In a shadowy office at the Carolina Video Edit Center off College Road, Claudia Stack pores over the final moments of her latest film. Morning light seeps through the single glass wall to our left, and two monitors illuminate the faces of Stack and her editor, Rich Gehron. The screens cycle through image after image: Mississippi cotton fields, warped wooden plows, the cracked skin of a farmer’s hand. They deliberate the placement of each. In a pause, Stack turns and tells me about how newly acquired footage has shifted the film’s direction.
“I had one focus before, but we’re fine tuning it,” she says. “We’re putting more emphasis on the impact of that labor arrangement and trying to reveal the human cost.”
The finished product will be “Sharecrop,” Stack’s most recent exploration into the history of the South. The documentary examines the lifestyles and lasting effects of sharecropping through stories and voices of America’s “forgotten farmers.” The sharecropping system developed after the Civil War, when cash was scarce and freed slaves searched for a way to make a living. Planters allowed tenants a portion of their land in exchange for a share of their crop. Sharecroppers existed at the bottom of the social ladder, and in addition to strenuous labor, they often dealt with corrupt planters and discriminatory laws.
Stack was drawn to the topic of sharecropping through her previous films. Her first, “Under the Kudzu,” follows the history of two Rosenwald schools in Pender County, NC. Rosenwald schools were built by black communities during the segregation era, with the assistance of Chicagoan Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Black families typically raised 25 percent of the funds for each school, which, on top of taxes and living expenses, was not an easy feat.
“A lot of times, sharecropping was the economic context for [those] schools,” Stack says. “I became interested in a more holistic picture. What were they doing for a living?”
Stacks’ curiosity about African Americans’ stories of life in the South was sparked after she moved from New York City to Pender County 25 years ago. Working as an educator in the Northeast pushed her dream of living on a farm into the more affordable southern states. When she got here, she discovered much more than financial benefits.
“I began to be really fascinated by the local history,” she says. “When I started really talking with my neighbors, I began to understand how important these [stories] are that are just sleeping in the landscape.”
In “Sharecrop,” 10 former sharecroppers divulge their experiences, the struggles of their families, and the hard work required of them every day from dawn to dusk.
“There’s an important place for people to tell their own stories,” Stack says. “I think people are the authority on their own experiences, and if you want to learn about something, you should really hear from the people who lived it.”
Regions visited in “Sharecrop” range from the Cotton Belt in Mississippi to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the Appalachian Mountains. Stack believes it is important to include various locales because of the differing experiences of sharecroppers in each area. Some farmers were better off, while others lived in situations similar to slavery. The newest addition, Sylvester Hoover of the Mississippi Delta, gives a darker tone to the documentary. “It’s just unbelievable what they were experiencing as late as 1965 to 1970,” Stack says. “Even into the ‘60s, they were basically in bondage.”
Describing Hoover’s situation as “debt slavery,” she goes on to explain how, if a sharecropper tried to buy a bus ticket out of town, the ticket seller would call his or her planter/landlord to check it was OK they leave. Planters often imposed high interest rates and unreasonable yield expectations on sharecroppers to keep them indebted year after year.
Stack hopes the stories will help viewers develop a richer understanding of sharecropping history, especially since its message reflects current issues. She discusses how the stability of agriculture used to be a primary concern for our government, but no one talks about the shortage of farmers today. “In 1900, about 40 percent of Americans lived on farms,” she explains, “and it’s just 1 to 2 percent today.”
What happens if there is a food shortage and we’re not prepared? With many undocumented immigrants working in agriculture, how do we approach immigration policy, and who will do those jobs if immigrants don’t? They are questions Stack hopes to spark a discussion via “Sharecrop.”
On Sunday, Feb. 12, “Sharecrop” will screen at Ironclad Brewery in downtown Wilmington. The screening starts at 3 p.m. and is made possible by the Middle Road Foundation, which has funded the project, and the Historic Wilmington Foundation, a sponsor and producer of the film. Stack will attend the screening. “[‘Sharecrop’] has been really enriching and eye-opening,” she says. “If I had unlimited time and money, I would do even more.”