Seeking a Better Life for Farmers
Outlining the perils and opportunities of sharecropping and tenant farming, a new Southern Tenant Farmers Museum opened in October 2006 in Tyronza. It tells the story of union, formed in the Arkansas town in 1934 to secure better living conditions, achieve higher farm wages and stop abuse by landowners. The movement began after a planter had evicted 23 families from his land, leaving them homeless and virtually destitute.
When 18 men came together on a steamy July day in 1934 to found a union, they could not have realized the historical significance of their meeting. Comprised of black and white tenant farmers (significant in and of itself given the time of racial inequalities), the union would break racial barriers throughout its existence -- most notably the inclusion of women and blacks in the organization and administration of the union.
The new museum is located in the original building that housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry cleaners and the service station owned by Clay East. Both were organizers of the union. The building also served as the unofficial headquarters of the union for many years.
Tenant farmers meeting at the union hall.*
The museum weaves the story of the tenant farming and sharecropping systems with the history of the people who endured it. Using photographs, artifacts, oral histories and vintage 1930s news reels, visitors to the museum will get a true sense of what tenant farmers overcame in their quest for a better way of life.
Exhibits were developed in conjunction with the Arkansas State University Museum and the ASU Heritage Studies Ph.D. program. “Most people are totally unaware that such an historic event took root right here in eastern Arkansas,” says Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Delta Heritage Initiatives at Arkansas State University. “We hope that this museum will make people more aware of the important agricultural heritage of this region.”
A Vicious Cycle
Tenant farming and sharecropping evolved in Arkansas following the Civil War and reconstruction. With the end of slavery, landowners needed a new form of labor. Turning to former slaves and poor whites, the planters offered the use of their land to the farmer in return for payment from each acre harvested.
Many of the tenant farmers had no capital. They were forced to agree to the demands of the owners to ensure their families' survival. The poorest of the farmers, who had no capital or equipment, turned to sharecropping.
This arrangement meant that the farmer received a smaller portion of the crops they grew and harvested – in some instances the landowner would sell the entire crop without the knowledge or consent of the farmer. Consequently, many farmers were left indebted to landowners without means of repayment.
The number of farmers involved in the tenant system was staggering. In the late 1800s, 25% of all farmers operated under the system. By the end of the 1930s, the ratio had grown to 40%.
During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration created the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which restricted production by paying farmers to leave some of their land idle, thereby raising cotton prices. The law stated that landowners would share the payment with tenant farmers and sharecroppers.
Instead, many landowners kept the entire payment. They also evicted many tenant farmers and sharecroppers because they were viewed as no longer necessary.
The continued unethical practices of landowners were the catalyst for the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. The goal of the original meeting was to discuss options for revising the tenant farming system. Thus began a movement to take control for those who could not take control for themselves.
The members of the STFU – black and white, male and female – were committed to making life better for tenant farmers who had been exploited. Union members often faced violence but continued their work passionately. The STFU continued grew throughout the 1930s – claiming more than 30,000 members by 1938.
Growth of the Union
In 1935, the union was the catalyst for a major cotton pickers’ strike that succeeded in bringing higher wages to cotton workers. The union also supported strikes in Missouri, Louisiana and California, bringing national attention to the circumstances workers faced.
The union was involved in a major cotton pickers' strike in the 1930s.*
In the late 1930s, the STFU joined with the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, a group affiliated through the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The alliance caused conflict among the members of the STFU and eventually the two organizations split.
The STFU changed its name to the National Farm Labor Union during the 1940s. In 1946, it became part of the American Federation of Labor.
Just the Facts
If you desire to visit the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, you'll find it on Main Street at Chicago and Frisco Streets in downtown Tyronza. The museum is an Arkansas State University Delta Heritage site and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by special appointment.
Admission to the museum is a $5 donation, $3 for group members and seniors.
For more information contact 870-487-2909 or visit http://asunews.astate.edu/STFUlabor.htm.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the Arkansas Departments of Parks & Recreation. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.