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Sharecropping Sacrifices

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A sharecropper's life was a hard one.

(Photo)
A sharecropper family in 1939 near New Madrid. A photographer for the Farm Security Administration took this photo of the Albert Summers family to document the Laforge Project. [National Archives, Washington, DC]
The practice of sharecropping began in the South after the Civil War and was common in the Missouri Bootheel as late as the 1950s.

Usually, a family lived on and worked a small farm, 40 or 50 acres, with mules. The house the family lived in and the money needed to put in the crop was furnished by the landlord. The family did the work, receiving a portion of the crop after the expenses and rent were paid. There usually wasn't much left.

The larger the family, the more hands there were to work the land. Child labor was a common practice on these hardscrabble farms. They worked and lived as a single entity, bound together by deep family fidelity.

(Photo)
New Madrid attorney Harry H. Bock in the fall of 1941. His clients didn't tell him everything about the case. [Author's collection]
My father, Harry Bock, practiced law during the 1940s and '50s in New Madrid, and one day a family of sharecroppers came in his office.

Their eldest son was charged with murder after killing a neighbor with a knife over a dispute. The son was about 17 or 18 years old. The family hired my father to defend him.

This was not going to be an easy case. When the sheriff had arrived at the scene, the young man told the officer he had indeed killed the man and handed over the weapon.

The "dispute" between the two neighboring families was something to base a "self-defense" argument on. The dead man was older and bigger than the young boy.

Eventually, a jury trial was conducted on the murder charge at the New Madrid County Courthouse. Prosecuting Attorney J. V. Conran presented the strong factual case for the State, and my father argued "self-defense" to the jury of 12 men. The jury retired to their deliberation on the fate of the young boy and in the late evening delivered their verdict: Guilty of manslaughter with a sentence of two years in the Missouri penitentiary.

My father was disappointed with the guilty verdict, but, he said, the family was pleased with the result and there was no appeal. The family returned to their farm and eventually paid his fee for defending the boy.

Years later, a younger sister of the boy he had defended came into my father's office. Her last name had changed by then, but she told my father who she was. Of course, he remembered the case and the result.

"Well," she told him, "my brother didn't kill that man, my father did."

She went on to explain that before the Sheriff arrived at their home, the family had a meeting. The dead man was laying in the front yard. The family could not afford for the father to go to jail or the penitentiary because they would lose their farm--their sole source of income. So, they decided that it would be best if her older brother would admit to the act. The family could get by without him.

When my father heard this, he understood why the family was so pleased with the result and two year sentence the boy had received. They had expected much worse; moreover, their father and the family's livelihood were safe.

The son's sacrifice for his family is a testament to both the love of his family and just how hard and uncertain the lives of sharecroppers were.

My father always concluded this story with "Sometimes, your clients don't tell you everything."



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H. Riley Bock
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