Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Appalling want amid abundant plenty"

The following quotes from Thad Snow's papers correspond to Bonnie Stepenoff's Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel, available at Powell's Books.

In the early 1930s, many white planters in southeast Missouri did not support the federal government's plan to establish sharecropper communities. Racial and class disparity was at the root of the argument; Negro labor was cheap, for the most part, and wealthy planters hired sharecroppers by the droves as they arrived from Deep South in search of work.

Labor union sympathizer and planter Thad Snow held a rare opinion among farmers. He supported the federal programs that built housing for sharecroppers, even recognizing that organization into communities would likely lead to "fool ideas" that would "overflow the countryside" (65). Snow hired sharecroppers to tend his own fields which he created several years earlier by clearing hundreds of acres of forest (an act he later regretted). As an employer, Snow appreciated the work the sharecroppers accomplished but remained a product of his time. While he sympathized with the plight of the sharecropper, during the 1930s Snow managed to dissociate himself from the African American population to protect himself from ridicule. According to Snow, sharecroppers "know their place and keep to it pretty well during the daytime"(65). Organization might lead to rebellion, but he recognized that sharecroppers had a reason to revolt.

Under the New Deal, crop quotas were instituted that forced farmers to produce less than their land offered. If farmers produced more than their allotted quota, they had to pay extra taxes on their overages. Farmers still benefitted from bumper crops of cotton, but sharecroppers suffered. Farmers often failed to pay sharecroppers their share of federal subsidies earmarked for them. Moreover, many farmers in southeast Missouri often lied about their soil conservation practices but accepted the federal benefits that were created to encourage soil and water conservation. Because sharecroppers were not properly compensated, many went without meals, often subsisting on cornmeal, water and salt. Seeing the disdain towards the sharecroppers by the wealthy white planters, Snow declared that the evident poverty was "the amazing paradox of our time--appalling want amid abundant plenty" (66).

Snow was unlike most farmers in the 1930s. He was disheartened by the poverty and wanted to see change. When he accepted the federal government's crop reduction contract, he explained to his sharecroppers that they would have to reduce their production by half. They would receive a parity payment but wouldn't have to pay taxes. Snow's sharecroppers produced 480 and 580 lbs./acre, exactly half of their regular production, but Snow's allotment was 380 lbs./acre. The sharecroppers had to pay taxes on their overages and harbored resentment towards Snow for offering false promises. Snow felt embarrassed about the situation and blamed the government program for causing economic hardship among sharecroppers.

By the mid-1930s, Snow realized that the New Deal cotton policy was seriously flawed. Having heard of labor strikes in nearby Harlan, Kentucky,* where coalminers violently revolted in reaction to working and living conditions, Snow feared southeast Missouri's sharecroppers were headed in the same direction. In fact, Snow feared that Missourians might "go to beating and killing these poor devils for trying to improve their lowly estate by organized effort"(68). Because the sharecroppers were already organized into communities like La Forge, they had schoolhouses and churches where they could meet and discuss the obvious injustices shown to them by the policies of the New Deal.

Next: The Sharecropper's Revolt
*A fantastic documentary, Harlan Co. USA, follows the labor strikes from the 1930s-1970s. The film won the Oscar in 1977 for Best Documentary.

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