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Harry Leland Mitchell was a lifelong union activist and co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in eastern Arkansas, one of the first integrated labor unions in the United States. The STFU was unique among unions in “encouraging members to leave,” helping them find a life outside tenant farming.
H. L. Mitchell was born on June 14, 1906, to Maude Ella Stanfield and James Young Mitchell, a tenant farmer and sometime preacher in Halls, Tennessee. Mitchell attended school sporadically while working various jobs to help support his family. He sharecropped, worked in a clothing store, and ran a one-pump gas station. He finally graduated from Halls High School in 1925.
He married Lyndell “Dell” Carmack on December 26, 1926, settling on the Carmack farm to sharecrop while his wife taught school. She earned $60 a month teaching school, and Mitchell netted $185 from sharecropping in 1927. He was sharecropping on land owned by his in-laws, with earnings higher than the average sharecropper, who generally ended a growing season owing money to planters (landlords) for food, seed, and other necessities. His brief sharecropping experience led the ever–socially conscious Mitchell to consider the merits of the Socialist Party set forth in the “Little Blue Books” published by E. Haldeman-Julius of Girard, Kansas.
By 1927, Mitchell’s parents were living in Tyronza (Poinsett County), where his father operated a successful barbershop. His father encouraged him to come to Arkansas to farm the fertile land. After seeing the type of housing he could expect to live in as an Arkansas sharecropper, Mitchell decided to remain in Tennessee, “where things were more civilized.” His father then suggested that Mitchell take over the clothes-pressing machine in his barbershop. Mitchell moved to Arkansas in 1928, prospering in the dry-cleaning business.
Mitchell developed a close friendship with Clay East, owner of a gas station in Tyronza. East devised a plan for the stations to stagger the days they were open, so each only operated two days a week plus Saturday. Mitchell told his friend the plan had merit and was a good socialist idea, offering the “Little Blue Books” as evidence, guiding East towards socialism. The corner of Main Street occupied by Mitchell and East’s businesses became known as Red Square due to their socialist beliefs.
The lives of sharecroppers deteriorated even further as a result of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. Landowners were paid not to plant, or to plow under existing crops to raise prices. Planters were to give a portion of the money to tenants for loss of livelihood, but the tenants were often left with no restitution or crops to help pay debts owed to planters.
Well-known socialist Norman Thomas suggested that Mitchell and East create a union to protect the interests of the sharecroppers. Eleven white and seven black men formed the STFU in July 1934 to be their voice. Mitchell was one of the co-founders, serving as executive secretary for eight years. The STFU was renamed the National Farm Labor Union, and its offices moved to Washington DC from Memphis in 1948. Mitchell’s wife, Lyndell, chose not to go to Washington, so they amicably divorced, with Mitchell marrying Dorothy Dowe, another STFU officer, in 1951.
Mitchell organized other unions, including the Amalgamated Meat Cutters (part of the AFL-CIO), and the National Agricultural Workers Union. He remained active in labor organizations, including the historic STFU, until his death on August 1, 1989, in Montgomery, Alabama.
For additional information:
Grubbs, Donald H. Cry From The Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the New Deal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
Kester, Howard. Revolt among the Sharecroppers (1936). Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1997.
Mitchell, H. L. Mean Things Happening in This Land: The Life and Times of H.L. Mitchell, Cofounder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
———. Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1987.
Williams, Nancy A., ed. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Marci Bynum Robertson
Museum of Discovery
This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.
Last Updated 3/18/2014
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