My Grandma was a sharecropper. I’ve been researching my family history since I was ten years old and every time I interviewed her she only gave me bits. Two weeks ago, I asked her what she did for a living in Alabama before moving to Ohio where I was raised. “I was a sharecropper”, she said in her sweet southern drawl that she never quite lost, “everyone was”. Everyone was. I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was. She was born in 1941 in Hale County, Alabama. She was a part of the second Great Migration, when Southern Blacks migrated to Northern cities between the 40’s-70’s for opportunity, to survive. But for me, sharecropping, according to my history books in school, was a post-Civil War, Reconstruction era way of life for African Americans.
Sharecropping in the American South began after slavery. The South was in complete ruin, plantations were seized by the Federal government. Everyone was poor and struggling. Especially recently freed slaves who had very little education (because it was illegal while they were enslaved) and not many skills outside of what they had been trained as slaves to do. General Sherman announced every ex-slave would get 40 acres and a mule. It was a way to apologize for the brutal way slaves were treated before and during the War. It also gave opportunity to a massive population who didn’t know where to go or how to start a life after bondage. They didn’t have the same tools to build a new life the way the rest of America was equipped to do as free citizens before War. President Johnson scrapped that field order by Sherman and instead gave the Plantation owners their land back. With their land returned to the same families who had owned slaves, someone had to do the field work the slaves used to do.
Former enslavers and landowners now hired the freedmen in a system called sharecropping. The landowner supplies tools and seed, the worker does the actual farming for a 1/3 of the crop. The problem was there was no regulation. The landowner could, and DID, buy back the portion of their crop from workers and for a much lower cost, exploiting the worker. Not only that, workers were kept in a constant state of debt for the cost of the tools, seed, rent, etc. If they abandoned these debts they were taken to court and eventually jailed or sent to work camps. They lived in a culture that now felt they had to control Black people with violence and fear much more so than when they legally owned them. My Grandma recalled, “we just couldn’t really go out at night..” People had to stay where they were to avoid trouble. When asked about the law she said, “we had no law, the law was for them, not us”. So they were trapped in this system where they could not make a better life for themselves or their children. It was slavery with a new face.
Sharecropping felt so distant. It felt like history. My Grandma Harper, who cooked so well “she could make dirt taste good”, the women who worked for thirty years as a nurse in a mental institution was removed from that way of life. But, no, she picked cotton in fields just like her Slave grandparents had and in exactly the same community. She was nine years old when she first went out in those cotton fields. Other American children had summer camps with friends and vacations with their families. She worked. She hated the brutal Southern heat. The thorns of the cotton pricked her fingers. The days were long and exhausting. She conspired a way to ease her days. Her mother is the one who taught her to be an excellent cook at an early age. My Grandmother used this skill to help in the kitchen of the landowner. So she picked cotton until noon and then headed to the kitchen. She smiled as she told me she was done with her work for the day and home long before the others working outside.
She married and had her first born with my Grandfather by 17. When she was ready to have the baby her contractions started at home. There with her was my grandpa, his mother, Big Mama and his stepfather. They asked Grandpa to go get the doctor. My grandfather sat on the front porch of the house while my grandmother screamed, staring into the night, paralyzed. He could see the light of the doctor’s house, a quarter mile away. But he was afraid of the dark. His Step-father came out and, jokingly, said, “Boy if you don’t go out and get that doctor for your wife I’ll shoot ya”. My grandpa braved the night towards the doctor’s house. In my Grandpa’s panic, he expressed my Grandmother was sick, not exactly that she was giving birth. The Doctor arrived with my Grandpa back at the house but apparently was completely unprepared to deliver a baby. Big Mama ended up continuing to be the midwife and delivered my Uncle. My Grandma had two more children at home, the last three in hospitals. My Dad, the fifth, was the last one born in Alabama. A month later, the family headed up to Ohio for a better life. My Grandma worked as a nurse in a State run mental institution for over 30 years before retiring. She cooked every meal for her family of eight and she is still going. It’s incredible.
My Grandmother was a sharecropper, yes. But not only did she refuse to let that define her, she couldn’t allow it to continue with her progeny. It stopped with her. Black Americans are still suffering with the ripples of slavery. I feel it and see it everyday. I hear “Slavery ended 154 years ago” as if that was SO long ago. It isn’t long enough to recover from 400 years of humiliation, rape and forced labor. We don’t even know half of what the ancestors experienced on a case by case basis. However, slavery has been masked in different ways since it “ended”. Sharecropping was only one. America, we need to have a conversation we’ve never been able to have before. We have to look at the grossness of our history, not just the pretty stuff. We have to get dirty, we have to feel bad, we have to be so uncomfortable we can’t sleep at night. And then we can do the good work of fixing and being a positive example to the World. Until we face the reality of the past we will never be able to stitch these wounds, let alone allow them to heal.