The practice of sharecropping consists of tenant farmers who pay the landowner with a portion, or share, of the crops they harvest on their rented land. The system became common in the South during the Reconstruction era (the period following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery). It was a practical solution that provided freed slaves with the means to make a living, while allowing former plantation owners to maintain their land and holdings. However, although the practice of sharecropping is not necessarily oppressive in itself, landowners took advantage of the system to maintain their power. (Although there were white sharecroppers, most were black, and those who were white were usually treated more fairly.) It was common practice for tenant farmers to buy their necessities and supplies from a company store that was owned by the landowner. Often, supplies were sold at an exorbitant markup, one designed to keep tenant farmers from ever turning a profit from their labors. In this manner, sharecroppers were essentially slaves working for little more than their basic survival, with no opportunity to improve their lot. As Trudier Harris notes in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States , ‘‘Sharecropping reflected the power and ownership whites wielded over black people in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation.’’
Because of the lack of opportunity for blacks in the South (a region where the economy was based mainly on farming), many moved north beginning in the early 1900s in search of work in the factories located there. This is true of Alberta in ‘‘Sweet Potato Pie.’’ This steady migration served to undermine the labor base required to support the sharecropping system. In addition, agriculture was hard hit by the Great Depression in the 1930s, and yet more tenant farmers moved North. Illegal and unfair practices on the part of landowners also continued with impunity, leading to the establishment of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in 1934. These developments, coupled with the advent of more mechanized agricultural practices, signaled the end of sharecropping as a viable economic system.
A neighborhood located in the northern part of New York City, Harlem was initially founded in 1658 as a Dutch settlement (as was much of the city). The area is named after Haarlem, a town located in the Netherlands. Black tenements began appearing in Harlem around 1880, but the neighborhood did not become predominantly African American until 1904. At this time, the Great Migration of blacks from the segregated South began, and the neighborhood’s black population expanded. Building developers at the time took advantage of this trend to entice blacks from other neighborhoods in New York City to move there as well. This strategy was largely spearheaded by Philip Payton, head of the Afro-American Realty Company. The Great Migration continued in World War I, as black laborers were in demand on account of the draft, which sent the white men who would have normally filled those jobs to war. The collapse of the economy during the Great Depression sent yet more waves of Southern blacks to Harlem in search of work. The expansion at this time was exponential, with Harlem’s African American population growing from 32 percent in 1920 to 70 percent in 1930.
The migratory explosion led to a high population density and competition for housing, replete with price gouging and poor housing conditions, over the next thirty years. By 1960, only half of the housing in Harlem was deemed habitable. This is reflected in the run-down appearance of the buildings that Buddy remarks upon as he goes to visit Charley.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Eugenia Collier, Published by Gale Group, 2010