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5 Star Stories: Southern Tenant Farmers Museum shares history of farm labor movement

Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 10:48 PM CST
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TYRONZA, Ark. (WMC) - One hot July day in 1934, one of the most inspiring chapters in labor, African American, and women’s history began in the Mid-South in an Arkansas town about 45 minutes outside Memphis.

As we spotlight the people, places, and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, this story is about the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, which is roughly 900 residents strong.

The museum is just steps from the railroad tracks in the small town. As Arkansas State University heritage site director, Penny Toombs, put it, “I refer to it as the little hidden gem.” The museum is situated inside three beautifully renovated buildings that were actually constructed in 1916. But it’s the history inside, as told by the many displays, artifacts, and videos, that’s the real draw.

“Just think about, right here where we’re standing, they were meeting in this place,” recalled Toombs. “I mean, you had your black, your white, your women, your leaders coming together in this building. Back in the 30s, early 30s, you had Mitchell and East. They were two men in Tyronza.”

According to Toombs, H.L. Mitchell owned the dry cleaning business, while Clay East owned the adjoining gas station where the bulk of the museum now resides. They were Tyronza businessmen who saw how sharecroppers and tenant farmers were at the whim of landowners and being exploited. Those farmers paid the landowners one-third to half of their profits in order to and grow crops. Add to that the Great Depression and the Agricultural Administration Act that was supposed to help raise the price of cotton by paying the landowners and farmers to not plant a third of their crop.

“Well, what actually happened, the land was plowed up and then the government sends this money and the landowners get it and they’re supposed to pass that along,” Toombs explained.

But, she added that oftentimes, the landowners kept all of the money, which left those farmers and their families to starve. And since most of those farmers also owed the landlord money for what crops they could plant, as well as the credit they accrued at stores also owned by the landowners, they couldn’t just up and leave without violating the law. So, East and Mitchell formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, originally to protest the eviction of 23 farming families on a plantation near Tyronza.

It was real easy for the landowner to say, ‘you know what, just get off our land.’ And they would literally take what they had and would just have to go to fields or anywhere and were just put out on the road,” explained Toombs. To fight those injustices, East and Mitchell started the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in their businesses, which served as union meeting space and headquarters, making history by involving both black and white farmers, as well as placing women alongside men in leadership positions.

There were 11 white and seven black that came together to meet, and they said, “something’s got to be done here,” Toombs described.

After about a year, things got too dangerous for the union to continue operating in Tyronza and new offices were opened in Memphis. Membership also grew to 30,000 farm workers from all backgrounds throughout the region.

“And the Southern Tenant Farmers Union actually stayed active until the late 50s early 60s,” added Toombs.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum opened inside the old union headquarters 15 years ago, following major renovations. The old Tyronza Bank building is the entrance and gift shop complete with original furnishings, like the cashier cage and the old bank vault. Inside the museum, you’re able to watch and listen to interactive oral histories from people who lived through that time and experience, including the music and poetry of the movement as penned and performed by tenant farmer and union advocate, John Handcox.

There’s also artwork on display from Arkansas State University students.

“We have some visual art that some of the students from Arkansas State that came together and saw some of the tools that were used during that time and created sketches of how those would be used,” explained Toombs.

And as the brochure said, it also serves as a museum dedicated to the sharecropper lifestyle of Depression-era farm labor activities that grew into a national movement. Although the museum focuses on decades in the past, Toombs believes there’s a current lesson of which we can all be proud.

“Getting along with your fellow man, you know, putting aside differences that you may have and working together to help everybody. Listening to those voices that may look different than you,” she said.

And if you are a teacher, school district, or you home school, Toombs suggests contacting the museum to set up a tour. If you’d like the museum to help you come up with a lesson plan about that time period and the union in Tyronza, you can email the museum at STFM.AState.edu or call (870) 487-2909.

Incidentally, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum is one of four Arkansas State University heritage sites.

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