During the American Civil War, in 1863 AD, President Lincoln announced the end of slavery. When the North won the war, in 1865, Congress and the states voted to change the Constitution to make slavery illegal, so all the people who were slaves in the South became free.
Some people chose to leave the plantations, now that they were free. Some of them moved to the North to work on the railroads or as house-cleaners or nannies or cooks, or to start their own businesses. Some people went out West to be settlers or cowboys. A few people went back to Africa.
A 13-year-old boy sharecropping (1937)
But most people just stayed about where they were before. That was all they knew how to do, and they were afraid to start over in a new place. Or maybe they had kids who couldn’t walk far, or didn’t want to leave their old parents. A lot of people kept on planting and picking cotton, but now they were sharecroppers instead of slaves. For a lot of people, it didn’t make much difference, only there were not so many beatings and you didn’t have your kids or your husband taken away from you anymore. But white people still terrified black people by killing them for nothing, or for almost nothing, and no white judge or jury in the south would send any white man to jail for killing a black man.
About fifty years later, though, in 1910, the cotton was ruined by a kind of insect called a boll weevil. A lot of sharecroppers were starving from not having enough cotton to sell for food. Besides, it was getting cheaper to raise cotton using machines instead of people. So a lot more people decided to leave the South and go north to work. Because white people wouldn’t hire them for any good jobs, they still worked mostly as servants or in hard, dirty jobs like cleaning streets or building railroads.