The institution of Tenant Farming imposed great hardships on workers and their families during the Jim Crow era and beyond. Families became, literally, enslaved workers to growers who paid little and often ‘cooked the books’ back charging farmers and shorting production amounts so that they were always in debt. The New Deal, although unintentionally, added to the tenants woes.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), in an effort to raise the price of cotton, wheat and other crops which had dropped dramatically after WWI, instituted a program that paid farmers to reduce their production. This was on top of draught and dust storms that were already devastating crop yields. Most farmers took the cash and purchased farm equipment such as tractors. With new equipment and smaller yields the need for farm workers was diminished. The plight of tenant farmers reached crisis proportions as they were frequently evicted from farms and their shacks bulldozed down.
This led, in 1934, to the formation of the Southern Tennant Farmers Union (STFU) in Tyronza, Arkansas. This union, which was racially integrated, was the first to challenge labor injustices in agriculture. Members faced killings, beatings and evictions. In 1935, John Handcox, son of a former slave, joined the union as an organizer and poet with pieces appearing in the union newspaper, “The Sharecroppers Voice.” I have included four pieces here presented by John Handcox himself.