One day, Winslow Homer visited Petersburg, Virginia, and decided to study the life of rural African-Americans. At a time when the South was still recovering from the Civil War and the legacy of slavery was fresh in everyone’s minds, Homer sought to portray African-Americans as heroic survivors looking forward to a full life of hope and success.
Boy, was he wrong.
Critics look at this painting and praise it. They hail Homer – a white American painter – as “the first artist to have seen the possibilities of this untapped subject matter.” Even LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), where the painting is currently held, praises Homer.
Yet I, as a historian, see nothing but despair. I see two young African-American girls forced to continue their ancestors’ legacy of working in cotton fields, because there simply wasn’t anywhere else for them to go. They had been “freed,” but freedom had a price. Whites had praised their salvation from the evils of the Deep South, but these girls knew nothing of true freedom. They toiled away as they had before: in fields, for low or no wages, with little hope of achieving the dreams their eyes try to impart to us. Cotton was still King, and the international demand for it ensured that the plantation system – and all its horrors – would persist. Plantations still needed cheap labor, and African-Americans needed to feed their families. Even socially, the prevailing belief was that whites could best manage cotton production – and the lives of African-Americans.
So slavery persisted in a system called “sharecropping” that exploited, segregated, and entrenched thousands of African-Americans in the South. These girls were likely sharecroppers. Everything they had – land, house, supplies, draft animals, tools, seeds – was owned by someone else (probably a white man). In exchange for the basics of survival, these girls toiled away in the fields. They had no say on what was planted or where. They had to perform other tasks – like building fences, cleaning out ditches, and tending to the animals – when they were told, or face losing even more of their share. They weren’t allowed to plant cotton on their own land. Anything they grew near their home was only for them, not for extra cash.
After a harvest, the landowner sold the crop and applied its income towards the sharecropper’s account – an account which these girls likely never saw the balance sheets for, and which kept them living on a system of credit that they had no control over. It’s questionable whether many sharecroppers could even read the contracts they were forced to sign. Low crop yields and unstable prices ensured a cycle of endless poverty.
This was 1876, over a decade since the horrors of slavery supposedly ended. Yet these girls, and thousands like them, would continue in this system until at least the 1940s. They were hot and tired. The looks on their faces tells of the hardship, not just of working the land but of watching the dream of true freedom – true equality – slip away.
While critics and art historians may look at this painting and praise Homer, I do not. Looking at these girls, tears spring to my eyes. For the lives they could have – should have – been able to lead. For the years upon years that they, and so many like them, were left to only dream of the freedom they had been promised. For the young girls today, watching America’s racial and ethnic inequality persist in ever more violent forms, and wondering how we can still hate so much when freedom and equality were promised so long ago.
The only thing Homer got right was the look in their eyes – of despair, hope, and dreams for a future that would they would never see.
Girl Museum Inc.
Want to learn more about the conditions imposed on sharecroppers? Check out this sharecropper’s contract from the Learn NC from the UNC-Chapel Hill.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.