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Southern Tenant Farmers Museum

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza (Poinsett County), which opened on October 6, 2006, focuses on the tenant farming system of agriculture in the South and the farm labor movement that arose in response to this system.

The museum is owned and operated as an educational program of Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County). It is housed in the historic Mitchell-East Building, which served during the 1930s as a dry-cleaning business for H. L. Mitchell and a service station for Clay East, two of the principal founders of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU).

The museum was created after the Tyronza community approached Arkansas State University for assistance in saving the rapidly deteriorating building and in utilizing it to tell the story of the tenant farming movement. After receiving the building as a gift from the city, ASU utilized grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities to acquire additional property, restore the building, and create the exhibits.

The Mitchell-East building served as unofficial headquarters for the union during its formative period. Established in July 1934 by eleven white and seven African American people at Sunnyside School near Tyronza, the union grew into a national organization and was a forerunner of later labor and civil rights movements. The union achieved its peak membership during the late 1930s, when its leadership claimed about 35,000 members in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

The union was unusual for its time in that both black and white members, and both women and men, served in leadership positions. While it experienced limited success in the 1930s, it ultimately collapsed due to a number of factors. Power struggles between union leaders disheartened some members, and others went north looking for jobs when the mechanization of agriculture in the early 1950s made tenant farming unnecessary. Decline of the union was well underway by 1941, when only sixty persons attended the annual convention. After several name changes and affiliations with other unions, the STFU went out of existence in the 1960s. The historic union and its Tyronza roots remained largely obscured to the general public until development of the museum.

The building façade has been restored to its 1930s appearance, while the interior includes exhibition space, a reception area, a gift shop, and a classroom. The museum layers many exhibits to interpret tenant life in the turbulent 1930s:

  • Photographic sequences trace the production of Delta cotton, from planting to shipment on the Mississippi River.
  • Material objects such as cotton picking sacks and period farm implements make palpable the tools of a tenant.
  • Copies of paintings by Delta artist Carroll Cloar filter Delta life through the artist’s imagination.
  • Music presented includes protest songs written and recorded by STFU members.
  • Videotaped oral histories of Delta planters and tenants tell the stories of those who lived through the fascinating times recorded in the museum.

For additional information:
Grubbs, Donald H. Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Hawkins, Ruth. “Southern Tenant Farmers Museum.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 40 (August 2009): 141–143.

Hodges, Curt. “Tyronza Museum Tells Union Story.” Jonesboro Sun. April 14, 2004.

Schnedler, Jack. “Way Ahead of Its Time.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 26, 2011, pp. 1E, 6E.

Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. http://stfm.astate.edu/ (accessed November 12, 2014).

Wilkey, Michael. “Museum Offers Trips into History.” Jonesboro Sun. September 17, 2006, pp. 1C, 12C.

 

 

Ruth A. Hawkins

Delta Heritage Initiatives

Arkansas State University

Last Updated 11/12/2014

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