Walking Back in Time…My Visit to the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum

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I have learned through my genealogy journey that sometimes you have research a city, a county, or an organization to learn more about a relative.  This is definitely the case with my maternal great-grandfather, Oscar Wright.  He was born in 1864 in Mississippi.  I haven’t been able to find any records of him expect for his death certificate, marriage license, and the census reports.  There are no photos of him that I have located either.  So decided to learn more about where he lived and what life was like there in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  I learned during our family reunion last year that he was a share cropper.  So that’s where I started.

In my research of Woodruff County and the farming community, I learned about the Great Flood of 1927 that affected the farming communities in Mississippi and eastern Arkansas. This past October I discovered the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.   The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was created in 1934 in Tyronza, Arkansas.  By 1937, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was active in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas.  It was established as a response to policies of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Part of the New Deal, the AAA was a program to increase prices of commodities.  The landowners were paid subsidies, which they were supposed to pass along to their tenant sharecroppers.  But in most cases the landowners kept all of the subsidies.  The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was one of few unions in the 1930s that was open to all races.  The Southern Tenant Farmers Union promoted non violent protests to gain their fair share of the AAA money.  They also promoted the goal of blacks and whites working together.  The members of this union were often harassed by landowners and local public officials, attached and many were killed.

 I found that the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has some of their meeting notes on microfilm.  I went to look at them, but they provided no names of members.  I also found there is a Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum in Tyronza, Arkansas.  The museum is a part of Arkansas State University.   I decided that this was a museum I had to go to.  I had the opportunity to visit the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum a few weeks ago.  I was visiting one of my college friends that currently lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and she eagerly agreed that we should go  to the museum together.  So she, my son, and I made the 30 minute drive from Jonesboro to Tyronza for an afternoon of genealogy and history fun.  When we got there I must admit I wasn’t too impressed with it at first sight.  The building was the dry cleaning business of H. L. Mitchell and the service station of Clay East, the two founders of the union.  But once we got inside and saw all the photos, exhibits, and information I knew I was going to find out some interesting information that would help my journey.

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Me looking at some of the photos wondering if my grandfather is among the people on the walls.

 

This visit brought to life what it was like to be a farmer in northeast Arkansas during the 1930s.  I was able to see how much cotton was picked and what it looked like.  I was able to see photos of members of the union meeting, working, or celebrating moments of their lives.  I was able to see what a sharecroppers home would have looked like and how they lived.  We had a wonderful tour guide that explained what it was like to live in northeast Arkansas from the Civil War through Reconstruction and later in the 1930s.  And he explained the importance of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the impact it had on the local community and the nation.

Now I love going to museums.  I always have a museum visit on my vacation itinerary.  But this is the first time I went to a museum for my genealogy research.  It was like this was my first time visiting a museum.  I thought about was this a place that my ancestors visited?  Was I walking in the same building as my ancestors? As I looked at the photos on the wall wondering if I was looking at my great-grandfather, other ancestors, people he worked with, or people who knew my family.  I learned during this visit that because being apart of this union was considered dangerous, there didn’t keep very good records of their members.  So unfortunately I don’t know if my grandfather was a member or even involved with this union.  But I was able to learn about the community in which he and his family lived and worked in, and that information is just as important.  And this is why the journey continues….   

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