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Southern Tenant Farmers Museum explores Arkansas sharecropping story

January 17, 2020 Destination North America No Comments Email Email


The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, an Arkansas State University Heritage Site in Tyronza, has been accepted into the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a global association of museums, historical sites and public memory initiatives that maintain places where important civil and human rights history occurred.

The museum weaves the story of the tenant farming and sharecropping systems with the history of the lives of the people who experienced it. Using photographs, artifacts, oral histories and vintage 1930s news reels, visitors to the museum gain a true sense of the obstacles tenant farmers overcame in their quest for a better way of life for themselves and their families.

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 percent of all farmers operated under the system; by the end of the 1930s, the ratio had grown to 40 percent.

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. Thus began a movement to take control for those who could not take control for themselves.

The members of the union – black and white, male and female – were committed to making life better for tenant farmers who had been exploited for over half a century.

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum is located on Main Street at Chicago and Frisco Streets in downtown Tyronza. Learn more about the museum at stfm.astate.edu.



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