Dating back to the colonial era, tenantry played a significant role in the agrarian society of South Carolina. Tenant farming was a system designed to allow people without capital to gain access to land and work it as their own. In return for the privilege of pursuing the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent yeoman, tenant farmers paid the owners of the land in cash or in part of their crops. In antebellum South Carolina, there were both white and free African American tenant farmers. After the Civil War tenant farming became more racially divided. Although there were still white tenants, the majority of tenants in South Carolina were African American.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, white landowners hired African American laborers and worked them in gangs as under slavery. However, laborers rebelled against this system. The two groups had different goals, with the crucial issue being control: who would control the labor, the laborer or the landowner? African Americans released from slavery considered farm tenancy a step up. As tenants, African Americans had some control of the land and their own lives. They could nurture their strong desire for landownership. Amid negotiation and compromise, white landowners became more accepting of sharecropping and tenantry. Nevertheless, while the number of African American family tenant farmers increased dramatically, less than half of all African American household heads operated farms as late as 1880. The more typical African American household was not operating a farm as either renter or sharecropper but was still dependent on whites for wage-labor income.
Part of the reason more successful former slaves could climb the agricultural ladder from the hired-labor rung to the sharecropping/tenantry rung during the 1870s was due to politics working in tandem with economics in two distinct phases. During one phase, African Americans held tremendous political power in the Republican Party, economic independence was possible, and tenantry meant autonomy. During the second phase, when conservative Democrats again seized political control, economic gains became less substantive. African Americans could still climb the economic ladder up to tenantry, but tenantry no longer necessarily meant autonomy.
The tenantry system had strong political implications. During slavery, living arrangements in slave quarters fostered a slave community; during Reconstruction, this same living pattern facilitated political and military organization among African Americans. By dispersing African American farmers into the countryside, tenantry made political and military organization more difficult for them. In addition, African Americans isolated on thirty-to sixty-acre plots were more vulnerable to white vigilantes and terrorist groups than were African Americans living nearer one another. The tenantry system, then, helped white Democrats to wrest control of the government. By 1900 South Carolina had close to 95,000 tenant farmers, 66,000 of which were African American.
During World War I cotton prices skyrocketed and, for the first time, tenant farmers and sharecroppers had significant disposable income. Cotton prices continued to rise briefly following the war, but the prosperity was fleeting. Competition and overproduction in the textile mills led to a sharp decline in demand, and cotton prices plummeted. Tenant farmers, along with sharecroppers, landlords, operatives, and mill owners, all found themselves without the ready cash to which they had grown accustomed. Their plight only worsened throughout the remainder of the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The New Deal programs of the Franklin Roosevelt administration had a tremendous impact on tenantry in South Carolina and the rest of the South. Crop reduction and soil conservation programs took a large percentage of farm acreage out of production, which greatly reduced the need for tenants and their labor. Between 1930 and 1940 the number of tenants on South Carolina farms dropped by almost twenty-five percent. Manpower shortages during World War II brought full employment to tenant farmers, but the decline in farm tenancy continued with renewed vigor after the war as farms became increasingly mechanized, reducing the need for farm labor even further. In 1950 about 63,000 of the 140,000 farms were worked by tenants. The decline accelerated in the decades that followed, until by 1992 just 7.4 percent of South Carolina farms were tenant operated. Once an omnipresent feature of the South Carolina landscape, tenantry has become largely a thing of the past.
Burton, Orville Vernon. “African American Status and Identity in a Postbellum Community: An Analysis of the Manuscript Census Returns.” Agricultural History 72 (spring 1998): 213–40.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.