Juvenile convicts at work in the fields
Immediately following the Civil War, white legislators in many southern states found ways to discriminate against Black Americans without violating the 14th Amendment. One way they did this was through vagrancy laws that worked to penalize freedpeople displaced and unemployed as a result of the war. Once in jail, the state could send a person to work for a farm or railroad or other private company. The owner of the business paid the state for the laborer’s time, but the laborer did not receive any pay. In some places, such as Virginia, vagrancy laws remained in place into the twentieth century. What do you notice about the age and skin color of the people in this photograph? What do you notice about the expressions on their faces? What reasons might state legislators have for putting such a labor system in place? How did it affect the freedom of the people involved?
In addition to the convict lease system described above, the sharecropping system became quite common in southern states beginning in the 1880s. White agricultural land owners in need of laborers, and poor southerners (both Black and white) in need of homes and work, prompted what became known as sharecropping. Rather than working directly for an overseer as was the case during slavery, Black sharecroppers could work for themselves on a plot of rented land, and pay the landowner with a portion of the harvest. Sharecroppers rarely benefited from this system, for they often had to pay extra for the use of tools or other equipment, or continued to owe even after a bad year’s harvest. Debt cycles became common, especially when cotton prices fell and sharecroppers (many of whom grew cotton) struggled to earn enough to cover costs. A small number of sharecroppers did manage to save earnings and become independent land or business owners. Due to new mechanical farming techniques, the sharecropping system became rare after the 1940s. The convict lease system lasted into the 1930s.
Note: This 1903 photograph was taken after the close of the Reconstruction period and is an example of one of the ways in which Reconstruction failed to create the necessary foundation to protect equal rights for African-Americans.