Saturday, August 04, 2007

La Forge, Missouri

The following information comes from Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff's book, Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel, available at Powell's Books. The broad topic of sharecroppers and labor rights will be spread out over the next week.

By the mid 1930s, southeast Missouri wasn't a friendly place to be if you were a sharecropper. Most of the area had been converted to farmland by the early 1920s. By 1926, the size of landholdings increased when small farms were consolidated in light of crashing textile markets. Around 1935, sharecroppers who traditionally tended small farms were hard pressed to find work and housing. The Farm Security Administration estimates that "between 1926 and 1936, more than 60% of sharecroppers in southeast Missouri had to look for jobs as day laborers."

Before that, between 1900 and 1920, more than 17,000 African Americans arrived in Missouri's bootheel in search of work. In my county alone, the black population tripled between 1910 and 1920. Most of the new population were tenant farmers or sharecroppers who worked in the cotton industry. Many of these new workers were recruited from Mississippi, lured to southeast Missouri with the promise of land to farm. Landowners provided the seed, the farm implements, mules, and meager housing while the sharecropper worked the land from planting to harvest. During the winter months, after the harvest, the landowner offered a little money to feed the sharecropper's family. But after the stock market crash in 1929, when the cotton market fell apart, planter landlords no longer needed sharecroppers and by the thousands, sharecroppers throughout the bootheel were evicted.

Farmers in southeast Missouri welcomed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which set forth that the drop in cotton prices was largely due to overproduction. Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933), farmers were offered a cash benefit if they plowed up acres that had previously been in production. Of course, the New Deal policies didn't really help sharecroppers and tenant farmers to earn a living. Farm laborers turned to the federal government for help. As a direct response to the rising homelessness and unemployment felt by sharecroppers, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and a division of the Dept. of the Interior funded the construction of 100+ agricultural communities throughout the cotton-producing South.

One of these communities, called Southeast Missouri Farms, was located on 6,700 acres outside of New Madrid at the small town of La Forge. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration supplied housing to 100 displaced (40 black and 60 white) sharecropper families in southeast Missouri. Two bedroom wooden houses were built without running water, but each with its own privy and well. Each house had a wood-burning or coal-burning stove, cabinets, and enameled sinks. The sharecropper communities were staunchly segregated, giving rise to racial tensions. Nevertheless, families managed to subsist in this environment, forming a cooperative community where most needs were met. From Dr. Stepenoff's book:
In the La Forge colony, farmers worked the land and pooled their profits. The government loaned money at low interest so that farmers could purchase mules, supplies and equipment. Cotton remained important as a cash crop, but the members of the cooperative also raised cattle, hay, chickens, hogs, and vegetables. The cooperative also established a library, a night school, knitting clubs, softball clubs, and churches. (65)

Several of the original FSA buildings remain standing at La Forge, now a small dot on the map next to New Madrid. Between 2005-2006, photographers from Southern Illinois University revisited sharecropper communities like the one at La Forgeto document what remains of the FSA's project. In other communities throughout the South, tenant farmer stores and shools are still standing, but in La Forge, mainly homes and a cotton gin remain.

Resettlement communities like the one at La Forge helped only a small number of sharecroppers. Regardless, local landowners were opposed to the idea of sharecropper communities because organization into colonies gave the underprivileged working class a chance to organize politically.

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