While thoughts of Southern plantations may inspire visions of "Gone With the Wind," for the workers of those farms, it was no romantic journey. The Southern plantations exemplify systems of intense productivity for workers and immense profitability for owners. As the plantations evolved and slavery was abolished, the opportunities for workers began to improve.
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Early plantations were typically built along a river. Rivers were used as a means to transport crops to the marketplace and goods and supplies to the plantation. The planter's house was the main building and home to the plantation owner. These houses were usually quite large and held many servants. Slaves lived in nearby small, dirt-floored shacks or cabins. Additional outbuildings housed the crops and farm animals. Kitchens were usually built away from the other buildings to protect from fire. Plantations also had their own laundry facilities and blacksmith shops.
Antebellum (Latin for "before the war") plantations were those operating before 1864. By the 1830s, these plantations could be found from the Carolina coastline to southern Louisiana. After 1860, they could be found throughout the Southern states. While slavery was still legal, most plantations owned fewer than 10 slaves, but some were known to own hundreds. Typical commercial crops included cotton and rice. At the start of the Civil War, cotton had overtaken both tobacco and sugar as the largest crop traded in the world. Food crops included peas, pumpkins, corn, potatoes and other vegetables used by the plantation's inhabitants.
Postbellum ("after the war") or sharecropper plantations were a result of the abolition of slavery after the Civil War. With newly freed slaves wanting to move away from their current lot, plantations owners risked a swift loss of their entire workforce. Sharecropping, also called tenant farming, was a way to entice the workers to stay. In exchange for their work, the plantation owners would share the harvests, usually at a 3-1 to 4-1 ratio in the owner's favor.
After World War II, machines began to take the place of sharecroppers. New technology allowed for fast, mechanized harvesting of cotton requiring very little human labor. While sharecropping did continue for some time, neo plantations were a growing new institution in the agricultural world. This restructuring of plantations resulted in large migrations of black families to cities in the North.