The 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers
morning in January 1939, residents of southeastern Missouri awoke to a startling
sight. More than 1,000 sharecroppers - mostly African American but whites too -
had camped out alongside two state highways with their families and a few meager
belongings. They were taking a stand - against the planters, the federal
government, and the desperate conditions of their lives.
encapsulates the saga of rural African American life since Emancipation: how
Black farmers' back-breaking efforts to become self-sufficient were continually
undermined by patterns of land-ownership, swindling planters and misguided
government policy; how a debt cycle induced by sharecropping condemned them to
wretched poverty; and how attempts by sharecroppers to organize and improve
their lot were met with often-bloody white opposition.
The final straw for
these sharecroppers came when they were evicted by planters out to pocket New
Deal depression farm subsidies for themselves. The Rev. Owen Whitfield, a
cropper and part-time preacher who became vice president of the Southern Tenant
Farmers' Union, began to organize the desperate farmers. "Take your eyes out of
the sky," Rev. Whitfield preached, "because someone is stealing your bread."
Many white sharecroppers also recognized that their interests lay with Rev.
Whitfield and joined in his roadside protest strike despite the racist pressures
of Jim Crow.
Day after day, the protesters huddled in tents with little
protection against the frigid cold. The American Red Cross refused to help,
calling their struggle "a man-made" disaster. Rev. Whitfield was forced to flee
because of threats against his life.
But as Rev. Whitfield had hoped,
dramatic photos, newspaper stories, and newsreels brought their plight to the
nation. An embarrassed state government sent troopers to haul the protesters
away to sites far from public view. "Concentration camps," the protesters called
them. But students from historically black Lincoln University and activists from
St. Louis Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers were attracted
to the cause. With their assistance, some sharecroppers, still led by Owen
Whitfield, established a cooperative farming community called Cropperville. And
the Farm Security Administration was pressured to create ten other communities
for sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel. Government officials and even
planters began to discuss ways to help the sharecroppers.
After the changes
wrought by WWII and mechanization, residents began moving away from Cropperville
and the other communities, many joining the migration North. But their protest
demonstrated that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Despite the odds
they organized themselves, shut down a highway, attracted national attention,
and changed government policies. Film: "Oh Freedom