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“Still Livin’ Under the Bonds of Slavery”: Minnie Whitney Describes Sharecropping at the Turn-of-the-Century

by Minnie Whitney/Charlie Hardy

The emergence of the sharecropping system in the South in the last three decades of the 19th century rested on an uneasy compromise between black farming families and the white landowners on whose land they labored. Sharecropping was an oppressive system but the experience of sharecropping families varied. In this interview done by historian Charles Hardy in 1984, Minnie Whitney, born in 1902, described the determined efforts of more progressive farmers like her father, who along with her mother struggled to maintain some self-sufficiency in the face of white determination to enforce African-American dependence on the sharecropping system.

Listen to Audio:

Minnie Whitney: Papa raised everything that we ate, even to cows, hogs, chickens, and he raised corn that we could make cornmeal out of, bread and everything else. He didn’t have to go to the store and buy too many. He raised the potatoes—two kinds—greens, beans, cabbage, everything. And also strawberries, he had that. And when I was a kid, we used to—what they call the blueberries now, every time I have blueberries—they used to grow wild and we’d go through the woods and pick them. In the summertime, you’d have to be careful, otherwise, a snake would drop down on your head.

And well, it—I would say—my life with my parents, it wasn’t too hard like. Because see, my father was a, he was a good sharecropper. And the children that come up with those parents that had farm . . . you didn’t know too much about hard times, you know like for food and clothes. Because two things my father always made up his mind to do: he was gonna feed us and give us some clothes on our back, even if it was something was left over from somebody else that my mother would fix. But I see so many there was rougher than ours. Because their parents wasn’t progressive to go out and they just lived for whatever.

The white man would say, “Well, come and work for me, and I’ll give you this, and give you that.” They lived for that. They didn’t try to make a farm for anything for themselves. But my father always kept hogs and he kept a cow for milk and they had horses to truck the farm.

You see my father, his mother and father both were slaves. And my mother’s father and mother both were slaves. And, you know, was a rule they say that whatever the white man would tell them, they believed him. And if he says, “Well, you didn’t earn but five dollars this year,” they believed him. So see someone was still livin' under the bonds of slavery.

We would get angry. We would say, like sometime, like it would be like an excursion from Virginia to Ocean City, Maryland. That’s the only activities away from Virginia we had. That’s why we come up but we only had certain spots to go. And then the white man would say — we even bought our tickets for to go to Ocean City for a day outing — and mister white man come over and tell the parents, well, they can’t go. “I want 'em in my field that day.” Then we couldn’t go.

Then when we would get together on Sunday, when we meet we say a whole lot of things which we wish we could do. And say “When we do get grown, we’re gonna do somethin‘.” But I didn’t. But some of them did go back and do some of the things they said they were gonna do. But I didn’t because I thought about my parents and I know—if I did somethin’ that wasn’t right down there to them people or say too many things—they would get my father.

Because I know my father had problems there, because of one of our relatives lived in the city. Went home and made a, you know, he made a remark that we shouldn’t say “yes sir” and “no sir.” Said, “They’re not your father.” Said. “Why should you say it?” And he went in town, and he just lit on and told 'em just the way he felt about it. He said, “I’m as good as you is, only my skin is black,” says he. “Well, again, another thing,” he says, “to the lambs He gave wool, and to the dogs He gave hair.”

And I know my father was coming home from town and some of the white people like they know he was a friend of my father’s and know he’s part of the family. And they took a pair of steel knuckles and hit my father up side the head with it.

Charles Hardy: Just because he knew him?

Whitney: Because he was part of the family and because he talked like that but he didn’t live there. So that’s why I say I was very careful in what I did, because I didn’t want my parents to get hurt. Because they would hurt them. They would hurt them. I’m tellin‘ you those Southern people, them white Southern people where I came from, they were rough. And if you meet them on a road, and if you, if it was a road, and you had to go by—it was a little small—if you was there first you better wait there until they come by. It was just somethin’ that now I begin to understand, how I felt about it. And I always said, “If I’d knowed then what I know now I guess I wouldn’t be here.” Because you know you speak out, you get hurt.

Source: Charles Hardy III (Philadelphia, Penn.: Atwater Kent Museum, 1984), West Chester University.