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“Almost Broken Spirits”: Farmers in the New South

In the decades following the Confederacy’s 1865 defeat and the abolition of racial slavery, white southern landowners, entrepreneurs, and newspaper editors heralded the coming of a “New South” economic order. Freed from the plantation system, the South would enter the modern age, building factories to turn its cotton into cloth, its tobacco crop into finished cigars and cigarettes, and its growing coal and iron ore output into steel. But not all southerners benefited from a prosperous and industrialized New South. Mill workers, small farmers, and tenants and sharecroppers bore the brunt of the sacrifices required to build a new southern economy. These extracts from letters by tenants and farm laborers to the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1887 and 1889 described the depressed crop prices, usurious interest rates charged by landowners for seed and equipment, and the absence of decent schooling for children faced by southern agricultural workers.

A. R.—There is general depression and hard times and almost broken spirits among the tenant farmers. There are many things that contribute somewhat to this bad state of things but the one great cause is the outrageous per cent. charged for supplies bought on credit; it is sapping the life of North Carolina.

F. M. S.—The poor cannot clothe their children decently enough for a school room because of the exorbitant rate of interest they are charged for supplies; they are obliged to pay whatever the merchants charge. This is a most pressing evil and should be stopped by law or it will soon swallow us body and soul.

T. D. H.—Some think they pay only 25 or 30 percent for what they buy on crop liens, but if they will figure it out, they will see it is 100 to 200 percent per annum on the amount they buy over cash prices. There would be an over supply of labor if they would work. Negroes with some education will not work on the farm if they can help it. They have a keener desire for education than the whites and attend school much better.

W. J. M.—I think the present depressed condition of the farming interest is largely due to the mortgage system in buying supplies. There is no chance for improvement where this system is in operation.

J. M. B.—There is no man and no county that can long exist on 50 percent charged on everything eaten by farmers; unless a remedy is found the county will be ruined very soon.

O. E.—There ought to be a law passed forbidding any man planting more than ten acres in cotton to the horse.

J. S. M.—The condition of the farmers is bad and will get no better until we adopt some system and unite in our efforts to better ourselves and stop looking to others to help us; we must depend upon ourselves. When we become united we can get all the legislation we need; not till then.

J. L. H.—Merchants require a mortgage on whatever property tenant has, besides the crop. They are more strict this year than ever before. There were many that could not pay out last year. Tenants pay an advance of at least 25 percent on the average.

J. H. R.—The system of buying on time and using guano has brokenup many farmers, and has driven so many to the towns to seek employment that wages have been greatly reduced. If this state of things continues it will soon put all the land in the hands of a few men and ruin all classes.

F. W. R.—Attendance at school ought to be enforced by law; the schools are now usually taught in winter when the child of the poor man is poorly clad and hence unable to attend; in summer they must work, and so they do not attend school. This should not be so—we must get out of this condition or we shall go backward as a people and State.

S. A. H.—Many whites do not send their children to school for want of proper clothes. The people are in a bad condition and most of their lands are mortgaged, in most cases too irredeemably. I see no hope for the county to get better unless the government comes to their help and lends them money at 1 percent to redeem their land and gives them twenty years to pay out. Wages have decreased on farms owing I believe to the tariff.

S. S.—We farmers work very hard, but get in no better condition. Evidently there is something wrong. The towns flourish, while in the country, where the producing element is, the people get worse off. We do not mind the work—were raised to it—but would like to get something for it.

W. H. B.—The mortgage system is working its deadly way into this county, and making sad havoc where its tempting offers are once entered into. Alas! one never gets out from its magic embrace until he dies out or is sold out. I wish this ruinous law could be repealed, and with it the homestead law, which is the father of the mortgage system.

L. P.—The trouble in this county is the awful time prices that we have to pay the merchants, not less than 50 percent The price of labor is low and it should be higher, but the farmer can’t afford to pay even present prices, because the high per cent. keeps him down. The homestead law should be repealed and then the lien law and the high time prices would have to go.

P. H. H.—The poor tenant and farm laborers and in many cases landowners, are in a bad condition, mostly on account of the heavy per cent. charged by merchants for supplies.

J. E. D.—Labor is down; so is the farmer. The merchant is the prosperous man now. Half of the farms are mortgaged to the commission merchants, who charge 50 per cent. above cash prices. Half of the farmers of this county are bound to merchants by the mortgage system.

Remarks.—In my opinion, the greatest evil with the farmers here is, that the land-owners will rent their lands and hire their teams to tenants, and furnish provisions; the consequence is, the tenant gets so far in debt to the landlord that, before the crop is laid by, the tenant gets dissatisfied and fails to work the crop as it ought to be, and, therefore, raises bad crops and the land is left in bad condition. If the landlord would hire the labor, his land would be in better condition and labor would be better also.

Remarks.—The year in this section was not favorable to farming. Spring late. The heavy rain-fall in June and July injured the general crop badly, particularly cotton. The sweet-potato crop not good—too much rain. Had a killing frost on the nights of October 5 and 6, which did considerable damage.

Remarks.—I will name a few evils the farmer has to contend with, viz: The price of everything produced by the farmer is fixed by the merchant, or purchaser, as well as everything bought by the farmer, and high rates for transportation on railroads. The first evil mentioned can be overcome by the farmers paying cash for what they purchase, and cooperation. The second should be overcome by proper legislation—a Railroad Commission Bill.

Remarks.—The mortgage system, with the consequent high prices exacted for supplies, and the one-crop (cotton) system hangs like an incubus about this people and have well-nigh ruined them financially. The system of working the public roads now in vogue with us is very unsatisfactory with us, not to say unjust. Capital or property and labor should both be taxed to keep up the public highways. My idea would be to value an able-bodied man, with nothing but his head, say at $500 or $1,000 each, as the exigencies of the case might demand, and then require every $500 or $1,000 worth of capital or property to contribute a like amount, either in labor or its equivalent in money. I have given this matter much thought and this strikes me as the most equitable and feasible plan. Our public school system in this part of the State is very inefficient.

Remarks.—Time was in this vicinity nearly every farmer not only supported himself and family from the products of the farm, but had something to spare as well. That time has passed away, I fear, forever. Then very little cotton was raised, and the farmers looked well to grain crops, horses, cattle, hogs and sheep. There was not much opulence, but much of substantial independence. Now, instead of being a year before, they are a year, at least behind, and, toil as they may, too many of them at the close of the year, when the books are opened, find the balance-sheet against them, “though every nerve was strained.” The mortgage system, which hangs like a pall of death over many an honest, hard-working man, will ruin any business interest in this country. No farmer can borrow money, or buy on crop-time, at an advance of from thirty to fifty per cent. No farmer can farm successfully without some money; the present rates offered him amounts to prohibition. I cannot, in the brief space allowed, recount many of the ills now affecting us, or make any suggestion in palliation of them. To be brief, farmers are very much dispirited at the outlook, while they have worked harder for the last two years than at any time within my knowledge.

Source: Paul D. Escott and David R. Goldfield, Major Problems in the History of the American South, Vol. II, The New South (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), 83–85.

See Also:The South's Recovery: Who Paid the Price of Success?
One African-American Dreams About Rebuilding the South
Henry Grady Sells the "New South"