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South Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century


Port of Charleston in South Carolina
Port of Charleston in South Carolina

The end of the Civil War left South Carolina in deep poverty, from which the state did not completely emerge for a century. Cotton cultivation was resumed on a large scale after the war, and in time cotton acreage grew beyond its prewar levels. The vastly increased production resulted in low prices in most years. The times were hardest for blacks who owned little land. Times were also hard for the small white farmers, many of whom lost their land through debt. Most of the blacks and many whites became sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

Sharecropping and tenant farming were substitutes for paid farm 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); so, even 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. Once in that system, tenants and croppers were forced to remain because they could seldom earn enough to pay off their yearly advances. The increasing erosion of the soil contributed to the deepening poverty. Not until World War II (1939-1945), when widespread mechanization of agriculture made sharecropping unprofitable, did the system begin to disappear.

Some white farmers left the land to work in the textile mills that were being built, mainly in the upcountry, in the 1880s. By 1892 there were 51 textile mills in South Carolina, about three times the number operating before the Civil War. By 1910 there were 167 mills.

The growth of the textile industry was spurred by such purely economic factors as the proximity of raw cotton and the availability of waterpower and of cheap labor. In addition, the construction of mills took on the nature of a crusade, aimed at raising the economic level of impoverished white farmers. By 1910 about 50,000 workers, virtually all of them white, had jobs in textile mills. "South Carolina" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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