Sharecropping is a type of farm­ing in which fam­i­lies rent small plots of land from a landown­er in return for a por­tion of their crop, to be giv­en to the landown­er at the end of each year. Different types of share­crop­ping have been prac­ticed world­wide for cen­turies, but in the rur­al South, it was typ­i­cal­ly prac­ticed by for­mer slaves. With the south­ern econ­o­my in dis­ar­ray after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery and the dev­as­ta­tion of the Civil War, con­flict arose dur­ing the Reconstruction era between many white landown­ers attempt­ing to reestab­lish a labor force and freed blacks seek­ing eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence and auton­o­my.

Forty Acres and a Mule

During the final months of the Civil War, tens of thou­sands of freed slaves left their plan­ta­tions to fol­low General William T. Sherman‘s vic­to­ri­ous Union Army troops across Georgia and the Carolinas.

In January 1865, in an effort to address the issues caused by this grow­ing num­ber of refugees, Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, a tem­po­rary plan grant­i­ng each freed fam­i­ly 40 acres of land on the islands and the coastal region of Georgia. The Union Army also donat­ed some of its mules, unneed­ed for bat­tle pur­pos­es, to the for­mer slaves.

When the war end­ed three months lat­er, many freed African Americans saw the “40 acres and a mule” pol­i­cy as proof that they would final­ly be able to work their own land after years of servi­tude. Owning land was the key to eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence and auton­o­my.