At the beginning of the Reconstruction (1865–77) of the American South, new President Andrew Johnson ordered the return of federally held land to its previous owners. This created a landscape of land-rich but cash-poor planters in desperate need of a labour force. Freed slaves provided the bulk of that workforce, with the overwhelming focus on cotton, the only crop with rich enough returns to compensate the owner, workers, merchants and the taxman. The lack of ready capital led to the prevalence of sharecropping, where the worker was paid with a share of the crop he produced. As the system was piece-work, it encouraged the farmer to maximize their production and where possible, improve their land, but it lacked the economies of scale afforded by the old slave gang-labour of the plantations. With the cost of necessities like seed, fertilizer and mules set against their share, many sharecroppers became locked in debt and poverty.
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