Few Americans know anything about the underpinnings of our agriculture system, yet almost half of America’s population lived on a farm when our nation entered the twentieth century. Fast forward to the year 2000 and only about one percent of Americans lived on farms. This is largely attributed to small family farms being bought out and morphing into institutionally-owned mega-farms worked by specialized machinery. But the time frame in between is largely a story of hard times and transition.
Before the Civil War and mostly in the south, farms were worked by slave labor. However, after the Civil War, day laborers and tenant farmers replaced the former slave-based system as the source of agricultural labor, consisting of almost as many poor whites as it did freed blacks. This system basically allowed farm laborers to rent the land from an owner for a percentage of the crop. If the owner had to provide equipment and seed, the laborer became known as a sharecropper. Unfortunately, the numbers of white tenant farmers grew and by 1935, almost half of white farmers and 77 percent of black farmers in the country would be landless. The onset of drought and the Great Depression would devastate farm income during the 1930’s and dramatically force change to what had become an accepted part of southern life.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum chronicles the plight of “tenant farming and agricultural labor movements in the Mississippi River Delta, in an effort to preserve the history and promote the legacy of sharecropping, tenant farming and the farm labor movement as well as the history of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.” In doing so, it introduces period films, photographs, and oral history that powerfully and poignantly portrays the troubling times. Out of this misery came the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the first integrated union in the nation that would consist of 11 white members and seven black members. The acceptance of blacks and women into membership and leadership positions would also mark the union as progressive for its time.Their first meeting was in July 1934 and membership would eventually peak to about 35,000 members in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. The ultimate irony of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union would be in that the south was the birthplace and precursor to a civil rights movement which would not seize the national conscience for another 30 years.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum includes songs by John Handcox, a powerful minstrel of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and poetic voice of southern sharecroppers. Born and raised in the Arkansas Delta, his songs and poems proved to be inspiration for the cause. Because of this connection, the museum is listed on the Arkansas Delta Music Trail.
Southern Tenant Farmers Museum
117 Main Street
Tyronza, Arkansas 72386