Sharecroppers Life in 1911

Housing supplied to the farm workers, according to Farm Security Administration FSA surveys, was described as crude shacks. A typical housing unit for Bootheel farm workers could be described as an unpainted wooden structure without plastering or insulation. This is only part of the picture. While many of the white owners and renters lived in “Weatherboard” house consisting of a single frame with drop siding, this was not true of white croppers. Laborers and blacks lived in even worse conditions. They lived neither in “strip” or “box” structures. Both were nothing more than rough timber placed together vertically, the first with stripping over the cracks to keep out the weather, the latter, had no such stripping. Some of the inside walls were bare. Others were covered by old newspaper of pieces of cardboard or building paper.

Concrete blocks lifted the building off the ground several feet to keep them above the water during times of flooding. In the Lowland, cellars were unheard of because of the high water table.  Rolled tar-paper covered many of the roofs, cheap shingles on others. When damaged few roofs were repaired. These covering afforded little protection from the weather.

Farm Security Administers surveying these houses described then as a picture of squalor, filth, and poverty. Floors usually were made with a single layer of rough green, unseasoned lumber that warped as it dried leaving cracks that exposed the ground. Homemade tables and box-crate cabinets make up the furniture. Children, it was not unusual, to find sleep on blankets or pallets spread out on the cracked board floors.

Because of the conditions of the housing, health problems were epidemic. Two-thirds of all deaths due to disease between 1910 and 1935 in the state of Missouri were in the Bootheel. Cases of typhoid, tuberculosis and pneumonia ran far beyond the state average. All these diseases were preventable and were attributed to pool living standards, lack of medical care, and inadequate nutrition.

Insects created health problems in summer as did heating difficulties in winter. Inadequate screening in the summers compounded the problem. Among the houses with screens, most were in disrepair offering little resistance to flies and mosquitoes. Feeling it was a waste of time and money; overlords were reluctant to fix screens. Why put up screen doors if they are going to leave the open was the rational of overseer for not adjusting the problem.

Ninety-eight percent used outside toilet facilities that were open, unscreened, and too close to their water supply. This accounted for the large Number of cases of typhoid fever, dysentery, hookworm, and other intestinal health problems plaguing the area. Drainage ditches that were not regularly cleaned out became breeding places for mosquitoes. 

Hookworms were a disease little was known about until 1901. So insidious were its effects, along with pellagra and malaria, they were known as the “scourge of the South.” Nesting in the intestinal tract, the parasite lived off the host’s blood, causing loss of energy, weakness, dullness, stunted grown and anemia. Infected children had retarded physical and mental growth. Children suffering from the parasite lagged behind in their school work. Death from this is possible but rare. Hookworm was called the “germ of laziness.”

Hookworms were most commonly found in rural school children who went without shoes. Eggs of the invader passed through the feces and breed in the unsanitary privies. Then the newly hatched larva lived in the soil around the house to enter the host through bare feed to enter the bloodstream and settle in the intestine. Infestation rates among children ran as high a 90 percent in some areas of the Bootheel while the average was 40 percent of the children.

Pellagra, like hookworm, was endemic in the South, including the Bootheel. This disease was caused by poor nutrition, specifically a shortage of niacin due to general poverty and the high consumption of corn products such as cornbread, hominy, and grits. One study showed the death rate for all age groups, regardless of residence, was 11.61 per 100,000 for whites and 39.47 for blacks. Pellagra deaths were five times higher on farms. Cases of typhoid, tuberculosis and pneumonia also ran far above the state average.

In the Bootheel the traditional diet of the tenant farmer was salt pork, corn pone, and dried beans usually cooked in pork fat. Eggs, butter, milk, fresh vegetable and fruit were rarely available. Some of the households had cows and chickens; usually they were too small in Number to provide large scale of regular consumption. Gardens were also rare and too small to be adequate.

Food preservation also presented a major problem. In the summer time, it was insurmountable. Pits were sometime dug under the house in the shad. Another method frequently use was to place perishables in a tub of water also placed under the house. Neither of these methods was good for more than a few hours. FSA reports point out that improper preservation of food and diet were the chief factors causing the infant mortality rate that in some counties to be twice as high as the state average.

Even though the Bootheel, infant death rate was high, among tenant farmers the population continued to grow rapidly. This population rise was higher among the white farmers as the infant death rates were higher among the Negro families.

Large families were considered an economic asset by the landlords. This meant there were more hands to work in the fields’ during labor peak seasons. Landlords saw these large Numbers as a bigger labor force at a minimum cost. In this way the high birth rate tended to perpetuate the conventional economic system.

The Bootheel had a caste system develop were the tenant families had little hope of ever changing their condition. Most were forced to drop out of school early because their families needed their labor to survive. Education, therefore, did not have a high priority among farm tenants and labors.

All the families in Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot on average only completed five years and five months of school. This was the center of the cotton growing area. The black children had much worse average of two years and six months. Because of the poor condition of the school system the children received very little education even when in the classroom. Yet, Negro’s had fewer opportunities of learning because is even more inefficient grade schools, inadequate books and facilities.

In 1929 the Missouri legislature passed a law separating blacks from white schools making integrated education unlawful. White students could only go to all white schools. Likewise, black children could attend only school designated for blacks.

FSA reports recorded public education in the Little River Lowland as a system of elementary education in a multiplicity of school districts. With one-room, one-teachers, unapproved schools having poorly trained and low-paid teachers with the students’ irregular attendance, educational efforts did all but not exist. Only 24 schools out of a total of over 400 located in rural districts of the Bootheel met State Department of Education standards for elementary schools. This indicated the majority of the rural school children attended buildings that were in deteriorated conditions with a shortage of equipment such as books and libraries.

Teacher training was also inadequate. One-seventh of teachers had completed college; a Number of them had attended one or two years of post-high school education. Twenty percent of the teachers had no college training at all, several of these teachers never completed high schools.

Students’ were being kept out of school to do field work was a common practice.  Rural students attended school on the average just over half the school sessions reported the FSA. During the planting season in spring and during the fall and winter harvest, schools were not in session. Therefore, school was held in the hot humid days of summer when the students present were not required to work in the fields. Electric fans were unheard of. Nearly one-half of the high school age children in the six Bootheel counties resided in areas with no high schools. A poor transportation system was also a discouragement to those who might otherwise want to attend.

As bad as conditions were for white students, they were even worse for Negros. The FSA found that the system of public education for backs to be far inferior to that provided for whites. In the entire area, only six high schools were provided for blacks. In Dunklin and Stoddard counts none were provided. Their teachers were not as well trained as in the white schools; the building and facilities were less adequate. Teacher salaries were not on par. The average salary for Negro teachers in these areas was $370 per year compared to $500 for white teachers. Illiteracy rate for white and blacks tenants in the Bootheel was far below the state average; in some counties running as high as 10 percent below the average.

As often happens is poverty areas crime and violence goes hand and hand with ignorance. Shootings, knifing, and lynching’s were common. In Pemiscot County by 1911 in one ten day period of January there were three murders, two in two day in March, and two more within ten day in September. There were numerous other attacks in which the victims survived. Many conflicts were unreported in the black community.

Parma was a New Madrid County sawmill town. By 1911, with most of the timber gone, farming became the dominate industry.  Acquiring labor became a problem. One farmer, H. R. Post, owned almost 1,000 acres. He offered to pay between $1.50 to $2.00 a day for help in harvesting corn and clearing the land. He thought the ex-sawmill men he hired wanted to collect maximum wages for minimum work as not much harvesting was done.

A black worker was brought in. his first day on the job; the Negro was attacked from behind with a beer bottle. Post complained to U.S. Marshall in St. Louis that the life of one of his black worker had been threatened openly by saloon loafers and gambles. Post was informed, by locals, not only was any black man he hired would die as was his life in danger as was your farm animals and your barns in danger of catching fire.

One of the offenders told one of the Parma bank cashiers that since he probably would be fined for his unlawful activates; he may as well make it worth his time by killing Post. After the cashier warned his friend, Post went arms after that.

His father was afraid the threat against his son would be carried out and asked the Governor Herbert S. Hadley for protection. In his letter he told the governor, “I put in something over four years on the Union side in the Civil War, but in a week just past I have suffered in spirit more than during the war that saved the Nation.”

 Post found no public official, not even the governor, willing to protect him or his interest. Local officials were even less willing to help. Post complained that he was at a great disadvantage as the city marshal the constable and two aldermen were all elected from the people that opposed the employment of Negroes. In fact they were encouraging the mobs with one alderman personally threaten the Negro.

When Governor Hadley was asked to intervene he said he was unable to do no more than inform the sheriff and prosecuting attorney of New Madrid County and call all the National Guard if there was violence. However, he did more than that. He sent the state adjutant general F. M Rumbold to investigate.

As fate would have it, as Rumbold exited the train in Parma, two black men had also got off that Sunday afternoon. He arrived just as a local mob assaulted the two men. In the excitement, the townspeople in the excitement of the event talked freely. Thus Rumbold easily collected the name of the men in the anti-Negro crusade, even the leaders.

Tobe Oller was the ringleader. He had a reputation as a loafer and gamble. Rumbold informed the governor that Oller livelihood came from getting the mill hands drunk then robbing them in a game of craps.

Rumbold told Parma’s farmers, storekeeper, bankers and real estate men there would not be any economic progress as long as the area did not hire Negro labor. The marshal and county constable told him they would not protect blacks brought in by the planters. To do so, they both told him, would be political suicide. After Governor Hadley heard this from his agent in the field, he took no action on any complain he heard from New Madrid County.

This was not an isolated incident.  The night of September 11, 1911, white terrorist struck the Scrub Ridge areas in southern New Madrid County intimidating black brought in to pick cotton. That night, four Negros received gunshot wounds and hundreds of imported black labors fled the region.

In Pemiscot County a few weeks later, cotton pickers employed on another large plantation was stampeded because of violence against them. Before they escaped into Portageville, they were caught and beaten again. Episodes such as these were played down by newspapers as being economic motivated. When the New Madrid Weekly Record admitted there was much violence in the county they claimed they never heard “That the labor question was involved”

A Caruthersville attorney, C. G. Shepard, told a different story. He informed the governor that the real truth was the prosecuting attorney was protecting the lynchers and has no plans to bring the mob to trial.

Believing they understand the situation, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on October 12, 1911, asked Governor Hadley to take some action as the authorities in the Bootheel would not. The governor issued a statement that in cases of this nature he had limited powers. He could not remove local elected officials; however, he could off $300 reward and returned the problem to the local community urging Judge Charles Farris to convene a grand jury.

The grand jury was called as the governor suggested. It begins work in September and finished in mid-December. An editorial in the Caruthersville Pemiscot Argus, December 14, observed that if the purpose to the grand \jury was to gloss the local events over, then they did their job.

Back in October, a few days after the lynching a notable change for the better was observed by the editor of the Caruthersville Democrat. Negroes were leaving town in groves. They are leaving by train, boat and no vagrants could be seen in the streets and alleys. Of the black men left in town, they had a job or seeking one. This, he claimed, was a higher and better system.

Judge Charles Faris saw what was happening and in his outrage that September he called for a grand jury during the Session of the circuit court. He wanted to bring legal action against the offenders. Foreman of the grand jury was Seth S. Barnes, president of the Marston Cooperage Company. Barnes like other employers wanted the county’s lawbreakers brought under control. They wanted to employee blacks so they could be exploited.

Barns told Governor Hadley that these mobs are almost entirely made up of irresponsible hoodlums. They will only work long enough to make money for a sack of flour and a piece of meat and then looked to cause trouble. Barnes then suggested the troublemakers be ran from the county or made to feel the heavy weight of the law.

However, Barnes as foreman of the grand jury, for all his desire to control the situation all his efforts for indictments were met with obstacle. Neither the county court nor the attorney-general office were willing to co-operate while the prosecuting attorney maintained other matters were more pressing and did not have time to investigate.  Then six days into deliberation, Barnes discovered one of his grand jurors was one of the terrorists. . Before the court term ended not a single indictment was returned.

Determined to have the cheap labor from the Negro’s, Barnes arranged for a grand jury at the next term of court. He also had a promise from the attorney-general’s office of assistance.  Twenty-seven indictments were returned during the November court session. In the March, 1912, trial it was agreed that Jay Allen and Robert Crosser would be the first cases tried. After the jury quickly acquitted the first two defendants the prosecution dropped the others cases. This decision was an important victory for the night riders in New Madrid County. They took it to mean they could continue handling the Negro problem any way they wanted without interference from the law.

Meanwhile in Pemiscot County the situation had become much worst. In the fall of 1911 a lynching climaxed the racial tension. With the start of the cotton picking season, the poor white of the area posted signs throughout the county warning migratory blacks to stay away. When posted warnings failed to discourage the Negroes the whites turned nigh-riders to put hunt into the warning.

In Pemiscot County the mobs were from the same class and interest as those in New Madrid County. Prosecuting Attorney J. S. Gossom informed the governor, “They are composed of tenants and laborers who think if the Negroes were out of the county they could bet better wages for picking cotton and get cheaper rent.” But when Gossom and other public men talked to the press they were less candid saying that the mobs were made up of “best citizens” whose sole interest was the moral welfare of the community.

Night riders justified their action on moral grounds. In their view, migratory Negroes were not bona fide laborers, but vicious blacks from the city slums specialist in gambling and vice. In the Caruthersville Democrat the editorial explained “they come under the pretension of cotton pickers, but in reality to prey upon those who work, and leave a path marked with every conceivable crime.

October 12, 1911 in an effort to ward off trouble the Caruthersville Mayor Barrett advised property owners not to rent housing to blacks. The explained he was afraid their building would be set aflame and the fire hoses cut, costing the city $1,000 to replace the fire equipment.

Planters and landlords, whose profits depended on the Negroes’ presence, ignored this advice. They encouraged the blacks to come with offers of jobs and housing. Mayor Barrett was right. Early in October a Negro knifed two white barbers outside a saloon in a street fight. This incident was used to incite a mob.

In the Caruthersville Democrat article reporting the brawl the writer affirmed that as there were no state laws sufficient to handle this situation, the good lawful citizens of the community need to correct the situation by applying a “higher law”. Few whites misunderstood what the editor meant. Just the year before, Editor W. R. Lacey had written in a similar instance something to the effects that while the Democrat does not believe in Judge Lynch there are however times when the people of this region are put to unnecessary expense when some people are given a legal trial.

Law enforcement officers at Caruthersville in fear of their prisoner moved him 25 miles west to Kennett. The next night, some 40 white men came after the prisoner. Learning he had been taken out of town they commandeered a railroad engine and coach and headed to Kennett.  When the news reached Kennett ahead of the train, the prisoner was removed from jail and hidden. Despite the mob’s badgering and threats the Kennett law officers refused to disclose the Negros' location. Finally, bitter, frustrated and thirsting for revenge, the would-be lynchers returned home.

Before long other Negroes caught the attention of the Caruthersville police. It was a Tuesday, October 10, when a drifter, a Negro cotton picker, Ben Woods was arrested allegedly for following a white woman. A white man she worked with in the county clerk’s office reported Woods following her made her excessively nervous and triggers her long time fear of being molested or robbed by a black man.

Normally, to calm her fears, the coworker walked her home. However, that night her coworker was unable to. Woods walked behind her that evening. In distressed panic she called the police reporting he had an evil purpose in mind. When the grand jury heard the case they found he charged unfairly. The foreman told Governor Hadley the man simply happened to be walking behind her.

Another Negro, A. B. Richardson was arrested that same evening and charged with stealing bundle of merchandise. Well known to the police, Richardson had a history of drunkenness and other minor offenses. He had been warned to leave town before it was time to pick cotton, but had refused to go. Making his situation more unstable was his reputation for insulting whites when he had been drinking heavily, which meant often.

Within hours of two men
s arrest a group of white mens' gained entry into the jail, removing the Negroes, now being held for his protection. The white rage was against Woods as his crime was against a white woman. This type of crime was more serious than Richardson’s thief of property. The mob was spending their anger against Woods by beating him and would probably have murder him.  However, Richardson started making uncomplimentary remarks about his captors, thus distracting their attention away from Woods.  Then they turned their attention to Richardson.

A search party found Richardson’s body the next morning in the Mississippi River. A fifty foot trail of blood away from the river bank confirmed their brutality.  Richardson’s death, according to a grand jury, was from unknown causes. The October 14, 1911 edition of the Caruthersville Pemiscot Argus reported his death was caused by too much drank. The paper speculated that after a well-deserved whipping, he went to the river bank to drink and lost his balance, falling in.

In an interview the day after the lynching with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Mayor Barrett and Prosecuting Attorney Gossom said that not legal action was expected again the “good citizens” that made up the mob. In Gossom’s report to the governor, he claimed that none of the mob’s name was known so no legal action could be taken against the lynchers. Because so many, he report claimed, citizen sympathized with the marauders, no legal action was possible. A jury would acquit them if they were brought to trial.

In as effort to shift responsibility away for local authorizes, Gossom suggested the governor to call in federal authorities to take the mob leaders into custody. Gossom pretended he had already done his best to calm the situation and to bring the guilty parties to justice.

About a month later the vigorous crusader against saloons and friend of any movement leading to moral improvement, H. E. Averill, editor of the Pemiscot Argus, could not agree to the fiction that the nigh triders’ campaign of terror improved the moral tone of the community. He disagreed that those blacks leaving town after the lynching were not saloon loafer and gamblers, but industrious cotton pickers. His suspicion was that the white mobs were more interested in eliminated competing labor force and had nothing to do with improving the moral tone of the community.

This wave of violence spread throughout the Bootheel during the harvest season of 1911. The disastrous spring flood brought it was an end to the violence as it forced men to work together in a common cause. The pattern of hostility had only temporarily been interrupted. During the following years violence became accepted as a way of life by the victim.



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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


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    Little River's Geographic Past