The Great Depression and Southern Sharecroppers

Created By

Sue Wilkins, WGBH Educational Foundatiion


Subjects
  • The Great Depression and New Deal, 1929-1939: Life During the Depression
  • The Great Depression and New Deal, 1929-1939: Responses to the Great Depression

Introduction & Context

The Great Depression was an unprecedented economic crisis that affected almost every American across the nation. In the South, farmers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, already facing economic hardship due to wartime overproduction and lower post-World War I demand, faced especially tough economic conditions. Black agricultural workers suffered severely during the Depression as the majority were tied to the fortunes of cotton and tobacco cash crops. The New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act, designed to raise agricultural prices by paying farmers to destroy crops and reduce supply, resulted in further hardships for tenant farmers and, especially, Black sharecroppers, when land they worked on was taken out of production and their landlords did not share government payments with them. In 1934, tenant farmers and sharecroppers responded by forming the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), the first interracial farmers’ union. The STFU, committed to nonviolent reform despite violent reprisals, established a model for future civil rights organization and activism.

This resource set is composed of twelve short video clips from interviews conducted for the 1993 documentary The Great Depression. Together, they provide students with first-hand accounts of the Great Depression, the unique challenges southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers faced, the inadequate relief provided by the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the resulting formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

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Teaching Tips Download PDF

The sources in this set are composed of original interviews for a documentary titled The Great Depression (1993). All of the interviewees lived during the Great Depression and New Deal; some were sharecroppers or children of sharecroppers, some were bankers, some were landowning farmers, and some were children of parents who helped to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. Their firsthand accounts allow students to go beyond textbook narratives to more fully understand this period in U.S. history as well as the unique experiences of southern sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

Background Information -

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • the Jim Crow South and the economic, social, and political restrictions imposed on Black southerners
  • the cash crop system and the South’s economic reliance on cotton and tobacco (Prices for cotton, still the mainstay of the southern economy, plunged from 18 cents a pound in 1929 to six cents in 1933. Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were reduced to starvation or thrown off the land.)
  • major causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • the New Deal and its variety of relief, recovery, and reform programs
  • the general purpose of a labor union and how it works to extract concessions from business owners and managers to benefit workers


Essential Question -

What led tenant farmers and sharecroppers to unionize?


General Discussion Questions -

  • What effects did the Great Depression have on southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers?
  • What were the limitations of the Agricultural Adjustment Act in addressing the problems facing southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers?


Classroom Activities -

1) Provide students with a general overview of the topic and source set. Prepare students for the fact that they’ll be watching unedited interviews that were later used in a documentary film on the Great Depression.

2) Divide the class into four groups. Ask each group to watch the sources in their assigned topics, as organized below. They should take notes on their topic and prepare to share their findings with the whole class.

Group 1: The ways in which southern farmers, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers were uniquely affected by the Great Depression.

Group 2: The New Deal and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, its implementation, and its negative impacts on tenant farmers and sharecroppers.

Group 3: The reasons for the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

Group 4: The violent resistance to the union and the union’s legacy.

3) Bring the groups back together for a discussion guided by the following questions:

  • How were Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers affected by the Great Depression? To what extent were their conditions unique?
  • Why was the Agricultural Adjustment Act, a program specifically designed to assist and bring relief to farmers, so harmful to tenant farmers and sharecroppers?
  • Why did the tenant farmers and sharecroppers resort to forming the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union? What did they hope the union would do for them?
  • Why was it important to make the union interracial and nonviolent, even in the face of violent white resistance?
  • How does learning from first-hand interviews add to your understanding of this period in U.S. history? What insights did you gain that you could not from a secondary or tertiary source?

Additional Resources

  • The Great Depression and New Deal, 1929-1939, PBS LearningMedia
  • The Great Depression and WWII, 1929-1945, The Library of Congress
  • Great Depression Primary Sources & Teaching Activities, U.S. National Archives
  • Citation

    Wilkins, Sue. "The Great Depression and Southern Sharecroppers." WGBH and the Library of Congress. https://americanarchive.org/primary_source_sets/great-depression.