Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2023/Fall/Section20/John Shaw



Early Life & Childhood


John Shaw was an African- American tenant farmer born in Hope County and living in Durham, North Carolina. Raised in a Jim Crow dominated South, Shaw was a sharecropper until he took a tenant farming job, hoping for better benefits. Shaw was raised a Christian, and professes his faith throughout the interview.[1]

Later Life


Shaw sharecropped in Hope County before becoming a tenant farmer in Durham, NC. He did not make enough money for his wife and child to stay at home, so while he farmed they worked out in the city. As a tenant farmer, Shaw ate everything that he raised–  this still was not enough food to take care of his family of four. Sometimes Shaw’s family traveled to spend weekends with him, and he often rode the train to the city to visit them. Shaw dreamed of owning his own farm, but found that it was difficult to attain as an African- American.  

A Farm Security Administration photo of a cropper family chopping the weeds from cotton near White Plains, in Georgia, US (1941)

Social Context


African-Americans and Christianity


When they were first captured and enslaved in America, Africans were exposed to a new faith through Christian missionaries. This exposure converted many slaves to the Christian faith. [2] Since then, 2/3 of African Americans have remained protestant. Slaveowners resented this transition out of fear that slaves would feel as equals after being baptized; leading to legislation establishing that the baptism of African- Americans did not grant freedom or equality.[2] After passing this legislation, slave owners still remained weary and restricted slaves from attending white church-- leading to the formation of African- American churches. Though many argue that Christianity was introduced to African- Americans as a means to keep them oppressed, many African- Americans see it as the faith which united them to find their freedom. The Black church continued to expand and was the cornerstone for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Black Tenant Farmers


After the Civil War, ex- slaves were sent into the world with nothing but the clothes on their back and their experience in farmwork. Since many African Americans only had this knowledge, many wanted to own farmland. This was extremely hard to attain due to discrimination and lack of money, causing many African Americans to settle for tenant farming. A tenant farmer is a person who farms land rented from another. Oftentimes tenant farmers paid the landowner rent for farmland and the house in which they lived. Tenant farming had better benefits than sharecropping, since it allowed ownership of the crops that were planted. Tenant farmers made their own decisions about their crops, and oftentimes owners allowed the farmers to work the entire farm while they were away for a little more money.[3] Unfortunately, pay for tenant farming was nowhere near as good as owning an actual farm. Although tenant farming sounded more beneficial in comparison to sharecropping, it was still an unfair practice that came along with high interest rates, leaving tenant farm families severely indebted.[4] An article written by the New York Times in 1970 explained why black Americans felt as though sharecropping was a step up saying "Though they worked as sharecroppers, in their own way, they had just as much at stake in the crop as the white farmer who owned the land.” Sharecropping was a way landowners could still command labor, often by African Americans, to keep their farm profitable. [5] Debt created by tenant farming and sharecropping pushed Black Americans farther into a hole that they could not get out of. Even with all of this being said, tenant farming allowed African Americans to feel a sense of ownership over their crops.[6]This was better than what they experienced during slavery, which made many African Americans accept this bare minimum opportunity.


  1. "John Shaw" Interview by William Forster, Date unknown, Folder 389, Federal Writers' Paper Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mohamed Besheer, Cox Kiana, Gecewicz Claire. "A brief overview of Black religious history in the U.S." Pew Research Center, no. 10 (Winter 2021): 11 https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/02/16/a-brief-overview-of-black-religious-history-in-the-u-s/#:~:text=Before%20enslaved%20people%20in%20America,Louisiana%20during%20the%20slavery%20era.
  3. Walbert, David "Sharecropping and Tenant Farming" NCpedia "NCpedia | NCpedia". www.ncpedia.org. Retrieved 2023-10-29.
  4. Crofts, Daniel W. (1995). "From Slavery to Sharecropping". Reviews in American History 23 (3): 458–463. doi:10.1353/rah.1995.0072. ISSN 1080-6628. http://muse.jhu.edu/content/crossref/journals/reviews_in_american_history/v023/23.3crofts.html. 
  5. Klein, Allison "This family grew up picking cotton. Decades later, they returned to the place they sharecropped-- as homeowners." The Washington Post, January 2018
  6. Comunale Joseph (2022) "Share Cropping & Tenant Farming" Study.com , April 2022



Crofts, Daniel W. (1995). "From Slavery to Sharecropping" Project Muse. Reviews in American History, September 1995. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/28689

Comunale, Joseph (2022). "Sharecropping & Tenant Farming" Study.com. Post- Civil War History, April 2022. https://study.com/academy/lesson/sharecropping-and-tenant-farming-definition-overview.html

"John Shaw" Interview by William Forster, Date unknown, Folder 389, Federal Writers' Paper Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Klein, Allison (2018). "This family grew up picking up picking cotton. Decades later, they returned to the place they sharecropped-- as a homeowners." The Washington Post, January 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2018/01/24/this-family-grew-up-picking-cotton-decades-later-they-returned-to-the-place-they-sharecropped-as-homeowners/

Walbert, David. "Sharecropping and Tenant Farming" NCpedia, https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/sharecropping-and-tenant

Cox Kiana, Genewicz Claire, Diamant Jeff, Mohamed Besheer (2021). "A brief overview Black religious history in the U.S." Pew Research Center, no.10, (Winter 2021):11 https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/02/16/a-brief-overview-of-black-religious-history-in-the-u-s/#:~:text=Before%20enslaved%20people%20in%20America,Louisiana%20during%20the%20slavery%20era.