Debt Peonage in U.S. History

Debt peonage simply refers to being trapped in a situation due to debt. How does that happen? Well, basically someone is charged so much money for something that they have to keep working forever in order to pay off their debt. It would be like if you went out to eat at a restaurant and forgot your wallet, so they made you wash dishes to pay off your meal. And your meal cost five million dollars. And you had to stay in that restaurant and wash dishes forever. Sounds terrible, right? Right.

So how does that tie in to U.S. history? After slavery was abolished, rich white plantation owners still had their large cotton plantations, and they still needed large labor forces to grow and collect the cotton. So they came up with the systems of sharecropping and tenant farming.

Sharecropping was when a person was promised a share of the crop as payment for their work in growing that crop. This turned into debt peonage when plantation owners charged extremely high prices for the tools the sharecroppers needed to work the land (like plows, etc.) or paid the workers such a small share of the crop (or both) that they never were able to escape financially (or in any way).

Tenant farming was a very similar labor system, but instead of being paid a share of the crop, the workers were given part of the land to live on (I’m talking like a shack here). Then they worked the land (growing cotton, indigo, rice, etc.) to pay their rent. But the rent was so high that they could never work enough to pay the full amount. So they lived in debt to the landowners.

After the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slavery in the South. These systems basically kept African Americans in the same situation they were in as slaves. On top of that, Black Codes and Jim Crow laws made it practically impossible for blacks to escape these debt peonage systems, because they prevented blacks from getting an education. Eventually around the time of WWI the Great Migration started, and over 6 million African Americans moved to northern and midwestern cities in search of better opportunities. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s that real change started to happen.

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