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In this diary, we address more directly what I’ve mostly skirted around in this New Deal series – something I’m completely unqualified to talk about. That being race relations in the South. I know it’s a cheap shot to give a diary this potentially misleading title, but I couldn’t resist. STFU stands for Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which organization this diary will come around to after some introduction.
Delta Cooperative Farm, Hillhouse, Mississippi, July 4, 1936
(Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration)
STFU was an important progressive organization in its day. I’ve come across the argument that it was a key precursor to the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. There’s probably something to that.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.
As a convention in this diary, any text shown inside a box with a photograph is its original caption information, as recorded by the Library of Congress on its website. All photographs are from RA/FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, except for the Arkanasas eviction pictures from January 1936, which were shot by her colleague John Vachon.
The story brings us to eastern Arkansas, along the Mississippi River. As throughout the South, after the slaves were emancipated, agriculture settled into a semi-feudal pattern with about 3/4 of all farmers working on land owned by others – plantations – for a portion of their crops paid in rent. Sharecroppers. Wage labor was relatively uncommon, and the tenant farmers were typically restricted to a company store, to which many of them were indebted. That was in the prosperous 1920s.
By the time FDR was elected, times were as tough in Arkansas as anywhere in the country. For one thing, the 1927 flood Randy Newman wrote a song about flooded Arkansas and Mississippi as well as Louisiana (map below.) 1930 and 1931 were drought years, after the 1929 stock market crash already dealt a body blow to the economy.
Map of Mississippi River flooding 1927.
Source: National Weather Service (NOAA)
So, when Roosevelt was sworn into office in March 1933, help was on the way, right? Yeah, it was, but unfortunately, not right away. This was an area where the first New Deal try at fixing a problem was not a great success.
First, let’s look at a (partial) timeline of New Deal programs.
Partial listing of New Deal programs
First Hundred Days:
- Emergency Banking Act
- Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)
- Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
- Farm Credit Act
- Civil Works Administration (CWA)
- Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA)
- National Industrial Recovery Act
- National Recovery Administration (NRA, also called “National Run-Around”, later replaced by the WPA)
- Public Works Administration (PWA)
- Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
FDIC was also established in 1933, but not in the first 100 days.
- Federal Housing Administration
- Indian Reorganization Act (controversial to this day)
- Rural Electrification Administration (REA)
- National Labor Relations Act (NRLA)
- Social Security Administration
- Works Progress Administration (WPA)
- National Youth Administration (NYA)
- Resettlement Administration (Executive Order 7027 – April 30, 1935)
- Farm Security Administration (FSA – formerly Resettlement Administration)
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
One of those first 100 day programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), was meant to provide price supports for farmers.
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), as part of a New Deal attempt to raise the price of cotton, paid planters to plow up a percentage of the crop their tenants had already planted. Fifty percent of this payment was meant for the tenant or cropper, but planters devised means to keep almost all of the money. With increasing incentives not to grow cotton, many planters evicted their tenants, leaving them homeless.
With less acres planted in, and tractors increasingly working those that remained, work was hard to come by for the displaced tenant farmers.
“In 1934 I had four renters, and I didn’t make anything. I bought tractors on the money the government give me, and I got shet of my renters. Right about half the people in these little towns used to be renters. They’ve got their choice–go to California or Work Projects Administration (WPA)”.
The guy, above, was a planter (owner or plantation owner) in Oklahoma. People got tractored out throughout Texas and Oklahoma, but the brunt of the transformation was in the former Confederate slave states – the Old South.
A tractor pioneer of the Mississippi Delta. In 1927 he had 160 colored tenant families working his land, in 1936 he won thirty Farmall tractors and employs thirty families on day labor basis. He says, “Now I can make money. Hours are nothing to us. You can’t industrialize farming. We in Mississippi know how to treat our niggers”.
Sound familiar? The “haves” get more, and the “have nots” get the shaft. Some earlier version of the AIG executives getting their bonuses, and the regular folk got nothing. Less than nothing, as the tenant farmers got thrown out of their homes, off the land they’d farmed all their lives, with little more than the clothes on their backs and what little they could carry. This from an Arkansas eviction, January 1936:
Near Parkin, Arkansas, January 1936. Photo by John Vachon.
In the spring of 1934, a planter called Hiram Norcross in Tyronza, Arkansas, across the Big River from Memphis, took the AAA payment, plowed under a bunch of cotton already planted by his sharecroppers, and unceremoniously gave 23 families the boot. July 11 that summer, seven black and eleven white evicted sharecroppers met at the Sunnyside School, adjacent to the Norcross plantation. They named their group the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). Four years later it had 30,000 members in several states. (Aside: There’s a complicated array of affiliations and dissociation with socialists, communists and the CIO, red-baiting and so on. I’m going to leave that out of the story.)
Parkin (vicinity), Arkansas. The families of evicted sharecroppers of the Dibble plantation. They were legally evicted the week of January 12, 1936, the plantation having charged that by membership in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union they were engaging in a conspiracy to retain their homes; this contention granted by the court, the eviction, though at the point of a gun, was quite legal. The pictures were taken just after the evictions before they were moved into the tent colony they later enjoyed.
In time, they were sheltered in an ad hoc tent encampment, and later moved on to similar destinations as other refugees of the time. There was a lot of violence in Arkansas during this period.
Near Parkin, Arkansas, January 1936. Photo by John Vachon.
In an act of great courage, the STFU recognized that “the man” used racism to divide them, and formed a fully integrated group. They were based in the Southern Baptist church, black and white both. Like in the churches, women played an active role in STFU. And its meetings were a lot like church revival meetings. All of which presaged the tone of the Civil Rights movement later decades. Their theme song, adapted to “We Shall Not Be Moved” was:
Considering one of their founding issues was to fight evictions, one hears the song in a whole new light. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better version of the song. It’s been taken up as the theme song of European football fans, and by evangelical missionaries. I couldn’t find one with a good ol’ fashioned movement feeling to it, but at least I did find gospel.)
Tractored out, Childress County Texas, June 1938
Photo by Dorothea Lange
Ultimately, the mechanization of agriculture from plows pulled by animals to tractors was probably inevitable.
Mechanization proceeds by stages. Here the tractor pulls a riding plow. Next stages are two four-row cultivators cultivating more rows and eliminating the man on the cultivator, near Centrae, Texas.
Tractor on the Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi. One man and a four-row cultivator does the work of eight men and eight mules under the one man-one mule system which is still common.
The displaced persons ended up in variety of locations. Some of them headed for California to become migrant farmworkers, like this mother of five from Tennessee:
Lots of displaced sharecroppers ended up in big cities. Memphis was the closest one to the areas of stark conflict in Arkansas. And some of them ended up there. Back, then, unlike now, people grew food on every little patch of dirt they could find. As an additional observation, it’s worth noticing throughout all these photographs that shoes are a fairly scarce commodity.
Butter bean vines across the porch. Negro quarter in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis was a major center for day laborers, who got picked up in the morning and driven 40 miles or more to work some of the same farmlands they’d been evicted from.
Part of the daily lineup outside the State Employment Service Office. Memphis, Tennessee.
Cotton hoers loading at Memphis, Tennessee for the day’s work in Arkansas. (Above & below.)
Cotton hoers from Memphis bound for the Wilson Plantation in Arkansas, forty-three miles away.
In Memphis, Tennessee hundreds of colored laborers congregated near the bridge every morning at daylight in hopes of work chopping cotton on a plantation. They are hauled to and from work on trucks. Reduced cotton acreage has made employment scarce for this class of seasonal labor in all towns. “You can’t live the commonest way on six bits a day. Not alone nor no way. A man like me can’t get no foothold. It’s a mighty tough old go.”
In its first couple of years, the New Deal hadn’t done much of anything to help the mass of agricultural workers in the South. In fact, it had made their lives much worse by subsidizing tractors and not enforcing that the half of the AAA money intended for tenants got to them. They planted that 1934 crop, then got booted off the land en masse getting nothing for their efforts. You could call it collateral damage in the effort to stabilize commodity prices for cotton. This was when STFU was founded. It was a desperate and dangerous time. There was a food riot in the town of England, Arkansas in 1931.
Clarence Weems. He remembers the evictions in Arkansas, for his father was beaten and disappeared. June 1937
They had the courage to unite as black and white. The founders were Socialists, and they were resolute in seeing their problems through the prism of class, not race. They organized strikes for better wages, and to keep people in their sharecropper homes. Remember: We Shall Not Be Moved was their anthem, and these times were in the memory of the collective South when it was sung in the Civil Rights movement a generation later. STFU was at the receiving end of a lot of violence. This boy’s father was was a leader in an STFU local in Arkansas.
The situation was bad. There was a lot of violence. That food riot flared up when the Red Cross wouldn’t distribute emergency food supplies because they were waiting to receive the proper forms for applicants to fill out.
President Roosevelt had a friend called Rexford Tugwell, an economics professor at Columbia University, and FDR’s economics advisor when he ran for office in 1932. Tugwell, also architect of the AAA, convinced the President to set up some cooperative agricultural communities to provide some relief. The Resettlement Administration was created by merging several USDA departments, by Executive Order, April 1935. Tugwell was given charge of the program. They bought up land, and people homesteaded them, with a lot of cooperative elements. This is the community center at the Delta Cooperative Farm at Hillhouse, Mississippi.
Aside on the photographs: Tugwell was mindful that his projects were vulnerable to those who would attack them as “socialism”. So he built a propaganda unit, right from the get-go. He hired a bunch of excellent photographers, who were assigned to document conditions throughout the country, and to illustrate the program’s solutions to problems. In addition to these communities, they did stuff like set up camps for migrant workers in California with decent sanitation facilities and circuit-rider doctors and nurses. Several of the diaries in this New Deal series have been inspired while browsing through this picture archive. I wish the National Archives were half as good at putting their materials online!
I Shall Not Be Moved, a traditional hymn, adapted to We Shall Not Be Moved, was a popular song as people labored in the fields on these cooperatives. Trailer for a documentary about an RA resettlement community at Tillery, North Carolina:
Quite a few tenant farmers were evicted because of STFU membership. One case went to court, and the sharecroppers lost. Clarence Weems’ father was not the only casualty either. Perhaps because of the socialist influence on their origin, some of them went to the RA’s Delta Cooperative Farm, downstream and across the Big River at Hillhouse, Mississippi.
The girls at the opening of this diary, with the melon at the 4th of July picnic, were part of Hillhouse. The houses there were good for their day, with fancy amenities like screened porches.
One of Delta cooperative farmsteads after a year of operation. Hillhouse, Mississippi. July 1937
It was consciously integrated. The people who made their lives there were brave:
White and blacks solve problems together on the Sherwood Eddy cotton cooperative of Hill House, Mississippi.
Now I’m not sure you’d call it socialism exactly. The way that word’s been thrown around lately, I’m not sure what it means any more. But there were community facilities and shared operations like its poultry unit:
Newly erected community house at the Delta cooperative farm. Hillhouse, Mississippi. This building houses the library, school, clinic and meeting rooms.
And they looked after their own. Clarence Weems, the boy shown above, was considered the head of his family, and given full rights. After the brutal conditions they’d been living under, I’m guessing they had pretty good patience for the “inefficiences” of democracy. There were community gardens that fed all.
Planting corn in the community garden which supplies fresh vegetables to twenty-eight families. Delta cooperative farms. Hillhouse, Mississippi.
Here’s some more of the community members at Hillhouse:
Family of one of the evicted sharecroppers from Arkansas who has been resettled at Hill House, Mississippi.
Ex-sharecroppers from Arkansas established on Sherwood Eddy’s cooperative experiment at Hill House, Mississippi.
Evicted Arkansas sharecropper. One of the more active of the union members (Southern Tenant Farmers Union). Now building his new home at Hill House, Mississippi.
J.M. Rees tells his story of violence in Arkansas. Hill House, Mississippi.
I don’t want to leave the impression that it was just heartlessness, the personal shortfallings of cruel landowners that put the sharecroppers off the land en masse:
Farm owner near Memphis, Texas. He says, “I’d rather have renters than tractors on my place. I oppose the tractors. It puts too many off the land. I went to my limit, more than most, and kept my renters until this year. But I got seven hundred behind on my taxes, so I need all I can get”.
Systemic economic conditions were pushing for it, too. Tugwell’s agricultural communities, and a variety of other cooperatives were enacted throughout the New Deal. Many of them are still in place, especially in rural areas. I get my electricity from an REA co-op, and Kossack claude gets his phone service from a Depression-era rural cooperative, too. I can’t help wondering if we might not be well advised to nurture such alternatives to corporations. Which, IMO, wield entirely too much power of all kinds these days.
Previous diaries in this series:
- Bread and Roses (New Deal TRAP Murals)
- Time for a Little Class Warfare (Child Labor)
- The So-Called Death Tax
- Heroic Labor (pictorial)
- Welcome to Hooverville
- Second Class Citizens
- 1000 Words, 1000 Years
- Rural Alabama Loves the Stimulus Plan
- Black Sunday
- Friday Night at the Movies: The Great Depression