The Southern economy is often said to have been in shambles after slaves were emancipated since slavery was largely an economic enterprise. I've also read that former slaves had difficulty finding jobs due to their race.

Why didn't former slaves transition to becoming low-wage workers after emancipation? It seems like this would have been an arrangement that benefitted both whites and blacks in the post-Civil War era.

  • 8
    Basically, they did: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharecropping#United_States Nov 30, 2016 at 5:28
  • 5
    In a wage system, a worker does things like depositing his/her paycheck at the bank, and reading ads in the newspaper to look for a new job. These don't seem like they would have been realistic options for illiterate freedmen. In a wage system, a worker asks for a raise or threatens to quit and find a better job. It wasn't socially acceptable for a black person to behave that way in the reconstruction-era South. Freedmen had ties to their community, the land, and their former owners. Those ties didn't evaporate overnight.
    – user2848
    Nov 30, 2016 at 6:47
  • 2
    (Thanks for the welcome Felix!) I guess the larger question, then, considering the existence of sharecropping, illiterate freedmen, etc., what was the overall effect of emancipation on the Southern economy? If systems like sharecropping existed, to what extent was the econ. really "ruined" by the transition?
    – Jess
    Nov 30, 2016 at 7:16
  • 3
    I imagine it would be extremely difficult to isolate the economic effect of emancipation from the massive loss of manpower and infrastructure caused by the war. Nov 30, 2016 at 10:24
  • 2
    Slaves are a capital asset, therefore the owner needs to feed & maintain them even if they aren't working productively. Workers must be paid, so you hire them only when you need workers. If your industrial & agricultural base has been devastated by war, you don't need many workers. Also, slaves probably have acquired habits of mind so that work is something they must be forced to do; employers probably prefer to hire people whom they believe, rightly or not, to have a strong work ethic.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 30, 2016 at 19:04

1 Answer 1


Most of the former slaves became sharecroppers. That is, they were paid a percentage of the crops, rather than "straight" wages. Agriculture was all that most slaves knew. Only a small minority were educated and skilled enough to take "industrial" jobs that paid even low wages.

Whites preferred it that way. "Sharecropping" was close to being slavery under another name. Moving former slaves to a wage economy, particularly working alongside white workers would have been an "advancement" that most whites didn't want to encourage. This included not only southern white farm owners but also northern white laborers.

  • some former enslaved people became land owners (40 acres and a mule) but my understanding is that this land was taken away soon thereafter and given back to former enslavers.
    – releseabe
    Jun 20, 2020 at 20:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.