Lifestyle

World In Retrospect: US Migrant Workers of the American South 1939-1941

on

Prev1 of 3Next


After the abolition of slavery in the United States, sharecropping emerged as a system of agricultural labor in the South.

Under this system, a landowner would provide land, tools and housing to sharecroppers, who would work the land and receive a share of the crop come harvest time. In the meantime, the sharecropper would buy food and supplies from a merchant on credit. When the harvest came in, the sharecropper would sell his share of the crop to the merchant to pay off his debt.

In the best cases, sharecroppers could barely scrape by. With fickle harvests and lopsided contracts, they ended up deeply indebted to the merchant or landlord and tied to the land, leading to the system being called “slavery by another name.”

Other agricultural workers were migratory, going wherever there were crops to be grown as the seasons changed. Living conditions were dismal, and only became worse in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains.

By the late 1930s, there were about 300,000 migrant workers roaming the country in search of employment. Black migrants were particularly hard-pressed as a result of the popular sentiment that solving white unemployment should take precedence over black unemployment.

Migrant workers had little government protection and were isolated from the communities they traveled through. Most of the New Deal legislation that benefited industrial workers did little for itinerant farmers.

One government agency that did help was the Farm Security Administration. Initially called the Resettlement Administration, the FSA set up camps for workers with improved amenities and education for families, offering a modicum of comfort in a hard, dusty life.

c. 1941 A migrant worker near White Plains, Georgia. IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

c. 1941
A migrant worker near White Plains, Georgia.
IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1939 People fish in a creek near Belzoni, Mississippi. IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

October 1939
People fish in a creek near Belzoni, Mississippi.
IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

3

January 1941 Condemned housing for migrant workers in Belle Glade, Florida. IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

August 1940 Workers tend crops at Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative in Louisiana. IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

August 1940
Workers tend crops at Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative in Louisiana.
IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

5

August 1940 A family at Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative in Louisiana. IMAGE: MARION POST WOLCOTT/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Prev1 of 3Next

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply