Students were buying and selling cotton last week in an activity designed to simulate the challenges faced by sharecropping farmers in the 1930s. As a supplement to reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the sharecropping simulation provides students with a firsthand experience of what it feels like to struggle and stress over financial decisions. At the same time, they can begin to look more critically at the power structures that were in place during the setting of the novel. While the protagonists, the Logan's, were not sharecroppers, many of their less fortunate neighbors had no other choice. A relatively common practice in the post-Civil War South, sharecropping gave white landowners a way to reestablish a cheap labor source. Simply put, tenant farmers rented land in exchange for a share of the crop. Unfortunately, a cycle of high interest loans and exorbitant rent (frequently as high as 50% of the total crop yield) took advantage of underprivileged blacks and whites, and many became attached to the land for life. While sharecropping like this is no longer acceptable in the United States, agriculture is still a challenging business. Today's farmers have a tough row to hoe. Unexpected spikes in cost, unpredictable weather, and a fickle demand name a few.
It is my hope that as students make some tough choices, they will begin to empathize with those tenant farmers as well as appreciate the difficulties that were endured. Kids will determine what seed to buy based on its current price, and they will be at the whim of the market come harvest time. Mother Nature will throw in a few cruel tricks, and the plow might not make it this season. Additionally, students will need to weigh the pros and cons of securing a loan. By making choices like those families did not so long ago, kids may understand why sharecropping has often been called "slavery by another name."
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