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Physical devastation caused by the Civil War


cotton production
Cotton production

The physical devastation caused by the Civil War, the freeing of the slaves, and the chaos of the Reconstruction era had ruinous effects on Mississippi’s economy. Money was scarce, and bankruptcy was common. Massive poverty afflicted the newly freed blacks, many of whom had no prospect of earning a livelihood. In some instances the former slaves were granted small tracts of land by the federal government. More often they became sharecroppers or tenant farmers on lands either still owned by planters or recently purchased by large Northern corporations.

Sharecropping and tenant farming were substitutes for paid labor where little cash was available to pay wages. A sharecropper raised part of the landlord’s crop and was paid a share of the profits after deductions for living expenses and the cost of tools and supplies. A tenant farmer sold what he raised and paid the landlord a share of the profits as rent. The landlord either owned the crop (in sharecropping) or had a lien on it (in tenant farming); if the profit was low, he got his share first. The cropper or tenant took what was left or, if none was left, got an advance to keep going until the next harvest.

Desperate to recover financially, landowners relied almost exclusively on their traditional cash crop, cotton. Agriculture failed to diversify. By 1879, cotton production equaled its prewar peak.

However, the return of high levels of cotton production failed to improve the lot of most Mississippians because the price for cotton declined through most of the postwar decades, and living costs rose. Mounting debt forced many small farmers to give up their land and become tenants or sharecroppers. Kept in perpetual debt because they could seldom earn enough to pay off their yearly advances, few were able to escape the sharecropping and tenant farming system. Not until World War II (1939-1945), when widespread mechanization of cotton production made sharecropping unprofitable, did the system begin to disappear. "Mississippi" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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