I like to think of myself as a curious guy. I even take pride in it, and in feeling that I actually know a few things. Thus when I discover an episode of history right in my backyard that I didn’t know the least bit about, I am humbled at how much I don’t know, and how much is yet to be learned.
That’s what happened to me when, entirely by accident, I stumbled across this article in a journal called Southern Spaces. Even more humbling to me as a Missouri history aficionado, it was written by someone from the University of Sussex. You should really read the whole article; it’s long but fascinating. But here’s a short summary.
The Great Depression hit everyone hard, but one group hit hardest was the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the South. Falling prices, increased mechanization, government policies, and environmental disasters all combined to make these most marginal citizens even more marginal than ever. In southeast Missouri, this tenuous existence had been worsened in a January 1937 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the levee on the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on Cairo, Illinois, across the river; they gave the 12,000 tenants and sharecroppers on the Missouri side three days to pack their belongings and get out.
These refugees, moved by the federal Resettlement Administration to camps in and around Charleston, were fed and housed by the government, but only a few received permanent resettlement. A cooperative farm known as LaForge Farms was created, but only 100 homes were built, with 60 of those homes reserved for white people (the tenant farmers and sharecroppers were overwhelmingly African-American). In response, many of the displaced farmers joined the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which had been established in northeast Arkansas a few years earlier.
Now jump ahead two years, to January 1939. The forces at work in the lives of the tenant farmers were still at work, most notably the federal government’s attempt to prop up commodity prices by paying landowners to take acreage out of production – which meant that those landowners had even less need for tenants or sharecroppers. So when the turn of the new year came, the traditional time for the renewal of agreements between landowners and their tenants, many of those folks received eviction notices instead.
In the past, a farmer receiving an eviction notice would have mourned, regretted the news, maybe tried to convince the landowner to let him stay another year, and eventually moved on in search of a new tenancy. But these farmers, pressed to the extreme by circumstances and awakened by their organizing, chose a different path.
The farmers, the union, and other groups like the NAACP and the St. Louis chapter of the Urban League, knowing that large-scale evictions were probably coming, had alerted the news media, and on January 10, some 1,500 people (including about 200 white tenant farmers and sharecroppers) gathered their belongings and created roadside encampments alongside Highway 61 and Highway 60, the two great artery highways of Southeast Missouri. As Jarod Roll, the author of the Southern Spaces article, puts it, “In over a dozen camps, large and small, they erected makeshift tents by draping blankets and sheets over stick frames. Into these tents they moved whatever clothing, food and belongings they had brought. They unloaded straw ticks and corn shuck mattresses from old cars and trucks, parking the vehicles close to their camps to provide shelter for children and the elderly. With this work finished, they sat down among kin, friends and neighbors to wait for the nation to wake up and respond to their collective statement of discontent.”
And respond it did. The Associated Press, major area newspapers, and the Farm Security Administration (the new name for the Resettlement Administration) all sent photographers. It is our good fortune that the FSA photographer who happened to be in the area, and who was sent to document the demonstration, was the great Arthur Rothstein, creator of the iconic “Dust Bowl” photograph of a farmer and his two sons. Thus we have these unforgettable images of the Bootheel roadside encampments – and their subsequent dismantling.
The initial outcry over the photographs and news stories reached all the way to the White House, with both Roosevelts responding to the farmers’ plight. Federal officials hurried to the Bootheel to talk to the farmers and their representatives.
But state and local officials, stung by the bad publicity, had other ideas. The local papers portrayed the farmers as the unwitting tools of social agitators, and the state health commissioners declared the camps to be a menace to public health because they lacked clean water and sanitary toilets. (Did the typical sharecropper’s cabin have clean water and sanitary toilets? You guess.) So the state highway patrol and local law enforcement officers were instructed to remove the demonstrators from the roadside.
By a sad coincidence, many of the evicted farmers were relocated to camps on the same ground that had been flooded by the Corps of Engineers two years earlier. The primary advantage of this location, from the authorities’ viewpoint, was that it was many miles off the highway and thus out of sight, and could be guarded by local officers to keep the press away. The state health commissioner actually referred to these sites as “concentration camps.” And when word arrived that President Roosevelt had authorized the sending of tents, food, and most alarmingly cash grants and relocation loans to the farmers, the local authorities moved again, breaking up the farmers into even smaller groups and dumping some of them on back roads.
Finally, in 1940 and 1941, the FSA built more than 600 homes for the displaced farmers at sites scattered around the Bootheel, although again with a racial disparity of two homes for white families for every one home for an African-American one. It even tried out an experiment in providing low-cost medical care to the poor families, and more than 1,200 families signed up for the plan. But continued opposition from local politicians, who saw the FSA settlements as hotbeds for union activism, led to the eventual privatization of the homes and subcontracting of the health service to Blue Cross. Fortunately, a last burst of activism and fund-raising allowed most of the residents to buy the homes that they had been renting from the FSA.
It’s a remarkable story of struggle, collective action, and the disenfranchisement of the poor that echoes to us today. And doggone, why had I not heard it until now? I’m chagrined at the many things I haven’t learned.
(P.S.: Here’s another blogger’s account of that fateful event.)