Technically defined, sharecropping is a land and labor arrangement whereby an individual or family receives a stipulated proportion of the crops produced on a particular plot of land in return for their labor on that same plot. The legal status of sharecroppers varied over time and from state to state. Historically, many southern states classified sharecroppers as agricultural laborers, making them legally indistinguishable from wage hands, who worked on a daily, monthly, or annual basis on farms operated by others. In the 1870s, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court defined sharecroppers as “tenants in common of the crops,” and ruled that the sharecropper’s portion of the harvest represented personal property, not wages. Legally, sharecropping in Tennessee became a variety of agricultural tenancy rather than a form of wage labor. Practically speaking, however, sharecroppers resembled both farm laborers and tenants in fundamental ways. Like the farm laborer, the sharecropper was allocated work stock, tools, and seed by the landlord, received wages rather than paid rent, and commonly labored under close supervision from the landlord, who typically controlled most managerial decisions. Like tenants, the sharecroppers farmed a specific plot of land and worked alongside their families, rather than singly or in a labor gang.
The lack of systematic statistics limits what can be known with certainty about the prevalence of sharecropping in Tennessee before the late nineteenth century. The institution undoubtedly existed in the state long before the Civil War, but it is not likely that it was very widespread. After the Civil War, it so mushroomed in importance that as early as 1880 sharecroppers comprised nearly one-fourth of all farm operators and fully two-thirds of all tenants. To a significant degree, this expansion resulted from emancipation. The newly freed slaves rejected the initial attempts of white landowners to employ them exclusively as wage hands, and from the end of the war through the 1890s there was a gradual, but inexorable shift among blacks from wage labor to sharecropping (and to a lesser degree, to other forms of tenancy). Sharecropping in postbellum tenancy, however, was far from an exclusively African American institution. Historically, whites constituted two-thirds or more of all sharecroppers in the state, and the initial expansion of sharecropping after emancipation–at least through the end of the 1870s–stemmed in large part from a shift among whites from wage labor to sharecropping as the end of slavery opened up new opportunities for landless whites in the former plantation districts of central and southwestern Tennessee.
Sharecropping continued to be a significant institution in Tennessee agriculture for more than sixty years after the Civil War, peaking in importance in the early 1930s, when sharecroppers operated approximately one-third of all farm units in the state. It declined steadily and rapidly after 1940, due to a combination of factors. The most important were the increasing mechanization of Tennessee farms, which rendered the labor of sharecroppers more expendable, and the growing demand for industrial labor outside the South, which enticed thousands of white and black Tennesseans to migrate to northern and western cities.