Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza
When 18 men came together on a steamy July day in 1934, they surely could not have realized the historical significance of that meeting. The group was comprised of black and white tenant farmers, which was a significant occurrence in itself during a time of racial inequalities. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union would break racial barriers throughout its existence, most notably the inclusion of women and blacks in the organization and administration of the union.
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 and were forced to agree to the demands of the owners in order to ensure the survival of their families. The poorest of the farmers, who had no capital or equipment, turned to sharecropping. Sharecropping 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. Such practices meant that many farmers never resolved their debt to the landowner. 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 (AAA), 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 and evicted the tenant farmers and sharecroppers because they were now viewed as unnecessary.
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. Earlier in 1934, a planter had evicted 23 families from his land, leaving them homeless and virtually destitute. 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 for over half a century. Although the union members often faced violence, they continued their work passionately and the STFU continued to grow throughout the 1930s – claiming over 30,000 members by 1938. The Union oversaw a major cotton pickers’ strike in 1935 that succeeded in bringing higher wages throughout the area, as well as supporting strikes in Missouri, Louisiana and California, which brought national attention to the circumstances workers faced.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum weaves the story of the tenant farming and sharecropping systems with the history of the lives of the people who endured it. Using photographs, artifacts, oral histories and vintage 1930s news reels, the visitors to the museum will get a true sense of what tenant farmers overcame in their quest for a better way of life for themselves and their families. The exhibits were developed in conjunction with the Arkansas State University Museum and the ASU Heritage Studies Ph.D. program.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum is located on Main Street at Chicago and Frisco Streets in downtown Tyronza.