A photo posted recently on the Facebook page for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza caught my attention.
Next to the Mitchell-East Building, in which the museum is located, are two rows of cotton that are being cultivated to show visitors.
It’s a sign of the times as cotton, which once fueled the Arkansas economy, continues to become less of a factor. In Tyronza, it’s literally becoming a museum piece.
There was a time when cotton was grown in all 75 counties of the state. Even in the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, farmers attempted to scratch out a living with this cash crop. Aging, rusting gins, covered in vines, remain a common site across rural Arkansas.
In looking at the photo from Tyronza, it dawned on me that one cannot truly understand the history of Arkansas without first understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the American South.
“Several visitors to Arkansas in the early 1800s made note in their journals and writings of cotton being grown,” Van Hawkins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The crop remained a Southern staple because it needed hot summer days and warm summer night nights to bear abundant fruit. It also needed lots of labor, which in the South meant slaves, who handled every aspect of cotton production from planting in the spring to picking in the fall. After cotton planting and the achievement of a stand (a solid row of plants down each bedded row), the crop had to be blocked (elimination of all but one hardy plant per foot) and chopped to eliminate weeds and grass until a laid-by crop stood about waist high.
“Although farmers throughout the state planted cotton, the dark earth of the Arkansas Delta proved most hospitable, encouraging large crops each year in river counties such as Mississippi County in the north and Chicot County in the south. These counties, as did others in the Delta, had easy access to river transport and thus possessed an important shipping advantage over the state’s other cotton farmers.
“When the Civil War ended, slavery stopped as well, and wage labor, tenant farming or a combination of the two became the most common means of production. Typical regional farm wages in 1866 were $13 per month for men and $9 per month for women. Tenant shares varied but usually ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent. Sometimes there was little profit to share. Cotton prices fell after the Civil War and flat-lined through the late 1890s, killing off many Delta operators. For example, the price of lint, which is cotton fiber after the seed is removed, fell to about 9.4 cents per pound by 1888-89, barely covering the cost of production.”
As the 20th century neared, the size of Delta plantations became larger. Plantation owners employed hundreds and even thousands of tenant farmers.
“A typical Arkansas cotton tenant, black or white, rented 40 acres from a landowner and farmed with his own mules, harrow, planter and family for labor,” Hawkins writes. “Landowners got about one-fourth of the crop with the remainder going to the tenant. At the lower end of the tenant food chain, a sharecropper lacked equipment and capital so he farmed with landlord-supplied equipment and capital. Typically his family received only 50 percent of the crop and had to buy supplies and personal items from plantation commissaries, sometimes at high markups. Sharecroppers, particularly African-Americans who lacked mobility due to race, did little more than survive. They generally had little cash after settling up with landlords and often found themselves deeper in debt to the company store.”
Major cotton-related events in Arkansas history included the Lee County cotton picker strike of 1891, the Elaine massacre of 1919 and the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in 1934 as tension between landowners and tenant farmers grew.
“Profitable cotton prices, sometimes as high as 30 cents a pound, crashed along with the stock market at the beginning of the Great Depression,” Hawkins writes. “There was a drought of financing as banks closed and five-cent cotton devastated state producers. In 1933, the U.S. government devised a program to pay farmers for plowing up cotton acreage to reduce supply and, theoretically, create higher prices. The program made plow-up payments directly to landowners and directed them to share the money with tenants. However, some owners chose to evict tenants rather than share payments, which set in motion numerous conflicts between planters and tenants.”
The widespread mechanization of agriculture after World War II caused tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to lose their jobs. In Delta counties such as Mississippi and Phillips, the highest population was recorded in either the 1940 or 1950 census.
“One driver and one machine cleaned rows that previously required many hands to pick,” Hawkins writes. “Just as machines replaced hand labor on Arkansas farms, soybeans captured a growing share of state farm acreage. In the early 1960s, cotton generated about 33 percent of Arkansas’ agricultural income. By the 1980s, that percentage decreased to 20.”
The 2015 cotton acreage was the lowest on record in Arkansas with about 205,000 acres, but things have improved this year. More than 360,000 acres were planted in cotton for 2016.
“People are looking at their bottom line and potential returns on different commodities, and cotton is looking very favorable compared to all the other crops for 2016,” Bill Robertson, the extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said before planting began this year. “Grain sorghum isn’t nearly as attractive now as it was this time last year. Some folks had a few issues. They incurred expenses they weren’t expecting so a lot of them didn’t hit the home run with grain sorghum that they thought they were going to.”
Grain sorghum acreage had tripled to more than 500,000 acres in Arkansas last year. Despite the record low number of acres planted in cotton in 2015, Arkansas farmers had their fourth-highest recorded average yield at 1,112 pounds per acre.
“As acreage declines, the remaining cotton is on the better ground,” Robertson said. “Certainly some of our cotton-per-acre yield is increased because of the soil, but some of it is because of better genetics of our varieties.”
The United States is the third-largest cotton producer in the world behind India and China. Arkansas usually ranks in the top six states when it comes to acres planted in cotton.
U.S. farmers have benefited greatly as seed companies continue to develop varieties of cotton that produce higher yield and fiber quality.
“Five to 10 years ago, it really wasn’t possible to get a high fiber quality if you were going for maximum yield,” said Fred Bourland, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser in Mississippi County.
The outmigration from the Delta as cotton farming became mechanized set in motion population trends in the state that continue to this day.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a front-page story last week noting that 49 Arkansas counties lost population in 2015 and only 26 counties gained population. The state gained population overall — about 1,400 additional residents — with much of that growth fueled by the economic boom in northwest Arkansas.
The urbanization of Arkansas continues. It dawned on me that if you were to walk up to most northwest Arkansas residents holding a cotton plant, they would be unable to identify it.
Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, 39 counties gained population and 36 lost population. As you might guess, the counties that gained population tended to be in the northwest, west, central and north-central parts of the state. The counties that lost population tended to be in east and south Arkansas. There were exceptions. The Jonesboro area, for instance, has grown at a rapid rate since the turn of the century, fueling growth in Craighead and Greene counties.
In general, though, large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census due to the mechanization of agriculture. But that trend has accelerated in the past 15 years.
People are going to do what’s best for their families and go where the jobs are. What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now.
Still, it remains important that we understand how cotton agriculture shaped the state.
The aforementioned Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza, which opened in October 2006, is one of the best places to gain that understanding. The museum, which was developed by Arkansas State University, is in the Mitchell-East Building, which during the 1930s housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry-cleaning business and Clay East’s service station. Mitchell and East were instrumental in the formation in July 1934 of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.
“The fact that the STFU was integrated, that women played a critical role in its organization and administration, and that fundamentalist church rituals and regional folkways were basic to the union’s operation foreshadowed the post-war civil rights era,” historian William Cobb writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A series of natural disasters in the late 1920s and early 1930s, plus the unique circumstances present in Poinsett County, led to the formation of the STFU. The flood of 1927 revealed the desperate plight of the Delta cropper to the outside world, sparking the interest of unionists and the Socialist Party.
“In Poinsett County, there was some sympathy for socialist ideas among area merchants. The stock market collapse of 1929, coupled with the drought of 1930-31, totally destroyed farm income. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, as part of a New Deal attempt to raise the price of cotton, paid planters to plow up a percentage of the crop their tenants had already planted. Fifty percent of this payment was meant for the tenant or cropper, but planters devised means to keep almost all of the money. With increasing incentives not to grow cotton, many planters evicted their tenants, leaving them homeless. Indeed, the event that set into motion the creation of the STFU was planter Hiram Norcross removing 23 families from his plantation in late spring 1934.
“At the Sunnyside School on the boundary of Norcross land in July 1934, a group of seven black and 11 white men agreed to form a union of tenants and sharecroppers. After some discussion, they decided that the union should be fully integrated, recognizing that they shared similar needs and economic situations. This was a stunning break with the past, though in some areas there would be separate black and white locals as the union expanded.”
Mitchell, who had been a sharecropper in Tennessee, had become a socialist while farming and recruited East to the socialist cause after moving to Arkansas.
“The two of them went to meetings in Memphis together, organized the local in Tyronza and helped organize the Tyronza Unemployment League in the spring of 1934,” Cobb writes. “The Unemployment League was an attempt to force the local agencies of the AAA to provide jobs for desperate tenants or croppers. At the instigation of Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, the two men participated in the formation of the STFU. Many opponents of the STFU considered it to be a communist plot, and attacks from planters, both physical and verbal, were the norm at early meetings. Ward Rodgers, the STFU’s most effective white organizer, was arrested and jailed in Marked Tree in January 1935. As a result, Mitchell called Lucien Koch, the director of Commonwealth College in Polk County, and asked for help in founding locals. Commonwealth had the reputation of being a communist institution. Given Mitchell and East’s hatred of communists, this appeal was a sign of real desperation.”
Mitchell and East moved the union headquarters to Memphis in late 1935 and began to attract financial support from outside the South. Sen. Joe T. Robinson, despite being heavily supported financially by Delta planters, met with union leaders during the Democratic National Convention in June 1936. Robinson helped persuade Gov. Junius Futrell to take a strong stand against violence directed toward sharecroppers. The high-water mark came in 1938 when the union had more than 35,000 members. Infighting soon led to its demise with Mitchell and his followers leaving in the late 1930s.
“Mitchell returned to the shadow STFU in 1941 as executive secretary and served as president from 1944 to 1960,” Cobb writes. “During this time, the union became the National Farm Labor Union and later the National Agricultural Workers Union. The STFU really died when he died in 1989.”
Cotton has lived on as a cash crop in Arkansas but will never have the influence it once had in shaping the Arkansas economy and the state’s history.