Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
TYRONZA — It was nationally famous once, but even here where it was founded, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was largely forgotten before Arkansas State University opened the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum. The STFU deserves to be remembered. In the history of organized labor, of civil rights, of Arkansas and the South, the STFU mattered.
The tenant farmers and agricultural day laborers who organized the STFU were the most oppressed workers in Arkansas in the 1930s, and that’s saying a lot. Before the Civil War, Southern planters grew their cotton with slave labor. After the war, slavery was succeeded by an agricultural arrangement that wasn’t a great deal better. Tenant farmers and day laborers, black and white, worked land owned by the planters. Tenant farmers paid cash rent or a percentage of their crop proceeds to the landowners. Day laborers worked for an hourly wage. Both were sometimes referred to as “sharecroppers,” the laborers more often. A tenant provided his own stock and implements. The cropper provided only his labor.
Drought and the Great Depression had devastated farm income by the ’30s. Even if all the planters had been honest, little money would have reached the tenants and laborers. In practice, both groups were routinely cheated by the planters, so that often as not, all that the tenants and laborers got in exchange for their work was more credit at the company store.
“In July 1934, 11 white men and seven black men joined together under the leadership of two Tyronza area businessmen, H.L. Mitchell and Clay East, to form the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU),” a Museum brochure says. “Women also were welcomed into the union, many in leadership roles.”
It sounds strange today, but Socialists walked the land openly in those hard times — Communists too — and businessmen Mitchell and East were both Socialists. The STFU Museum is located in the building that housed Mitchell’s dry cleaning shop and East’s service station, and in the old Bank of Tyronza building next door.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas says that “after some discussion,” the black-and-white founders of the STFU “decided that the union should be fully integrated, recognizing that they shared similar needs and economic situations. This was a stunning break with the past.”
STFU organizers and sympathizers were arrested and beaten. One white organizer was arrested on charges that included calling a black man “Mister.” A deputy sheriff who’d arrested STFU members and put them to work on his own farm was himself convicted in federal court of peonage. One of the most interesting exhibits in the museum is a showing of an old “March of Time” newsreel, the kind of thing that was seen in movie theaters before television, about the STFU and the dangers it faced.
Against tall odds, the STFU spread to neighboring counties, and then to neighboring states, using strikes, marches and rallies to demand fair compensation for farm labor. But on the eve of World War II, the union began to fall apart.
“National attention gravitated to the threat of war, which, combined with the advent of the mechanical cotton picker, tractors, and the Great Migration [of workers from the South], rendered the STFU increasingly irrelevant,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas says. “It soon survived in name only.” It’s even deader now, but the memory is fresh at the STFU Museum.
The best way to get there from Little Rock is east on I-40 to I-55, north on I-55 to U.S. 63, north on 63 to Tyronza. Once at Tyronza, population 889, there’s no problem finding Main Street and the museum. It’s well worth the trip, and would be especially valuable to students. They probably won’t want to go, but, as somebody said, to know nothing of the world before you were born is to remain a child forever.
The museum hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for major holidays. A $5 donation is requested for admission, but senior citizens and groups with reservations get in for $3 each. Souvenirs are available, including a wonderful book about the STFU, “Cry from the Cotton,” by Donald H. Grubbs.
Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites for ASU, said “a trickling of people” had visited the museum since it opened in October, “but we haven’t really started advertising yet. We’ll do more.”
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