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Women in the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union

The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) was an organization of tenant farmers formed in 1934 in Tyronza (Poinsett County). The union was notable for three things: racially integrating union locals in some areas, relying on evangelical church traditions in meetings, and utilizing the work of women at all levels of the organization. For many women involved in the STFU, the organization served as a springboard into other activism, particularly in the civil rights movement.

Women in the union came from all social backgrounds. Society women were active throughout the country, raising money and promoting awareness for the STFU. Women were also crucial at the local level among the sharecropper class, partially because it was necessary for officers to have a certain degree of education to maintain records. Girls generally attended school more often than boys in the hardscrabble schools of rural Arkansas, obtaining a higher level of education. In the Delta region, schools were often held for no more than a five-month period. These terms were often divided into two sessions, a short one in the summer when all work in the cotton fields had stopped and a longer one in the winter between the harvest and spring planting. Boys generally were relied on more for farm work, which allowed girls to attend more school. This, combined with the fact that women were generally able to push the landowners a little harder than men due to the nature of gender relationships in the South, made them excellent choices for union officers and organizers.

Cross County resident Ray Grantham remembered that his mother was the first person in their home to handle union work, writing letters to congressmen for the family and their neighbors. Her husband later became vice president of the STFU local at Wittsburg (Cross County).

Myrtle Terry Lawrence of Colt (St. Francis County) was known as the most effective white female organizer in the STFU. Union co-founder H. L. Mitchell denounced her as a “Tobacco Road character” for her habit of chewing tobacco and spitting in a coffee can wrapped in pink paper, but he was forced to admit that she was an excellent organizer. For that reason, she was sent to the Southern Summer School for Women Industrial Workers in North Carolina in 1937. There, she befriended journalist Priscilla Robertson and photographer Louise Boyle, inviting them to visit her in her home in St. Francis County. Their ten-day visit that fall resulted in a celebrated collection of photographs illustrating the everyday life of a sharecropping family, as well as union meetings and rallies. In the early 1940s, Lawrence and her husband moved to Florida, where she worked for the rest of her life as a janitor.

While many women in the union faded out of the spotlight after their organizing work was over, others, like African-American organizer Carrie Dilworth from Gould (Lincoln County), used her work as secretary of her STFU local as a springboard for work in the civil rights movement. Dilworth was the first black Arkansan to invite Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers into her home, and she volunteered to become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit involving her grandchildren’s right to attend the all-white Gould school in 1965.

The STFU was a short-lived organization, beginning in 1934 and basically defunct by the mid-twentieth century, but its impact on the women who served within the ranks was lasting.

For additional information:
Amott, Teresa L., and Julia A. Matthaei. Race, Gender, and Work: A Multi-Cultural Economic History of Women in the United States. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1996.

Dunbar, Anthony P. Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929–1959. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1981.

Grisham, Cindy. “When Hope Grows Weary: An Arkansas Delta Town in Place and Space.” PhD diss., Arkansas State University, 2012.

Grubbs, Donald H. Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the New Deal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

Hawkins, Van. Plowing the New Ground: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and Its Place in Delta History. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co. Publishers, 2007.

Manthorne, Jason. “The View from the Cotton: Reconsidering the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.” Agricultural History 64 (Winter 2010): 20–45.

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.

Payne, Elizabeth Anne. “The Lady Was a Sharecropper: Myrtle Lawrence and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.” Southern Cultures 4, no. 2 (1998): 5–27. 

———. “Myrtle Terry Lawrence.” In Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 5, edited by Susan Ware and Stacy Braukman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Ritterhouse, Jennifer. “Woman Flogged: Willie Sue Blagden, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, and How an Impulse for Story Led to a Historiographical Corrective.” Rethinking History 18 (no. 1, 2014): 97–121.

Ross, James D., Jr. “‘I ain’t got no home in this world’: The Rise and Fall of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in Arkansas.” PhD diss., Auburn University, 2004.

Cindy Grisham
Benton, Arkansas

Last Updated 12/23/2015

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