Popular web site BuzzFeed has discovered these remarkable photographs depicting life in the south for rural blacks working as sharecroppers on tenant farms. Shot between 1939 and 1941 by the Farm Security Administration, these images show the harsh living conditions of blacks farming on rented land during World War II.

Sharecropping was initially designed to get freed former slaves working again after the Civil War. Farming was essential to the stability of the southern economy, which had been decimated by the conflict. Tenant farming was instituted, because blacks were sorely needed in the fields yet seen as incapable of full ownership and management of lands.

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What was sold as a fair method of supporting blacks as they make their first forays into the work economy devolved into what many have described as a new form of slavery. Blacks who worked as tenant farmers received access to land, seeds, and food for “free” with the promise that the owner would share the crops’ profits — minus the materials invested at the start of each season.

The dishonesty of landowners combined with the unstable nature of farming — in which weather, insects, and other factors could easily destroy crops — often landed black families trapped within this system of back-breaking work. Not only were many families unable to make a profit or save as sharecroppers; crooked accounting methods and bad luck often left these workers in debt to the landowners for the meager supplies they were forwarded in exchange for daily brutal labor.

Many scholars theorize that the poor living conditions endured on tenant farms was a major impetus for the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north during the 1940s. Viewing these photos, we can see the humanity that survived amid the crushing poverty that poor blacks experienced on tenant farms.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb