The Forgotten Farmers

The historian Conrad called the landless farm worker in the Bootheel and the cotton South, The Forgotten Farmers. Within this mind set The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was born. Organized at Tyronza in July of 1934, the STFU held out hope for what at the time must have seemed like a hopeless situation. Their circumstances had pushed hope to the bottom of their expectations.

The STFU was fathered by two socialist, H. L Clay and East Mitchell. Mitchell had at one time been a sharecropper. During the depression, both were small time business men in this small community in Northeast Arkansas. Mitchell had a dry cleaning business while East operated a gas station.

After failing in an attempt to organize socialist locals in Arkansas, the two men turned their efforts to organizing a union. Inspired by Norman Thomas, several times candidate for United States President as a Socialist; a person already truly interested and knowledgeable about the conditions and problem of the sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta. Thomas feared the Communists would find American’s farm workers a rich field for exploitation wanted to offer the sharecropper the Socialist option.

With the complete blessing of Thomas, Mitchell and East set about organization a sharecroppers’ union. The purpose of the union would be, according the STFU preamble, “dedicated to the complete abolition of tenantry and wage slavery in all its forms”.

One of the favorite means of white plantation control was the practice of playing the black and whites against each other. As neither side trusted the other, it was really effective. For most white farmers, regardless of his place in the social-economic scale, saw the blacks as less than human and avoided contact when possible. In spite of knowing these feeling, Mitchell and East, early on, decided to form one union including both races. Both groups of renters, sharecroppers, and day labors saw their situation so bleak they put aside their fears, distrust, and prejudice to joint this effort to better their lives.

Although a Negro minister was named vice-chairmen, and the membership biracial, the leadership was white. This was especially true in the early days of the organization. East became the first president; Mitchell, the executive secretary and the key figure in directing union policy. Later J. R. Butler served as president while Howard Kester served as Norman Thomas’ personal representative to the STFU.

AAA officials were aware of the possibility that the planters would find a way to keep most of the parity payment. Rules were again written into the contracts to prevent planters for changing the status of their workers. However, little could be done to prevent it. One of the reasons the checks were made out to the landowners was political. To make the plan work, the government needed the cooperation of the planter.

Another was practical. This was the days before computers. Over a million contracts were in force. There were an unknown Number of renters, sharecroppers, and share renters. Keeping this large Number of workers straight would have overpowered the system. So the AAA had to trust the local county committees, so they were given broad powers. The county committees were to judge the landlord’s intent as to whether the landlord, in eviction croppers, intended to chisel them out of their parity payment or if his action was honest because he legitimately no longer needed their help. These county committees were makeup of the planters.

The STFU questioned the election of the AAA county committees, while all farmers theoretically were eligible to vote, the elections were seldom held on a uniform date even within one state. More importantly, if a tenant or chopper attempted to exercise their voting right this usually trigged the wrath of the larger planters.

If the status of cropper was changed to day labor, it was up the cropper to prove the change was economically necessary. County committees were usually quick to inform all planters when a cropper complained. A lowly cropper found himself in an unattainable situation. To complain or fight the landlord and owner after eviction would possible kill his changes of even working as a day labor in the area.

The STFU quickly became the New Deal’s AAA cotton programs critic. The union charged the government was helping those farmers needing the program least the large planter, while at the same time hurting those who needed it most, the croppers and tenants. By 1930, almost 90 percent of the cash income came from 50 percent of the total farm population total farm population while the other 50 percent struggled with the rest of the farm income. With the AAA insisting that the parity payment continued pouring into the hands of larger cotton farmers, the STFU became the voice for southern tenant farmers and quickly acquired an enthusiastic following during the early days of the New Deal.

By 1935, the union claimed a five-state membership of over 35,000. Their influence had spread to include members not only in Arkansas, but also in Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma. In Southeast Missouri, union activities were slow in stating. Primarily, this was because in the early thirties, the major efforts were focused on eastern Arkansas, where like Bootheel of Missouri, the cotton culture was relative new with the problems seemingly worse than elsewhere in the South.

Essential a reign of terror erupted in Eastern Arkansas during the earlier 1930’s. Planters violently resisted the union’s organization efforts. The challenge to their control, their power, was met with panic and shock. To the southern white male, this challenge awakens their great fear, nobody tells me what to do, and that had been part of the psychic sense before 1800. Even being a major cause of the Civil War.

STFU headquarters had to be moved to Memphis because the planters’ resistance grew so violent. Union organized had to frequently fled across the Mississippi River to escape the furious Arkansas planters and their hired thugs. The greatest insult, as seen by the landlords, was not the efforts to organize the labor they needed to produce crops, this was bad enough, but to do it bi-racially was way beyond the pale. This insult to the white race went way beyond endurance.  It went against human nature and God’s plan. It was an unforgettable sin. Thus, violence was justified.

Regardless of the opposition, the STFU gradually make its voice heard. Mainly their efforts brought the growing tenant farms plight to public awareness. The problem grew so large by 1935, President Roosevelt appointed a special committee for the study of farm tenancy in the United States.

Because of the Arkansas problems, it was not until 1936 that STFU’s union organizers were sent into Southeast Missouri. Survival filled the early years. Union efforts started in the Bootheel largely because of Thad Snow, a reasonable large plantation near Charleston, Missouri. They came at his invitation.

Several nick names were attached to Snow: the “Cotton Field Confucius”, the “Bootheel philosopher”, or the “Sage of Swampeast Missouri”. As a letter writer to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was a regular correspondence talking about the region and the actives of the populace. The phrase “Swampeast Missouri” was one he frequently was referred to jokingly.

His 1000 acre farm supported about 20 families. For a prosperous man, he was somewhat difference as he often lectured the other planter in the area on their failure to provide for their tenants better. Snow recognized the sharecroppers had a miserable life full of hard labor. His neighbors respected and admired him. At the same time, they were suspicious of his radical ideas and little doubt where he would stand if a planter –tenant confrontation in the Bootheel took place.

Educated at the University of Michigan, a product of Indiana, Snow was an immigrant into Missouri. This explained his not sharing the traditional Southern attitude about sharecroppers in general and blacks especially. He once wrote in a letter to Post-Dispatch, “In so far as we have a class struggle in the cotton county, my sympathies are definitely with the poor devils that bend their back to do our work.” He saw his being born and bred in the North was an advantage in that he could observe the southern-planter psychology with a degree of objectify

Snow was reared in the tradition of Civil War-era Republicanism. However, he had abandoned the Grand Old Party before moving to Southeast Missouri. Then, he generally favored the Democrats, but gradually advancing towards being an independent political thinker while flirting with the Progressive Party. After making contacts with Socialist, he supported the Democrats’ for a while before he started criticizing the New Deal. Late in the 1930’s, his political views became more radical.

While Snow was generally accepted by those who knew him as a friend even if he was eccentric and a radical with foreign idea. Not so by those that only knew him through his writings. To them he was a Communist. Many Bootheel citizens believed the rumor that he kept in his basement a shortwave radio on which he make regular calls to Russia, presumable to talk with Joseph Stalin and other high ranking Soviet government officials.

Snow liked for others to think of him as a real farmer who got his hands dirty tilling the soil. In reality, his profits came from the work of hired hands, and sharecroppers.

At Snow’s request the STFU send John Hancox, a young black poet and songwriter to set ups the first Union local in Missouri. Hancox was sometimes called “John Henry”; organized dozens of local in Missouri while planter Snow worked at convince his fellow planters that the union was a good thing.

 Hancox’s influence soon disappears and replaced by Owen H. Whitefield a local Negro sharecropper and part-time traveling preach. He joined just a few months after the Missouri local was formed. He soon emerged as the unquestionable leader of the region’s union. Whitfield was the mastermind behind the 1939 roadside demonstration that brought more nation-wide awareness to the plight of the farm labors of the South.

After what Owen Whitfield had what he considered a deep religious experience, he decided it was not the Lords fault he had to work so hard and his family was still hungry, but his own. Shortly after that he joined the STFU even through it was dominated by whites. He soon became enthusiastic about the potential the union had for improving the lives of both black and white tenant farmers.

Whitfield had been preaching for 14 years when he joined the union in 1937. At this climacteric time he was pastor of a Number of rural Bootheel churches. His unionizing efforts became centered, indispensable, within rural churches. This was where he had most of his personal contacts. Within these churches, most of the membership was farm labors of one type of another. Union membership grew quickly from within these churches.

Churches could be used as clandestine meeting places for many of the early union meetings. There, night meeting could be held without alerting the planters. Perhaps more importantly, the pulpit served as place where Whitfield could express his ideas and hopes as well as pass along union news to members and potential members.

It is reported that his messages were social gospel delivered in an eloquent and powerful style. His is credited using colorful phrases his audience related to like: “Take your eyes out of the sky because someone is stealing your bread.”  Another quote to make a nation publication was: “I’m not preachin’ ’bout heaven. No sir! I’m preacin’ the brotherhood of man . . . the applied religion!”

It did not take long for the charismatic Whitfield to attract a large following. He also carried his message into the fields to the white workers. As a recruiter, he carried to hand drawn cartoons with him. One pictured two mules, on black and one white, pulling against each other towards two piles of hay. The other showing the mules yoked together with them getting both piles of hay. This was the way he showed that working together more was accomplished.

One of the surprises he found in the fields was that the white workers hated the planters more than the black labors did. Many of the whites wanted to take violent action, burning barns or killing the offending planters, after Whitfield numerated the overlord’s offenses. Black workers reacted more calmly, seemingly to more readily accept their mistreatment as just another part of their normally difficult life.

Whitfield was not candid with all the white persons he met. When he suspected hostilely from an encounter, he converted into his favorite character, the role of a “poor dumb nigger from Mississippi.”  Thus letting the hostile individual assume that in is presence is just another happy, carefree darkie that knew his place. Thus, the situation was defused.

As Thad Snow and Owen Whitfield lived less than ten miles apart it did not take long for the two men to meet. Snow was a student of Thorstein Veblen, an economist and sociologist whose writing stressed his social conscience and problems of the poor. As Whitfield was a ferment social reformer of a more practical nature, the two men messed, the idealist and the practical.

That Snow was Whitfield’s sounding board. He openly discussed the problems of the sharecropper with Snow, one of the few plantation owners the croppers trusted.  Snow was a man Whitfield respected and listened to attentively when he asked how to solve a problem or what approach he needed to take in a given situation. Snow became a close personal friend and official economic and political mentor.

The federal government has acquired 608 acres of land in the LaForge, Mo., community, where a resettlement project is planned; the government intends to take title to 5,100 acres more within 10 days; the program is being worked out by the Farm Security Administration and is a rehabilitation effort to assist sharecroppers, farm laborers and renters who now live on the land the government is buying.

In 1937 the Farm Security Administration, (FSA), build housing to help rehabilitate displaced share croppers in New Madrid County. LaForge was an experiment trying to determine the effectiveness and worth of a family-type cooperative farm in solving the problems of sharecroppers and tenants. A 6,700 acre tract was purchased in an attempt to re-establish 100 sharecropper families. The plan was to provide them with a four or five room house for each family with a loan averaging about $1,300 to purchase livestock, feed, and machinery, along with other farm equipment.

Along with the house and farm equipment, FSA would provide trained experts and home supervisors to teach farming practices like soil conservation and crop diversification. Wives would learn canning, food utilization and budgeting, and other vocational house whole training. The LaForge Cooperative Association after establishment would provide the community with a gin, a warehouse along with other modern services such as running indoor water.

Before this effort was over, the FSA spent close to $500,000 in the Bootheel and helped about 11,000 families. While a worthy program, it was doomed to failure. The farm plots were too small to be economical feasible. With the introduction of the tractor in the 1930’s, it was recognized by most farm experts that larger plots of land was needed.

In later interviews by federal officials, many black said that in 1937 and 1938, they had applied for help from WPA and FSA and were refused. The WPA kept putting them off telling them to apply at a different office; or they there told to go home and wait for a notification which never came.

Hans Baasch LaForge Project manager’s 1939 February report stated that more than10, 000 applications to joined the project had been received. When the STFU surveyed the project, they found that of the 286 individuals interviewed, 250 stated they had a job on a farm under FSA control.

In 1937 Owen Whitfield became vice president of STFU. Among the perks of the position was a monthly income of $100.

One of the qualifications to be eligible for residence in LaForge was to live in New Madrid County. The Whitfield’s did not meet this qualification as he resided in Mississippi County. It was believed that Snow used his influence at the urging of the STFU.

By the end of 1938, Southeast Missouri had 20 STFU locals. The estimated membership was nearly 5,000. Whitfield saw the union as an indispensable tool to improve the conditions of the people that labored in the fields. Now even the lowliest labor in the Bootheel had a way to express their discontent.

One of the prime purposes of the STFU was to call attention to the plight of the conditions faced by the farm labor. One of the most effective means of doing this was by calling labor strikes and pulling workers from the cotton fields during a critical time such as the harvest. Strikes were called by the STFU in 1935, 1936, and 1938 in hopes of raising wages for farm workers. Such efforts in the Bootheel were largely unsuccessful because the planters brought in strikebreakers for southern Illinois.

In 1938, the enticement to change to day labor was greatly increased. Because to the bumper crop the year before the AAA was again facing a large surplus and wanted to eliminate it by a 40 percent reduction in acreage. Because in part of the STFU criticism, the New Dealers acreage cutting in the past had eliminated farm jobs the new regulations were changed in early1938. With a new reduction they knew more jobs would be lost. To preserve the sharecroppers’ income the AAA planners increase his share from 25 cents, based on the 1937 regulation to 50 cents in 1938.

In 1937 that meant the landlord got 50 percent of the parity check, the renter received 25 percent and the cropper 25 percent. Or if there was not renter the check was divided 75-25. According to the new 1938 law, the landlord received 25 percent, the renter 25 percent with the sharecropper receiving 50 percent and if there was no renter, the money was divided 50-50 between the landlord and cropper. In theory, the landlord was to turn over an additional 25 percent of the crop payment to the cropper.

In the Bootheel a common arrangement was the absentee owner and sharecropper overseen by a hired manager. Under this agreement, a 75-25 crop payment in 1938 would become 50-50. With a renter contract, the 50-25-25 would convert to 25-25-50 with the renter getting the 50 percent. Now the temptation increased for the landlord to evict both the renter and the sharecropper, thus keeping the full payment. Under the 1938 law a new wrinkle surfaced. Some of the larger renters and salaried managers evicted some croppers after the 1938 harvest without informing their landlords and keeping the difference in pay.

Whitfield observed closely the action of the salaried agents and maintained that agents and overseers frequently cheated their companies and the croppers. It was easy for overseers to keep checks from croppers, if he so desired. The cropper simply did not see the check even if he was aware he had money due.  This was the temptation of the landowner, large renter, and salaried agent, that to double, or at least increase their share of the government payments by simply removing the cropper as it happened in the mass eviction at 1938’s harvest end.

In reality, prior to this in Southeast Missouri evictions had been taking place, not however, on such a massive scale. Enough evictions, that in 1934 and 1935, the AAA sent investigators into the area. The investigators reported that the accounts were wildly exaggerated. By year’s end, 1937, near Sikeston 21 families were evicted and 25 from Wyatt.

Complaining of the evictions, Whitfield in 1938 wrote Roosevelt. He requested protection under the farm law for croppers. The government’s response urged the croppers to take their complaints to the FSA supervisors, which was made up of planters.

However, the new 1939 law requiring doubling the croppers’ share of parity payment in 1939 triggered extensive evictions. At the end of the 1938 harvest, approximately 70 planters eliminated the position of sharecroppers. If they did not have the financial means to become renters, they became day labors.

It was ironical that attempts to help croppers by increasing their parity payment by the AAA turned to harm them. The laws became the direct opposite of what the planners hoped. Instead of making the sharecropping system fairer, the laws and rules in fact had exactly the opposite effects; it rapidly broke the system down.

The absentee landlord, being away from dealing with the evicted, was removed by the suffering it caused. The resident owners who lived and worked the Bootheel’s farms, complained with some justification that the new rules could be destructive to him. That the government payment was needed to make his land payments, to cover the money he borrowed for furnish, and if much of his land lay unplanted these and other obligations could not be met.

Thad Snow observed that the cotton program was a failure to make the labor payment based only for labor preformed. Snow, knowing these men remarked, they were not bad men but men operating within a bad system.

The normal practice on Bootheel cotton plantation was to give two evictions notices. The first was given on the first of November. Sharecroppers then would have 60 days to find another place to work. Final eviction notice came by tradition on New Year’s. Then “Moving Day” came after a ten day grace period.

Towards the end of 1938, Whitfield learns about the wholesale evictions due at the end of the year. He estimated some 900 families were to be evicted. As written notices were not given, it is impossible to have an accurate count. Most of them, according to established custom were simply told their services were not long needed.

Later, the Sikeston Standard, the Charleston Enterprise Courier, and the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian charged as there were no written noticed the croppers had not been legally evicted.  Technically this was true, just the entire question was ideographic. To legally evict a tenant, an evictions order had to be register with legal authorities. Even the few receiving written notices of eviction, the order had not been properly registered. Those leaving would have a hard time proving their leaving had not been voluntarily.

As many of the croppers were too docile, especially blacks, very few of them were forcefully evicted at gunpoint. Therefore, only a verbal notice was necessary to prompt a tenant to move. For years, one of the efforts by the STFU was the practice of farmer-tenant contracts. In 1935, 80 percent of the farm leases were oral agreements only. Unless a tenant heard otherwise before the 60 day period of tenancy termination he assumed he had contract for the next year.

When Whitfield heard of the eviction after the 1938 harvest, wanting to help the homeless croppers, he went to St. Louis speaking to several service organizations. While there, he became involved in the rapidly growing power struggle between the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) and the United Cannery Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).  While Mitchell and the other leaders were cool towards the UCAPAWA, Whitfield looked more favorably towards this group. He believed their connection to the St. Louis Industrial Union Council, the city’s central CIO body, would give the STFU more power.

The UCAPAWA was so impresses with Whitfield‘s enthusiasm for their group and the CIO, after he hitchhiked to Denver in 1937, to attend their meeting. For a while he took a salary from both groups. At this meeting, the two groups merged. With the STFU a part of the CIO, Whitfield was one of the six STFU selected to the UCAPAWA executive council of 21 members in 1938.



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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