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The Changing Face of Sharecropping and Tenancy

by Jeannie M. Whayne

The sharecropping and tenancy system, which arose in the South in the years after the Civil War, had many faces, none of them enviable or evocative of prosperity. It evolved in the postbellum period as many planters struggled to secure and maintain an adequate supply of labor, and it reached its zenith in the early twentieth century only to suffer a shock as African Americans began to depart the South during World War I, a departure that did not abate, a departure that left an increasing number of planters scrambling for labor. Then sharecropping and tenancy began to undergo a profound transition during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as a result of New Deal programs, World War II, mechanization, and the use of chemicals. The plantation became a capital intensive rather than labor intensive enterprise. In other words, tenants and sharecroppers were no longer needed, and by 1960, sharecroppers, who had once dominated the plantation labor force, had become so uncommon that the category (sharecropper) was dropped from the United States Census of Agriculture.1

Sharecropping emerged in the late 1860s as a kind of compromise between emancipated slaves, who wanted to own their own farms, and planters, who wanted to operate their plantations as usual, using closely supervised gang labor. In essence, and, truth be told, their greatest desire was a return to an unfree labor system. But slavery was dead, or nearly so, and planters were forced to face that fact as well as the fact that they did not have the cash to pay wages, and wages were something a free labor system required. Emancipated slaves had their own harsh reality, that is that the federal government was not going to confiscate and redistribute plantation lands to freedmen. After fighting a bloody and terrible war over slavery, the United States government abandoned those who had been enslaved. Their dreams of "forty acres and a mule" were simply not to be realized. So, sharecropping, whereby planters paid freedmen a share of the crop in lieu of cash emerged. Freedmen gained something in this compromise -- they worked their own 25 to 40 acre plots of land free of the close supervision that had been common under slavery. No matter that the housing was of sub-standard quality, that educational facilities were practically non-existent in the countryside, and that professional healthcare rarely reached African Americans or, for that matter, poor white southerners.

According to economists Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, the sharecropping and tenancy system might have worked out to the mutual advantage of both planters and freedmen, but planters, through their influence with state legislators, passed a series of laws which disadvantaged those who worked on shares and which limited their mobility.2 Together with the rise of the commissary system which tied sharecroppers to the planters by whom they were employed by debt, these laws worked against the interests of sharecroppers, most of whom were black. Even as the black sharecropping system was growing and maturing in the South, white tenancy began to develop. Whites, some of whom had once been landowners, began to work on plantations too, but they brought more to the bargaining table then did freedmen. Whites tended to own their own mules and implements and were able to secure a larger share of the crop. And, in fact, according to law, they actually owned the crop and paid planters a share of it in exchange for use of the land. This seems like a small difference between sharecroppers and tenants, but in law it had the potential to fundamentally separate the two categories of "labor" (sharecroppers and tenants). Of course, some blacks were able to acquire enough property to become tenant farmers, and, in the meantime, some whites without property engaged in sharecropping arrangements. But two other things separated black and white agricultural laborers: racism and economic competition. In fact, those two things went hand-in-hand as whites bent on driving blacks off plantations so they (whites) could take the plantation jobs, became a distinct problem in the 1890s and early twentieth century, so problematic, in fact, that in at least one instance, in 1903 planters hired white detectives to protect black labor and hunt down white nightriders. For planters the issue was economic. Black labor was much cheaper, more affordable, than white labor. Thus a divide existed between black and white labor, and it was a divide that planters sometimes found useful and sometimes found inconvenient. This had significant consequences for African Americans.3

The historiography is rich on sharecropping and tenancy. In fact, the status and relative opportunities open to black sharecroppers has animated a debate between economists and historians of the twentieth century South. In one view, emancipated slaves received "nothing but freedom" and planters, with the help of southern legislatures, enacted laws which reduced freedmen to another kind of slavery. Because they were able to retain possession of their real property, planters survived the Civil War largely intact, and although they had to make some concessions to freedmen -- namely acquiescing to the creation of sharecropping -- they erected institutional constraints which seriously eroded many of the gains freedmen made immediately following the war.4 An alternative view stresses the gains that freedmen allegedly made in the post Civil War South, dismisses the institutional constraints created by planters, minimizes the impact of racism, and points to the existence of a regional labor market, within which blacks were free to move, as evidence that blacks were not bound up in another kind of slavery. Neo-classical economists have gone so far as to suggest that blacks did not suffer exceptional discrimination as laborers in the market and that they, in fact, benefitted substantially from their new mobility.5

Neoclassical economist Gavin Wright, for example, argues that "despite the existence of racism and segregation, market pressures were strong enough to very nearly equalize the wages of black and white unskilled labor."6 But Wright also writes that there are limitations to the view "that the free market in labor is the enemy of racial distinctions."7 In fact, "by the 1920s, the work experience and educational histories of the two races had become so different that explicit or implicit racial wage differentials began to appear."8 These remarks on Wright's part seem to be related principally, if not solely, to labor outside of agriculture, and he goes on to argue that "blacks were not literally confined to agriculture, but only in agriculture was there much realistic hope for economic as opposed to geographic mobility."9

To what extent did African Americans employed in agriculture enjoy economic and geographic mobility? In fact, to what extent do we find that either category of landless laborers - black sharecroppers or white tenants - enjoyed anything resembling prosperity? Because the Arkansas delta was undergoing a vast expansion of its plantation system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, African Americans and whites alike flocked to the area in order to embrace the opportunities they believed existed there. Thus the situation in Arkansas serves as an example of the possibilities open to black and white labor. A shortage of labor should have made for greater opportunities for laborers - higher wages, better conditions - but, in fact, what they were to find in Arkansas was no different from what they left behind in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Mississippi: that is, economic, legal, and extralegal exploitation and, ultimately, severe limits on their ability to share in the bounty that Arkansas's rich delta promised. They came to Arkansas with high expectations, partly because of the rumors they had heard about the fertility of the soil and partly as a result of the blandishments of labor agents who were canvassing the older South looking to fill the needs of Arkansas planters hungry for labor. One ex-slave, Talitha Lewis, said she had heard from labor agents that Arkansas "had fritter trees and a molasses pond," and that all you had to do was "shake the tree and the fritters would fall in the pond." Talitha was a child and may have taken the message seriously, but her parents were likely more convinced by the images of land that had yet to be over-cultivated, land that was producing from one to two bales an acre. That message, for the adults, was irresistible.10

A small antebellum planter aristocracy existed in the delta, principally in the southeastern section, but even there the plantation system was expanding as new lands were being brought into cultivation.11 The evolution of one 3,000 acre plantation,12 Sunnyside, from an antebellum slave plantation to a plantation that employed the sharecropping and tenancy system, is illustrative of the typical postbellum arrangement and reveals the lengths to which planters were willing to go to secure labor. Once owned by Elisha Worthington, the largest slave owner in Arkansas before the Civil War, Sunnyside was located in Chicot County, the county on the southeastern border of Arkansas. Sunnyside passed through a succession of owners in the 1870s and 1880s, including, at one point, the grandsons of John C. Calhoun. The Calhouns had formed a company, employed overseers to manage the plantation, and utilized several forms of labor arrangements. They paid cash wages, they used tenants who furnished their own tools and implements, and they employed the sharecropping system. They operated their own plantation commissary, requiring their employees to purchase their supplies there.13 But the Sunnyside plantation under the Calhouns did not prosper, largely because of a few bad crop years, and thus they sold their interest to a New York financier, Austin Corbin, who found it nearly impossible to secure enough plantation labor. African Americans were not content to work under a "foreigner" and with the withdrawal of the Calhouns, found it more expedient to use the opportunity to depart. Thus Corbin was forced to think creatively about how to furnish labor for his plantation. He came up with a unique solution. He brought over workers from northern Italy - and it was not that difficult to encourage people to immigrate as Italy itself was going through a fundamental transformation called the Risorgimento, and tens of thousands of Italians departed their home country for a variety of locations.14 Corbin's scheme was to divide up the plantation into distinct farms and sell them to the Italians. But the agricultural economy proved resistant to recovery and conditions in the swamps of Arkansas were unlike anything the Italians had ever encountered. Then Corbin died in a carriage accident, his heirs floundered around with the experiment, the Italians departed, and by the time Sunnyside came into the hands of three Mississippi men, it had gone through two seasons without producing a crop. The Mississippians, Leroy Percy and two merchants and cotton factors, Hamilton R. Hawkins and Orlando B. Crittenden, determined to reinvigorate and transform the experiment with Italian labor. Instead of bringing over Italians to purchase pieces of it, they intended to work them as tenants and sharecroppers. They employed the mechanisms of control that planters were using elsewhere, that is they kept them in debt and used the law to enforce their contracts and keep them on the plantations. When some discontented Italians reached the Italian consulate in New Orleans, however, Percy and his business partners learned that the Italians had an ally that black and white poor Americans did not have: The Italian government. One cannot argue that the controversy threatened to turn into an international incident, but suffice it to say that the State Department got into the act. The U.S. Attorney General's office sent an investigator who wrote reports which described in detail the manner in which the Italians were being exploited and the horrible conditions they endured.15

African Americans had played a role in the drama that unfolded at Sunnyside by refusing to remain in place. Where had they gone? It is likely that some of them went to Kansas with the exodusters, but many merely moved to other plantations in the area, and some of them may have ended up in Phillips County, Arkansas, a place that was itself destined to capture a share of the controversial history of tenancy and sharecropping. Phillips County is located along the Mississippi River, a little less than half way up the Arkansas delta from Chicot County. It too had something of an antebellum plantation economy, but it was smaller and less developed than that in Chicot County. But like Chicot County, Phillips County underwent a dramatic transformation in the late nineteenth century as thousands of acres of land were brought into cultivation. Violence and nightriding against African Americans occurred throughout the period and generally pitted white tenants against black sharecroppers, enough so that planters occasionally complained about the "low down white men" who threatened to drive off black labor.16 But fate was destined to drive planters and those "low down white men" together in 1919, when black sharecroppers determined to assert their rights and sue planters for a fair crop settlement. It all began when one Arkansas sharecropper, Robert Hill, began to speak to African American sharecroppers in the area about organizing a union, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, and convinced them to hire a prominent white attorney in Little Rock, Ulysses S. Bratton, to represent them in suits they intended to file against planters for a fair settlement of the crop. It had become a commonplace practice for planters to "cheat" their white and black tenants and sharecroppers by a manipulation of the books. Black sharecroppers were particularly vulnerable, not merely because they were less likely to be literate and thus unable to examine the books, but also because they were black . White planters tolerated no challenge, whether verbal or otherwise, from African Americans. But the black experience in World War I, wherein black soldiers who served abroad experienced better treatment, made many of them less willing to accept the status quo once they returned home. Planters and other whites, however, wanted precisely that: a return to the racial status quo. One manifestation of black discontent was the founding of the union and the hiring of U.S. Bratton. Whites in the area viewed with alarm the new "militancy" on the part of African Americans and either deliberately or innocently misinterpreted it. They came to believe that blacks were planning to murder them and appropriate they lands.

Late in the evening of September 30, 1919, black sharecroppers were holding a union meeting in a church in Hoop Spur outside of Elaine, Arkansas. Tensions were high and they had posted guards at the door. When two deputized white men and a black trustee pulled into view, shots rang out. Who fired first is still debated, likely unknowable, and perhaps not that important. What is important is what transpired afterwards. One of the white men was killed, the other wounded. The black trustee raced back to Helena, the county seat of Phillips County, and alerted officials. A posse was dispatched and within a few hours hundreds of white men, many of them the "low down" variety, began to comb the area for blacks they believed were launching an insurrection. In the end, five white men and over a hundred African Americans were killed. Some estimates of the black death toll range in the hundreds. Allegations surfaced that the white posse and even U.S. soldiers who were brought in to put down the so called "rebellion" had massacred defenseless black men, women and children. Nearly a hundred blacks were arrested, and in sham trials that lasted no more than a few minutes each, sixty-something black men were sentenced to prison, and twelve were slated for execution. A massive effort on the part of the NAACP and others, including a prominent black attorney in Little Rock, ensued, and by 1925 all the men were free. But planters had established that blacks had best not organize, even within the law, for racism would bring whites of different classes together to put them down.17

What lessons were blacks to learn from this? Leaving an undesirable situation, such as that which existed at Sunnyside, merely put them in another undesirable location: Phillips County. And in Phillips County, they discovered that standing their ground, organizing a union and hiring an attorney, led only to violence and secured them little justice in a system bent on their exploitation. And what of white tenants, some of whom had participated in the Elaine massacre? Blinded by racism and motivated by economic competition with blacks, they were not yet ready to understand that as landless laborers they had more in common with African American sharecroppers than with the planters who exploited them both. But this was all about to change.

In some ways, everything that had gone before for agriculture in the way of depression was all prelude for what was to come in the 1920s and the early 1930s, a depression so severe that even prominent planters bankrupted. Tenants and sharecroppers had been impoverished before, but now they were facing starvation. The depression in agriculture began after the World War I boom ceased, and while other sectors of the economy experienced the same postwar recession, agriculture was one industry that did not pull out of it. The great flood of 1927 drove many tenants and sharecroppers into Red Cross camps and brought their suffering to public attention, but little beyond temporary relief was afforded them. Indeed, so eager was the Red Cross to avoid disturbing the social system in place in the delta that they acquiesced in the demands of planters that sharecroppers and tenants be virtually held prisoner in the camps until their planters "signed them out".18 The drought of 1930-1931 drove them deeper into poverty, an unimaginable level of poverty, almost beyond comprehension.19 Even planters had become so desperate, that they began to reach for solutions they considered too radical just a few years earlier. They were ready for New Deal programs that required them, if they wanted to participate, to withdraw up to 30 percent of the acreage of certain crops out of production. In the delta, that crop, of course, was cotton. In return for participating in the program, planters received a rental payment from the government and a second check, a "parity" check, if the crop they did grow and market did not receive the price regarded as adequate to pay the cost of production and secure an appropriate profit. Tenants and sharecroppers expected to receive a share of these payments, but in most cases they were excluded for the check went directly to the person who owned the land and the government, for a time, left it up to the individual landowner to decide how to distribute it. But that was only half the problem facing tenants and sharecroppers. For the first time, planters now enjoyed a labor surplus. They had more labor then they needed. Many of them evicted extraneous tenants, putting thousands of landless men and their families off the land at a time when the depression in the industrial marketplace had yet to see relief. In other words, the landless laborers evicted from plantations in the South had no other place to go, no other jobs they could secure, even if they had had the training for them.

The response of some in Poinsett County, located in northeastern Arkansas, was to form a union, only this time it was an integrated union, welcoming both black and white tenants and sharecroppers. Those who formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union recognized that landless men of both races faced the same exploitation, the same enemy. They looked back to the Elaine massacre, which had occurred a decade and a half earlier and just a few counties south, and drew from it an important lesson. They banded together so they could not be manipulated against each other. Their demands were simple. First, that planters cease evicting tenants, and thus they filed suit against a planter in Poinsett County, Hiram Norcross, who had engaged in massive evictions. Second, they demanded a share of the New Deal program rental and parity payments. They turned to the federal government with this second demand. Planters responded typically to the formation of the Union - with violence. They did not have to exert any undue pressure on the Department of Agriculture to speak to their interests, for those who ran the agency and the New Deal program administering the crop reduction scheme understood all too well that Southern Democrats were an indispensable part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Although tenants and sharecroppers were afforded some relief, in the end, the planters remained fully in command of the situation and essentially oversaw the transition from a labor intensive to a capital intensive enterprise.20 This transformation began with the New Deal and accelerated during World War II, which required previously unfathomable levels of agricultural production and led to mechanical and chemical innovations that made labor even less necessary.

Of course, black tenants and sharecroppers were not merely acted upon in this drama. One way to examine how they experienced the 1930s and how they endured life in the Jim Crow South, is to listen to the words of a man who worked for one of the largest plantations in the South and the largest plantation enterprise in the state of Arkansas. William "Snake" Toney was employed by the Lee Wilson plantation in Mississippi County, Arkansas, which is in the northeastern corner of the state.21 He tried another alternative. He neither ran from an intolerable system nor took it on directly. He attempted, for a time, to manipulate the system, relying on his considerable mechanical skills to make him a desirable commodity as a laborer and utilizing his natural charm and good nature. He was not himself an agricultural laborer, but rather he worked in the town of Wilson and thus came into much closer contact with members of the Wilson family. This would prove to be crucial to him. The Wilson plantation, founded in the 1880s was at its height when Snake came to Wilson at the age of seventeen to join his mother who was a domestic laborer there. Founded by Robert E. Lee Wilson - known as Boss Lee - in the 1880s, it had grown to encompass seventy thousand acres, was divided into fourteen different "farms," and had several commissaries, cotton gins, a lumber mill, box factory, and a cotton oil mill. African Americans made up most of the agricultural labor, whites tended to work in one of the town businesses. A few blacks held menial jobs in town, and fewer still secured the better paying positions there. Snake was one such man, but he was to discover that his opportunities were severely limited.

Wilson had been a lumber man first and turned to agriculture after he cut the trees and drained the swamps. By the 1930s, his agricultural enterprises were paramount, and he was himself on the verge of bankruptcy. A loan of two million dollars from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal agency, pulled him back from the brink, and the crop reduction programs returned him to solvency. Although Boss Lee died before the STFU emerged, his son was very much alive, as was his business partner, Jim Crain, and they made certain that the STFU made no inroads on the Wilson plantation. Boss Lee had run the plantation like a feudal empire, had his own police force, and had the county sheriff and other county officials indebted to him at the Wilson bank. The founders of the STFU made a feeble effort to organize in one of the Wilson towns, but soon withdrew, and it is likely they decided to exert their energies in more promising locations.

Snake Toney has many positive things to say about the Wilson plantation, however, things which resonate with the oral tradition that has survived. While Wilson orchestrated every moment of their lives, material conditions, in the way of housing, health care, and education, were better on the Wilson plantation than they were elsewhere. Then too, Wilson's black sharecroppers did not have to fear white nightriders attempting to drive them off the plantation, for Wilson himself had the means to discourage that phenomenon. While violence aimed at African Americans occurred all around them, they were safe there on Wilson. Of course, they traded dependence on the Wilson plantation for independence off it, and evidence suggests that black sharecroppers were able to accumulate more personal property elsewhere, but still many chose the safety and comfort of the Wilson plantation to the uncertainty and violence that awaited them off the plantation.

Enter William "Snake" Toney. He arrived in Wilson in 1931 and left in 1942 when he married and secured employment in Louisville, Kentucky, through his new brother-in-law. In late June of 2002, sixty years after his departure, he passed through Wilson, Arkansas, and stopped to chat with the current president of the company, Michael Wilson, the great, great grandson of the founder.

First, a little background on Mr. Toney. He was raised by his grandparents, a Methodist minister and his wife. He indicated that his grandmother "took him" from his mother when he was a small child because his mother was fifteen years old when he was born and his grandmother thought he'd be better off with her. When he was seventeen years old, he moved to Wilson, Arkansas, where his mother Fanny, was working as a domestic servant for a prominent family (not the Wilson's). Snake went to school for a season and then went to work in various Wilson enterprises: the Box Factory, the Cotton Oil Mill, and the Cotton Gin. Because he worked in town rather than on one of the fourteen Wilson farms, he became much more familiar with the Wilson family than he would have otherwise, particularly with Bobby Wilson (the grandson of the founder), who came back from college in the mid 1930s and was given the responsibility to build a new cotton oil mill. Snake went to work with Bobby Wilson as a kind of right-hand man and formed a friendship over the many lunch times they spent together.

According to Snake, while African Americans were "safer" on the Wilson plantation, there were certain boundaries they could not transgress without subjecting themselves to violence. If they did transgress these boundaries, they were no longer safe unless they sought and received the personal protection of a Wilson family member.

Once her son came to Wilson and secured a well-paying job at the Cotton Oil Mill, Fanny ceased working as a domestic and was staying at home. In the summer of (approximately) 1938, she was chopping cotton in order to secure some extra spending money. But one day she decided to stay home and do her own laundry rather than go to the field. Her "boss man," a Mr. Sonny Lynch, who managed one of the Wilson farms close to town, came to her house later in the afternoon to inquire why she hadn't come to work. This is the way Snake put it during an interview conducted in the summer of 2002, sixty-five years after the incident.

He come by the house and wanted to know why. I'm working at the oil mill, I work nights, so I'm at home in bed. He come there, he wanted to know why she wasn't there. And she told him, well, she decided she didn't want to. She had to wash . . . and she was ironing. And from the porch through the screen he was talking to her. She kind of got out of line, he made a few curse words, and she talked back to him and he threatened to come in the house, and he grabbed the screen door and snatched it. And by that time I had got up, and I went to the door, and I was talking to him through the door, and . . . he was talking to me talking to him, and I wasn't supposed to say nothing 'cause he was Mr. Sonny Lynch. And he grabbed the door and did like that (motioning) and I showed him the shot gun . . . you ain't supposed to do that. And . . . he called me one of them names, and he jumped in his truck and left.

Now, I'm scared. I got to hit out and go down to Mr. Bobby's. . . . . He . . . . asks me what happened. I told him. He says "are you losing your mind? Goddammit, (are) you crazy?" I said, "Mr. Bobby, he made me mad." He said, "Well, goddammit, you ain't supposed to get that mad." So me and him got in his truck and come on down to my house. Quite naturally there was three or four men there. They had their guns and straps and things and he told me"Goddammit, you stay in the truck." That's what Mr. Bobby told me. He got out and he asked em "What the Goddamned hell is going on? . . . . They told him that so and so drawed a gun on Mr. Sonny. And he told em that my mother didn't have to chop cotton if she didn't want to because . . . I was working at the oil mill, and she lived in the oil mill house. Anyway, he got it settled and how there wasn't nothing to it, and he told them, "Now look, better not a so and so and so thing happen to him. If they do, everyone of you's going to hit that street. In other words, if anything happened to me you was going to leave Wilson.

I never had no more problem, but [after the men left the house that day]. . . he told me "Let me tell you one God damned thing . . . aint you got no better sense than to be . . . drawing a gun on a white man?" And I said, "Well, Mr. Bobby, he made me mad, and he was going to snatch the door off my Mama and come in there and whoop me . . . and he said, "Well, I don't give a damn, couldn't you have run?" I said, yes, I guess I could have." He was telling me I wasn't supposed to get that mad. In other words, I was supposed to let him snatch the door I guess if he wanted to and come in there and whoop me, but that wasn't going to happen.22

The second anecdote speaks to another kind of problem facing African Americans on the Wilson plantation. In this case, a Mrs. Hoover had asked Fanny to come to work for her as her domestic servant. Fanny told Mrs. Hoover that she didn't have to work because her son - Snake - had a good job at the Cotton Oil Mill, and she didn't need to work. Mrs. Hoover's husband, incidentally, was in charge of the cotton oil mill. In other words, Snake was working for Mr. Hoover. She wanted to teach Fanny a lesson ,and she told her husband to "lay off" Snake when the cotton oil mill slowed down during the summer months. Normally, someone like Snake, who ran a shift at the mill, was kept on during the summer doing odd jobs at the mill. This is the way Snake put it:

Mrs. Hoover wanted my mother to work for her . . . and my mother maybe given her sass. So she told Mr. Hoover to not let me work during the summer and that would learn Fannie a lesson. So that summer when the mill shut down, I didn't work. So I went to Mr. Landum . . . (who was building a new cotton gin), and I worked for him that summer. Well . . . when we got through building the gin, Mr. Landum said, "Snake, I tell you what. . . you seemed to be pretty familiar with them damned gins . . . you stay on with me this fall, and I'll give you fifty cents an hour.

So we're about three weeks into September. . . . The seed is coming to the oil mill. I (was) one of the head guys (at the oil mill) because I run a shift . . . I (was) the lint room man . . . And I ain't going back to the oil mill because I can make fifty cents an hour at the cotton gin, and I can't make but forty at the oil mill. So when Mr. Hoover sent word . . . to tell me to come on back to work because the mill was starting to running twenty-four hours, the seed was coming in by truck and train. And I told him, I said, well, I'm not coming back I'm going to stay out here with Mr. Landum 'cause I can make fifty cents an hour.

So then Mr. Hoover told Mr. Jim Crain [the company general manager at the time] that he had one of his so and so's, his best men, was working for Mr. Landum, and he needed him down to the oil mill. So then, it was a Saturday evening. We paid off on Saturday . . . And Mr. Landum would always bring my envelope and give it to me, and I'd just stick it in my pocket until we got through with all the wagons that was ginning that day. And we had about two more wagon loads, and Mr. Landum come and fetch me . . . it was dusky . . . Mr. Hoover and Mr. Crain and Mr. Landum come in there together. I guess they had been to the big office. . . . Mr. Landum had my envelope in his hand. . . . Mr. Landum asked me, he says, "Snake, didn't you tell me that you got laid off at the oil mill? And I said, "Yes sir." So Mr. Jim Crain asked Mr. Hoover, he said, "Well, if he was one of your dependable so and so and so and so's, why did you lay him off?" And that's when I found out what happened. So Mr. Landum told Mr. Hoover, he said, "Well, I think that was God damned lousy." Mr. Landum was a little short guy, was outspoken, and he didn't bite his tongue. . . . And says "I know so and so," talking about me, "he's working, he's dependable, he don't drink . . . I'm going to keep him, and I'm going to give him fifty cents an hour . . . and then when the cotton season is over I'm going to give him work to do, and I'm going give him fifty cents an hour." Mr. Jim Crain says, "I'm going to have to tell you the truth," he said, "we got a lot of money tied up in that oil mill. And we need Snake down there to take care of his shift. And you're going to have to give him all his money. He's going to have to go back to the oil mill."23

At this point in the interview, I asked Snake if he went back to the cotton oil mill. He said, "I HAD TO. I'm living in Wilson." It was what the company needed. In the end, what the company needed was more important to the company than what was good for one of its employees. It probably goes without saying that in this respect race was probably not the key factor, but it establishes the fact that despite the safety and security, despite the better conditions, the decision to stay on the Wilson plantation had its price. Within a year after he was forced back into the cotton oil mill, Snake left Wilson, never to return . . . not until the summer of 2002. His telling of these events had a certain "rehearsed" quality to it, as though he had gone over and over them in his mind during the sixty years since he left Wilson. He had come to terms with his many experiences, still insisted that the Wilson plantation was a good place to work, that as long as you did your job, Mr. Wilson took care of you. Snake was not embittered, and only at one point in the interview did his "tone" take on something of an edge to it. When I asked him "did you go back to the cotton oil mill." He said "I HAD TO. I was living in Wilson."

Much of this speaks to the kind of man Snake was - and is - and how he maneuvered the system he lived within. As a child, his nick name, given to him by a white lady for whom he did odd jobs, was "sunshine." When he moved to Wilson, he was no longer a child. He was approaching manhood. I asked him how he came to have his new nickname - Snake - and he said "I was small and dark . . . and I played pool." Rather than a pool shark, I guess, he was a pool "snake." As he grew into young manhood in Wilson, he moved through a system that offered him certain opportunities - mostly because he was good with machinery - but also presented him with a series of challenges and demonstrated that his opportunities were limited.

In order to make the most of the situation, he used his relationships as best he could and got as far as he could. When he realized he had gone as far as he could go in Wilson, he left.

Most African American sharecroppers on the Wilson plantation would not have been personally acquainted with a member of the Wilson family, although some of them may have been. They would have been unable to maneuver in the way that Snake Toney did. But just as Snake ultimately left Wilson for elsewhere, so did most of Wilson's plantation labor force. In the 1950s, as the transition from mules and men to tractors and chemicals worked itself out, Wilson brought in truck loads of Mexican laborers to handle the chopping and picking jobs that still remained. He retooled his cotton gins and built new ones designed to process the machine picked cotton. Today, the Wilson plantation, like many others, is almost totally devoid of human habitation. There is no longer any need for Mexican laborers to chop or pick cotton, and the cotton gins are fully modernized and run by computers. Some planters, like the Pughs of Ashley County in southeastern Arkansas no longer rely on local labor to run the cotton gins. For ten years running, Bob Pugh has used the same crew of Mexican nationals who come to Portland, Arkansas, and run his cotton gin and then return to Mexico. And cotton is no longer the major crop grown in the delta. Rice and soybeans have taken their place alongside cotton, and the smell of chemicals hangs in the air across an almost deserted landscape. The political implications have been stunning. No longer do delta planters call the shots in the state legislature, and their influence at the national level is also much reduced. One thing remains the same, however. The delta continues to be one of the most impoverished places in the country. A great divide exists between those who own the land and those who have remained in the delta, eking out some sort of living in the few small factories that some delta towns have managed to attract.

My original question was did tenants and sharecroppers of any race stand a chance of sharing the promise of agriculture? Clearly, the answer is no. If they RAN, they could only find themselves in similar situations. If they STOOD and tried to challenge the system, planters could use their considerable power in a variety of ways. And, significantly, one of the ways they demonstrated their muscle was in the way they could utilize their influence with the federal government. While the Italian government rescued its citizens from exploitation and peonage, the United States government first abandoned any responsibility for African Americans immediately following the Civil War, sent federal troops to help whites quash the black union in Phillips County in 1919, and then funneled the bounty of New Deal programs to planters in the 1930s. Indeed, government bureaucrats in the agriculture department rationalized the transformation and depopulation of the rural South in the 1940s and 1950s, arguing that it was simply inevitable, that the greater concentration of land ownership, mechanization, and the use of chemicals were all inevitable. Maybe so. Maybe not. The striking thing, however, was how they dismissed the needs, the hopes, the desires of tenants and sharecroppers. Essentially, the United States government presided over an "enclosure" movement similar to that which resulted in the depopulation of the English countryside in the previous century, a movement that led to serious urban problems in London and other cities, problems that Charles Dickens made famous in the nineteenth century. The problems of America's inner cities today are not new and are directly related to a heartless government attitude that abandoned responsibility for a significant portion of its population.


1. There are several books that cover this transition: Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); Jack Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985); Gilbert Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984); and Gavin Wright, Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

2. Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (Cambridge, Mass., 1977). The best treatment of the law and sharecroppers and tenants remains Harold Woodman, New South -- New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).

3. Helena World, Feb. 23, 1898; Memphis Commercial Appeal March 13, 1903; Forrest City Times, March 20, 27, May 22, Aug. 28, Oct. 16, 1903; Lee County Courier, Oct. 17, 1903; Modern News, Oct. 17, 1903, Arkansas Gazette, Oct. 18, 1903. See also various undated newspaper clippings concerning such nightriding activities in the Jacob Treiber Papers, Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock. For a lengthy discussion of nightriding in the Arkansas delta, see Jeannie Whayne, A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth Century Arkansas (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996): 47-55. William F. Holmes wrote a series of articles on nightriding and its various causes and consequences. See "Labor Agents and the Georgia Exodus, 1899-1900," South Atlantic Quarterly 79 (1980): 436-48; "Moonshiners and Whitecaps in Alabama, 1893," Alabama Review 34 (Jan. 1981): 31-49; "Moonshining and Collective Violence: Georgia, 1889-1895," Journal of American History 67 (1980): 588-611; "Whitecapping: Agrarian Violence in Mississippi, 1902-1906," Journal of Southern History 35 (1969): 165-85; "Whitecapping in Georgia: Carroll and Houston Counties, 1893," Georgia Historical Quarterly 64 (1980): 388-404; and "Whitecapping in Mississippi: Agrarian Violence in the Populist Era," Mid-America 55 (1973): 134-48. See also Richard Maxwell Brown, "The American Vigilante Tradition," in Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979): 144-205; Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984): 260-62; Ethelred W. Crozier, The White Caps: History of an Organization in Sevier County, (Sevierville, Tennessee, 1963); Patrick B. Nolan, Vigilantes on the Middle Border: A Study of Self-Appointed Law Enforcement in the States of the Upper Mississippi from 1840 to 1880 (New York: Garland Publishers, 1987); and Paul J. Vanderwood, Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake (Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1969).

4. For the impact of emancipation and ferment during the reconstruction era see: Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983); Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Jonathan Wiener, Social Origins of the New South (Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Leon Litwack, Been in a Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979); For black poverty, racism, and disfranchisement, see Jay R. Mandle, The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy After the Civil War (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978); Joel Williamson, Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restrictions and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). For institutional impediments to black advancement see Pete Daniel, Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1972); and Woodman, New South-New Law, 1995. Even some neo-classical economists find institutional constraints problematic: Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom.

5. Gavin Wright, Old South New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 1986); Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977); and William Cohen, At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1991). For the most extreme expression of this point of view, see Stephen J. DeCanio, Agriculture in the Post-bellum South: The Economics of Production and Supply (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974).

6. Wright, Old South New South, p. 12.

7. Ibid., p. 13.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Arkansas Narratives (Westport, Conn., Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), Vol. 9, Part 4, p. 253.

11. S. Charles Bolton, Arkansas, 1800-1860: Remote and Restless (Fayetteville, Ark., 1998): 125-144; Ibid., Territorial Ambition: Land and Society in Arkansas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993); 93-102; Orville W. Taylor, Negro Slavery in Arkansas (rpt. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000). Donald McNeilly, Old South Frontier: Cotton Plantations and the Formation of Arkansas Society, 1819-1861 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000).

12. Willard B. Gatewood, "Sunnyside: The Evolution of an Arkansas Plantation, 1840-1945," in Shadows Over Sunnyside: An Arkansas Plantation in Transition, 1830-1945, edited by Jeannie M. Whayne, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993), p. 3.

13. Ibid., p. 13-15.

14. George E. Pozzetta, "Italian Migration: From Sunnyside to the World," in Whayne, ed., Shadows Over Sunnyside, pp. 95-102; and Ernesto R. Milani, "Peonage at Sunnyside and the Reaction of the Italian Government," in Whayne, ed., Shadows Over Sunnyside, pp. 39, 47.

15. For a detailed description of the conditions endured by the Italian tenants, see Mary Grace Quackenbos, Report to the Attorney General, August 2, 1907, RG 60, 100937, National Archives, Washington D.C. Quackenbos was the federal investigator sent by the Attorney General to investigate conditions at Sunnyside. See also Randolph H. Boehm, "Mary Grace Quackenbos and the Federal Campaign against Peonage," in Whayne, ed., Shadows Over Sunnyside, pp. 49-76. For a view more sympathetic to the planters, particularly Leroy Percy, see Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Leroy Percy and Sunnyside: Planter Menatality and Italian Peonage in the Mississippi Delta," in Whayne, ed., Shadows Over Sunnyside, pp. 77-94.

16. For expansion of the plantation system in Phillips County, see Jeannie M. Whayne, "Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots," Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 58 (Autumn 1999): 294-295; for the tensions between black and white labor see, ibid, pp. 295-97.

17. For a full treatment of the Elaine Race Riot, see Grif Stockley, Blood in their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 (Fayetteville, 2001). For a pro-planter (and heavily biased) perspective, see J.W. Butts and Dorothy James, "The Underlying Causes of the Elaine Riot of 1919," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Spring 1961). See also Walter White, "'Massacring Whites' in Arkansas," The Nation, December 6, 1919, 715-16; Arthur I. Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connections between Conflict and Violence (Garden City, 1966); O.A. Rogers, Jr., "The Elaine Race Riots of 1919," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 19 (Summer 1960): 142-50; B. Boren McCool, Union, Reaction, and Riot: A Biography of a Race Riot (Memphis, 1970); Richard C. Cortner, A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Riot Cases (Middletown, TC, 1988); Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, "African American Struggles for Citizenship in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas in the Age of Jim Crow," Radical History Review 55 (1993): 33-51; and Carl H. Moneyhon, Arkansas and the New South: 1874-1929 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997), 107-08.

18. Pete Daniel, Deep'n as it Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood (Oxford, 1977; rpt. Fayetteville, 1999). See also Whayne, A New Plantation South, 146-48.

19. Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, As Rare as Rain: Federal Relief in the Great Southern Drought of 1930-1931 (Chicago, 1985); see also Whayne, A New Plantation South, 148-50.

20. There is a substantial literature on the STFU. See H.L. Mitchell, Mean Things Happening in this Land: The Life and Times of H.L. Mitchell, Co-Founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (Montclair, N.J., 1979); and Donald H. Grubbs, Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971). For treatments of the situation confronting tenants and sharecroppers in the 1930s with some attention paid to the STFU, see David Eugene Conrad, The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965); and Paul E. Mertz, New Deal Policy and Southern Rural Poverty, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). See also Whayne, A New Plantation South, 157-75.

21. For background on the Lee Wilson plantation, see Jeannie M. Whayne, "Robert E. Lee Wilson and the Making of a Post Civil War Plantation System," in Randy Finley and Thomas DeBlack, The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001). For William "Snake" Toney, see Jeannie M. Whayne, interview with William "Snake" Toney, July 6, 2002, St. Louis, Missouri; and Jeannie M. Whayne, interview with William "Snake" Toney, July 31, 2002, St. Louis, Missouri.

22. Toney, interview, July 6, 2002.

23. Ibid.