" has been charged at 25 cents on the dollar-an illegal and usurious rate-when settlements were made, and few settlements have been carried out. The condition of the croppers, mostly colored, has been tragic. In one day last winter the FERA worker in the county, aghast at the condition of these people, spent $1,400 of government money to clothe and feed them. The only clothes which most of them now posses s were given them by this worker.

  9. In the spring of 1934 the owners decided to change a part of this farm over to a day-labor basis. Croppers were notified that each adult worker could retain only 3 1/2 acres on a share-crop basis. In some cases this represented a cut of 75 per cent in acreage. They were required to cultivate a large part of the plantation on a day-labor basis at 75 cents for a thirteen-hour day. Actually 35 cents only was paid over; the rest was placed in a "petty account," which the croppers claim has not been paid.

  10. The government investigator went to this plantation with a member of the County Committee, who has informed our committee that no thorough investigation was made. A few croppers were interviewed and a few questions which were not pertinent to the charges were asked. Thus the investigator chiefly inquired whether the families had enough corn land. These people were rightly suspicious of all inquirers, and they failed to disclose the real situation. The investigator conferred with the owners but made no inspection of the books. He told his guide that he thought he had not been told the truth. But no word of this opinion appeared in his report to Washington, which cleared the plantation. The AAA check for thousands of dollars was shortly thereafter released, and the records state that "this plantation was thoroughly investigated." The whole "investigation" of this huge farm covering twenty-two square miles was completed in not more than six hours. The county committeeman, now relief administrator, recognizes the gravity of the situation and offers to aid the Department of Agriculture in a real investigation of this and other plantations in his county, if the department really desires to have it. Forty Negro families now face eviction from this farm because they have joined a union.

  11. The minor officialdom of the department has remained quite unimpressed by these substantiations of the findings of our committee. Thus it was possible for C. A. Cobb, the head of the Cotton Section of the AAA, to write on September 18 that the charges "were examined at first hand, and found in many cases to be absolutely false, and in others greatly exaggerated." T. Roy Reid, assistant director of the extension service in Arkansas, went the limit in denial of the facts when on November 27 he assured a correspondent that after a thorough study "there was no evidence found by these impartial investigators to sustain the charges."

  12. In spite of the plain intent of Section 7 to guarantee tenure the Cotton Section of the AAA has adopted a contrary official interpretation which is responsible for much of the present confusion on the cotton farms. This interpretation may be stated in the words of W. J. Green, field representative of the Adjustment Committee, as follows:

    The cotton contract states that the landlord shall keep the same number of tenants, but does not compel him to keep the same tenant.... There is nothing in the contract in regard to race . . . the landlord would have the right to replace a white tenant with a Negro . . .

  13. Under the convenient protection of this interpretation of the labor clause thousands of families have been dispossessed throughout the cotton belt. In our own territory white share-croppers have usually been sacrificed, and, if replaced at all, have seen their homes occupied by colored families, often forced to work on a day-labor basis. A new wave of such dispossessions is scheduled for 1935. We have before us a list of nearly 300 families, the majority white, who have received eviction notices, some for membership in a union, some because they have tried to get their rights under the contract, some because the landowners are changing to Negro or convict labor.

  14. We believe that it can now be seen that the great exodus of colored families from the rural South during the 1920-30 period has been reversed, and that many of these families are now returning to the country, where they are competing with white families for the available places. Being preferred by many plantation owners, they are responsible for the dispossession of many of the whites, who in their turn are thrown upon the relief rolls.

  15. A group of twenty-three threatened families has entered the courts to ask for an injunction against eviction and for fulfillment of the contract. Most of the plaintiffs are white, and all have excellent records as farmers. The defendant is Hiram Norcross, planter, of Tyronza, Arkansas. This test case of the meaning of Section 7 will shortly be heard by the Supreme Court of Arkansas. The suit is supported by the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, with C. T. Carpenter of Marked Tree in charge of the case. Funds for legal expenses have been collected from hundreds of croppers of both races, much of the money "pennied out" by the payment of a few cents a week. An authoritative court interpretation of Section 7 will go far to resolve the present dispute as to the rights of these people to hold their lands.

  16. From these experiences the conclusion must be drawn that, despite the creation of an Adjustment Committee and some effort on the part of federal officials to rectify injustices, relatively little has been accomplished. In justice to the Department of Agriculture it must be admitted that the enforcement of the labor provisions of the cotton contract, even if there were no dispute regarding interpretation, would be a herculean labor, since more than a million contracts have been signed. The department can get adequate investigations neither through its county agents, who, though technically competent, are yet unskilled in social relationships and closely bound to the landlords, nor through the hurried trips of harassed minor officials inspecting scattered cases on the run and unfamiliar with local situations. Once the basic error of production restriction has been made, it is no longer within the power of administrators, however humane, to prevent a train of vicious sequelae. In times of economic stress we see the feeble hold of legal forms.

  17. There is reason to believe, however, that much may yet be accomplished if a more adequate machinery of inspection and enforcement be set up. Let the Secretary of Agriculture create a National Agricultural Labor Board, responsible directly to him, with regional offices and a representative in at least each Congressional district. This board should have power to enforce the labor provisions of all AM contracts and should concern itself not merely with hearing complaints but with making appropriate surveys to prevent abuses from arising. In the cotton country croppers have been driven from pillar to post for so long and have sunk so low in the human scale that they cannot imagine any other type of life, and do not know how to resist exploitation. They react by developing an irresponsible and antagonistic attitude. For half a century now the 40 per cent annual labor turnover has, at each year's end, filled Southern roads with miserable families seeking a new home. With a federal reduction program in operation, new opportunities have almost vanished. The plight of these people thus becomes in a peculiar sense a national responsibility.

  18. For enforcing its contracts the Department of Agriculture holds a much stronger position than the governmental agencies which preside over Section 7-a of the industrial codes, since it controls important financial benefits the withholding of which can throw many a plantation into bankruptcy. It must, however, clarify its mind as to its attitude toward the various classes of our farm population. In the cotton country its present program is greatly aiding the 30 per cent of owners and higher types of tenants, but it has been of no aid to most of the 70 per cent of croppers and day laborers, many of whom are worse off than ever before. Under its program the older habits of exploitation persist, merely moving in new channels and assuming new forms. The department has not yet come to grips with the basic problems. The creation of a more effective agency for the adjustment of labor disputes under present contracts is only a step in the larger program which is needed. The following concrete suggestions are offered:

    1. When new contracts are drawn, the labor clauses must have the binding force of law, without quibble or equivocation, and the full protection of the department must be extended to every man, regardless of race, color, or union affiliation, who has honestly performed his labor.
    2. The right of agricultural laborers to organize and bargain collectively should be proclaimed and recognition of this right written into all contracts.
    3. Tenants and share-croppers should be given representation upon all boards and local committees set up to administer the AAA program.
    4. The labor of children under fourteen years of age in the fields should be forbidden by national statute. Many children now begin to pick cotton at the age of five and to "chop" at ten, at wages as low as 3 cents an hour.

  19. Ultimately the plantation system must be liquidated. Dr. J. H. Dillard is quite justified when he writes: "Damn the whole tenant system. There can be no decent civilization until it is abolished." We must do away with the whole antiquated scheme of landlord-tenant arrangements, to which there must always cling many of the worst features of chattel slavery without its benefits.

  20. Forces are already working to accomplish this liquidation. Universal bankruptcy has threatened and will threaten again, as cotton prices fluctuate and interest and taxes pyramid. Official Washington is by no means entirely oblivious to the present situation; the basic difficulty is the lack of a unified program. The rural rehabilitation program of the FERA is establishing thousands of destitute families on a new and more independent basis, which may represent the entering wedge of a force that will ultimately transform the present system. The urgent need for a change has now been recognized by the PWA Mississippi Valley Committee, which in its report to Secretary Ickes advocates a federal program which will enable all tenants to acquire ownership of land. The alternative method of large-scale cooperative farms must also be tested. If tenure is absolutely guaranteed, without power to sell or mortgage, possibly on long-term leases from the government under a Federal Loan Authority, it will free a whole people from their present shackles and make possible the education of a more responsible and effective generation than the South has ever known.

  21. The solution of the human and economic problems of the Cotton Belt is not to be found within the South alone. No purely regional program will suffice. Its special products must be properly utilized in a national and, ultimately, an international scheme, planned for the use of all.