Camera Rolls: 315:19-23
Sound Rolls: 315:11-13
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Clay East , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on September 26, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK. Mr. East, I want to start off talking about the Norcross Plantation. We talked a little bit about it yesterday. So, can you tell me what conditions were like on the Norcross Plantation?
Conditions were all right until Norcross died, got killed on his horse, got his neck broke. A horse got scared of a car, and he was coming to town and the horse got scared and threw him off, and broke his neck. That's when Hiram, his son, who was an attorney for Portland Cement Company in Kansas City, he come down and took charge of the farm, and he sold it to a cousin of mine, 1900 acres. And the bottom dropped out...in the meantime, he took a mortgage on my cousin's nice farm and home and everything up there. He took a mortgage on it, besides [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] $20000 cash, so when the bottom dropped out of this cotton and my cousin couldn't make his payments, he took the whole thing. When he did, he was strictly business. He drew up a contract for all of the sharecroppers and took an account of everything he let them have to work the land with. He didn't allow 'em to have a cow or chickens or anything. He had this land measured, and where my cousin would guess at it, he had it surveyed, and when he got it through, there wasn't enough for land to go around, so he just took some of thems [sic] crop that had already been started, and he just kicked off a whole bunch of these tenants out there, to make it so they'd have just exactly what they're supposed to have. At that time, before he took it over, and I guess afterward, tenant farmers was furnished so much a month for the amount of land he was allowed so much a month during the crop season. After the crop season was over, they didn't get anything.
Now this furnishment that Norcross and the other plantation owners provided, tell me about how they would get this furnish, about how they would go to the store, and the plantation owner would own the store, and all that. So, can you explain that to me?
They ordinarily would go the bank, and get the money, borrow the money from the bank in a lot of cases. In a lot of cases the owner furnished it, and maybe gave them a discount, so they'd make money off of that, too.
OK, now, tell me a little bit more about the Norcross plantation, you told me that it was real big, but how large it was, and how much he paid his sharecroppers and tenants, and so forth.
You don't pay sharecroppers, they get half of the—
Hang on, one second, one second, can you start that over again? Let me remind you, yesterday you said something about, they pay you 40 cents a day? Who was doing that?
Well, that was generally a big store. Some of them had their own stores, and store, a merchant there in town would furnish them as guaranteed by the landowner. He'd give these folks a furnish, whatever it was, so much for the amount of land they had, as I told you before. They, it was furnished on the amount of acreage they had, see, that's the furnish they got a month.
That's good, this is good. Can you tell me a little bit more about Hiram Norcross, Jr., how different he was from his father?
Well, his father was a good man and a friend to everyone. There was an old man who borrowed a thousand dollars for him, from him, Old Man Joe Davis, and in the fall of the year he went to old Hiram, that's the old man, was going to pay him his thousand dollars. The old man told him, Joe, he said, I know you're pretty hard up and didn't have much of a crop, you can just let that ride and pay me next year. He never was able to pay him, but he was that kind of person, he would help other people. That is Hiram's daddy, the one who got killed.
Now, Hiram Jr., he wasn't that kind of person, tell me about him.
Oh no, he was strictly business.
Can you give me an example? Other than the fact that he took your cousin's...
Well, he had those contracts, as I told you. The old man just took people's word for stuff, but he had a written contract and a sharecropper on his place had to sign this thing, and his tools and everything was checked to him, and when they quit or something happened to him, they had to, it was checked to see that the owner, which was young Norcross, got all this stuff back, and if he didn't have any of it, he had to pay for it.
Now, when the government, the triple A, asked the planters, or the owners, to plow their crops under, and they paid them?
Now, yesterday you told me a story about how some of the tenants and sharecroppers came to you and complained. Can you tell me that story again, from the very beginning?
Yeah. I was the law. In fact, well, I was a marshal, constable, and deputy sheriff in this little town, and the folks all trusted me, and when they couldn't get any help, they'd come to me to see if I could help them out.
OK, but you have to tell me why they were coming to you. Again, remember, we have to assume that people don't know anything, so you have to tell me that, the planters didn't share the money like they were supposed to, and then they came to me for help.
OK, but can you tell that back to me so I have it on film?
Well, that's—they come to me because they figured I could help them get their money, that the guy that owned the land had the check for. He was the one who got the check, they didn't get it. They made the crop, but he got the check, so they didn't have anything to go on, and it was never stipulated in the government contract says it has to be settled between the sharecropper and the owner [sic]. He was sitting there with the check in his hand, and had all the advantages. Some of them would claim that the cropper didn't finish his deal because he didn't have to pick the cotton, didn't have to get his crops, so he hadn't actually finished it. Yet the cropper, then, claimed that he had finished his part of it, which he had.
—stop, because we're out of film, but this is good—
OK, Mr. East, now, you were going to tell me about how the government person came to claim the crop reduction.
Well, after this legislation was passed about the plow-up, the government had to send a man in there to explain to the farmers about what they were supposed to do, and so forth, the rules [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Well, they didn't have a meeting for the whites and a meeting for the blacks, they had all of them together. So, when the union thing came up, I didn't think there was any argument to it. In fact, there wasn't. We just didn't argue about it, but on account of that, we figured it, well, the only the thing we could do was to have an integrated meeting, and that was what I got up and told them. It didn't, the question, you might say, never came up, about that thing. I explained to them, we was all eating the same food and doing the same kind of work, and so forth, and that we should all meet together, it's the only way they could handle it.
OK, that's good. We'll talk about that some more a little later on, but that's good. Now, you were also going to tell me about how the croppers came to you for help, when the owners didn't share the triple A payments.
Well, that's right, in a small township like that, the only—
Can you say, excuse me, can you say, in a small township like Tyronza?
Tyronza Township, yeah. It was only—
Mr. East, hang on just a second, and I'm sorry to keep on interrupting you, but we just have to have a little space from the time that I stop talking to the time that you begin, because I'm not going to be here. This is your show; we don't want my voice on it. So, if you could start from the beginning and say, "In a small town like Tyronza," and then we'll just go on from there.
Are you ready for—
In a small town like Tyronza, it was called Tyronza Township, there was only two branches of law, that was the JP's and the constable, so I was constable elected, and then I was appointed by the sheriff as a deputy, and I was appointed by the mayor as a marshal, so I was really the law, and people come to me when they needed help. Wasn't anyone else to go to. So that's when I wrote to Washington, and told them what was happening down there, that landowners, or a lot of them, was keeping all of that money, and we wanted kind of a, some kind of understanding about it. So they sent a man down there called Green, from Washington, and he came down there and said, asked me, well, he wanted to see me, 'cause I was the leader, and he asked me, "What is it you boys want?" And when I started to tell him about how these folks were being mistreated, he told me he was only interested in violations of this Acreage Reduction Program. He said that he didn't, at that time he didn't know of it or not, I told him, "I'll bring you up. Come here in the morning and I'll bring you up a list of violations." So, when he got there the next morning, I'd got out that day, I only had a short time, and got eight of these different farms that had so many houses the year before and less this year, less tenants, and so forth. He told us, he had the commissioners with him when he came in there, and I told him I'd give him the violations, so he had the country commissioners with him and they was the landowners. He told them, after he'd read this thing I'd gave him, this was all typed off, eight separate violations there, farmers names and their tenants and everything on it. So he read, he read these things, and about the first thing that he read off was Old Man Sloan, I can't remember his name, I mean, his first, given name, but the way he talked, they was really scared, they thought he was going to do something. He turned right 'round then and goes to Memphis, and he had a Commercial Appeal reporter with him, he was there, and he went into Memphis and reported to the Commercial Appeal that they found no violations, so that just left us with nothing to go on. I might say, then, he didn't mention to me that he was going, or anything, but Mitch got a group together and went to Washington, and he saw some of the legislators up there, and some of them were for him and the boys, the sharecroppers. They never did anything about it, they just let it ride, so I don't know how those folks ever got settled up on it. Some of the farmers were on the level and paid off, like they were supposed to, they...
Now, when Mitch went to Washington, did the croppers think that something was going to happen? Did they think something was going to change for them, that they were going to get their money?
I don't think but very few of them knew anything about it, because he didn't say anything. He just got this group together and put them in his car. He didn't mention it to me that he was going, or anything, so I don't know what the result, and I know that...Secretary of...
Wallace, he was Secretary of the United States...something.
Secretary of Agriculture?
Could you tell me that, "Secretary of Agriculture Wallace," and then tell me the story?
Well, yeah, he saw him, and he was disappointed in—
Mr. East, again, I'm sorry to have to interrupt you, but, I need for you to tell me that Mitch saw Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, and then tell me the story. I have to have you tell me that, again, because my sound's not going to be on here, you're the only one that has a mic.
Well, he saw Secretary of Labor—
Of Agriculture, yeah.
Just, I need for you to just say it all over again.
He was disappointed in him because, instead of signing up with us boys, he sided in with the planters. Outcome of that, I never did know. It wasn't anything good, I can tell you that. Certainly never done anything about it, and I don't know how they ever got to, their checks settled.
We have to change again and get some more film.
This is going good, though. It's going good.
OK, can you tell me that...
Mitch and his group went to Washington, and they saw Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, while they was in Washington.
Mitch was very much disappointed, because Wallace had sided in with the planter-type boys, and we figured that he
** was liberal and would side in, Mitch and them did, I did too, figured he was liberal and he would side with us, and maybe give us some help.
** That was one reason he went to see him. But he didn't, he was against us.
Perfect, absolutely perfect. Now, we talked about it a little bit before, but after Mitch and the other people came back from Washington, you started, you decided to form a union. Can you tell me that story of how you actually decided? Yesterday, when we talked, you told me you were riding around in a car—
No, that is wrong.
That's not right?
The union had already, we'd already had the union organized.
OK, just tell me about that, then.
Well, after Norman Thomas was there, he had dinner at my home, and he—
Stop, let's stop for a second.
Wait a minute, do second mark, I'm sorry. Second mark.
Now, can you tell me the Norman Thomas story we just talked about?
Yes, Norman Thomas, I introduced him out at the schoolhouse after we had driven him around to see a group of farmers and the way they were living. I took him out to Norcross Plantation, and took him through the Norcross's barn out there, and he had concrete floors and running water and all that for the hogs. So, when he got up to make his talk at the schoolhouse, he brought it out that animals were being treated better there than people was, sharecroppers. So...
Good, good. Now, and then, we talked about it a little bit earlier, but can you tell me some more about the first meeting?
I mean, you were, earlier you told me, that you had the first meeting, and there was black and there was whites there, and you all decided that there was no way you could have separate unions, so if you could just kinda tell me that story again. And if you can remember a little bit of what you said when you gave your talk... but we got to start, we got to start again, because we stopped.
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] We didn't stop.
OK, OK, well, let's go. Go ahead.
When we had this meeting, it had already been decided as to who was going to be the officials in the union, and that was decided, actually, by Mitch, he had it all planned. I was to be the president, he was the secretary, and two other guys, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , was to be the treasurer, and we had one other guy in there, and I've forgotten which office he held, but all of that stuff was decided before we even had the meeting. So, we had that meeting and got up, and more or less pretended to have a democratic vote, but in reality wasn't democratic at all, 'cause it had already been set up. Before we set that up, I had told Mitch that I would go in as president of that for one year, but that I didn't want to make that my life's work, so one year was all I was going to serve. I told him at the time that if one man getting out broke up the union, that it didn't have any organization to begin with.
Now, at that meeting, tell me about, you decided about, you told me earlier, but tell me again, how you decided that there was just going to be one union, not a black one, not a white one, but one union?
Well, I, at the meeting, I got up and showed what could be done with a union, and what was being done now under our present system. There never was any discussion, you might say, as to whether we were going to have a black or white union, 'cause that was more or less understood all the way through. That was mostly on account of, when the government man was there at the schoolhouse and explained this thing, they had blacks and whites both there, too, met together, so I couldn't see any reason for us not having our meeting together. We couldn't have two meetings. I explained that to them. In other words, if we had a speaker come in there, they'd have to talk to one union, then turn around and talk to another, and if they had two unions they'd be more or less against one another. So there wasn't any question much about it, we didn't discuss it, and no one...I plainly told them it had to be one union. I got the first members, I've [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] had to come out and decide whether we were going to have a union or not, and let's take a vote on it. So they voted to have the union, and I had these cards, and the first man asked, "Sign one of these cards." So the whole work signed them.
So, at that meeting, do you remember any of the black croppers saying anything? Did they give any talks?
I'm not positive about whether E.B. McKenney was there or not. If he was, E.B. McKenney was a black preacher, supposed to be. He was a real good cropper, but he was a ranter, he actually was an elder [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , but he was possibly the best speaker of the whole works, and well, he took a pretty good part in the union to begin with, then he moved to Marked Tree, and they shot his house up, and it might have wounded one or two of his kids, shooting in the house. I don't remember, when I inquired of E.B., what had happened to him, Mitch said he'd gone communist, so—at that time, the union didn't think much of—
—the communists, because we thought the communists all wanted to tear down—
We're out of film, we have to change again, but this is good.
OK, Mr. East, we're into the home stretch. So, what I'd like for you to tell me about evictions, and why croppers were evicted, particularly around the Norcross plantation.
Well, actually, for different reasons, Norcross and them never gave out why they was doing it.
No, mister, mister, I need for you to tell me what they were doing, again, they can't hear me. I need for you to say, people were evicted for different reasons.
OK. They couldn't, a lot of them didn't know, the people didn't know why they were being evicted, but after he took a measurement of the lands, surveyed it, he didn't have, well, he had more tenants than he had land to divide up, so he just kicked so many of them off. Surprisingly, later on, he got stuck on that. The law got him on that.
Now, what else could these people do after they were evicted? What else could they do, and what did they do?
That's when they'd sit out on the road, side of the road. Wasn't a lot they could do. They's [sic] just out, and I couldn't tell what the most of them, most of them left there, set there and didn't know what to do. Never had been kicked off a place like that. Actually, don't know what the results of them being kicked off brought to them, only, they had no damn place to live, or nothing. They just kicked completely off, and up in Missouri there was hundreds of them just sitting out. They had a camp up there, and I didn't go to it, but they had hundreds of them out there in a group that had been taken off. A lot of people didn't know it, but insurance companies owned nearly all the land up in that, southeast Missouri. So, I don't know whatever happened to them, but it says in the papers and all the pictures of them, these groups and everything.
Now, you owned the store, and you were a business-person, but when people found out that you were involved with the union, what happened? Tell me that story.
Well, to begin with, I was socialist, and that's what caused us to have the union. I had studied that, and as I said before, Upton Sinclair was probably the cause. I knew something was wrong with the country. They were, people was plowing under that cotton, and they didn't have decent clothes, no sheets in the house or nothing else, so I knew there was something wrong with the economy and the country. That's when I actually became interested in Socialism, so, me being a Socialist, and studying that information I got from New York about them, caused us to form a union.
OK, but now, let me get you back on the story, remember, you told me to remind you to do that. Let me get you back. Yesterday, you told me about how some people would come by your store, and quit on you. Can you tell me that story again?
Oh yeah, yeah.
You have to tell me, "When I had my store", and you have to get into it like that, OK?
After we organized this union, the first person that cut his account out with me was J.H. Prestage. So, he come in, paid up his bill, and I knew then what he was doing, because they always paid the first of the month. I knew then that he was quitting. Then his son-in-law, Cecil Justice, came in and paid his up, and wanted to know why I had gone against my own class. So, I told him, we wasn't supposed to have classes, all people supposed to be equal in this country. But that was just the beginning, and I knew then it was going to be too bad, a lot of the others were fixing to close me out. So I thought, "Well, I got a move coming," so I sold my place and sold my house, and I had no trouble doing it, because they wanted to get me out of there. That [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] the money to buy my station, and [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] bought my home. They wanted to get me out of Tyronza.
Can you tell me, what the STFU means to you, I mean, what you're most proud of, in regard to the union?
Well, what I'm actually the most proud of is that I was at the head of organizing it, and that I didn't let these planters, if I'd have given in to pressure, and then told them, "Well, I'm going to cut out the union business, so, don't close your account with me." So, I was proud of getting out of the union and staying, I mean, getting in the union and staying out of the—well, owners' outfits.
Did you take any pride in, in the idea that here, these poor people, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, black and white, all of them poor, had the courage to stand up and fight for what they thought was right?
Naturally I admired them, and I told you, at least, that the blacks—
But I need for you to tell me that, you admired them "because", and then tell me why you admired them.
Well, that's what I was fixing to tell you.
Oh, OK, I'm sorry.
I admired them because they had enough insight to join that union and not to let the planters scare them off, and they knew at the time they was getting, going to get into trouble themselves. 'Cause, they was already having trouble, a lot of the planters beat them up...they stood a good chance of getting killed, and they stayed in there just the same. The black people, actually, was more dependable than the whites.
Let me ask you something else. Now, you had said, you had said that E.B. McKenney's house was shot up.
Now, did that happen often? Can you tell me about, what the union did, how the union felt when that happened to someone?
Well, there wasn't anything the Union could do. So, all we done, we just knew about it, and that's all there was too it, because E.B. McKenney at that time had gone to Marked Tree. People, back in those days, if you lived in Tyronza, even though Marked Tree was only four and a half miles, it was a different section altogether.
OK, but now, you had a gun, and you was willing to fight back, I mean, you was the sheriff, but were any of the...we're all out of film.
OK, now we were getting ready to talk about, a little bit about the violence and the kinds of things that people did to discourage the union.
No, we was fixing to talk about the union fighting back.
OK, tell me about it, then.
OK. Once in a while, I'd have some guys, always a black guy, had come to me and tell me, I brought my gun, I
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
down in the field, I hear they're going to shoot up our place, and so forth.
And I told them, "Don't bring no guns to these meetings." I said, "If we start that stuff we don't stand a chance in the world, they'd send the militia in here, anybody, and just don't think about fighting back." So, actually, I was strictly against it.
** I figured, if they ever started, I was going to do some shooting myself, but I didn't tell them.
OK. Now, do you have any thoughts in terms of, like, the legacy of the STFU, how you want it to be remembered, what you want it to be remembered for?
Well...I should be remembered for starting the damn thing. It wouldn't have had a union if it hadn't have been for me, Mitch has said that a half a dozen times. I've got copies of his, and the only time that he ever brought that up was at, I think it was 20th anniversary at Little Rock [sic], he got up and said there, that I was more responsible for the union than he was, as he was lazy and everything and I was a go-getter, and that I was a man who was actually responsible for the union. He got up and told that at Little Rock, and it's all down in his report. She's got that...Elizabeth.
Now, we referred to Mitch a little bit, but can you tell me a little bit more about him? What was he like?
Mitch wanted to be the head guy in this thing, so he never did give other folks credit. 'Course, he gets up and in one of his books that he never saw a man he didn't like, and turned right around, and I have some letters from him, said his butler was a son of a bitch, and talking about these other, and another thing was—the guy out there, well, he was in a different branch, but, I can't think of his name right now, but you know who I'm talking about it. If I could just—
Ward? Ward Rogers?
No, not Ward. Ward didn't have it, he just messed up, that's all.
OK, well then, let's just, let's, because the film is rolling, let's talk about something else then, and maybe that name will come back to you. Can you tell me about, do you remember when Ward Rogers made his speech? You told me about that yesterday. Can you tell me that again?
I wasn't there.
But tell me what you thought about it.
OK. We had that meeting, I'm almost certain it was Truman, not Marked Tree, but he got up and said that he could take a group of these sharecroppers, and go out and hang one of these planters, which knew he couldn't do [sic], and that's when they put him in jail for saying that. He had no business saying it. He was a new man, and arrogant, and didn't know anything about the country, and the people, and nothing else, so he was plumb out of place when he was, made a remark like that. But they arrested him and he had to get a lawyer to get him out of jail.
OK. Earlier, when we talked, we were talking about the first meeting. Now, I need for you to tell me again, and, I think I explained this earlier, this to you earlier, about how I can put one piece of it together with another piece. I need for you to tell me that the first meeting was held wherever it was held, I need for you to tell me that, "The first meeting was". Can you...?
Well, the first meeting was in a little one-room school building, and they called it Sunnyside School House, they called it Chigger Ridge, and they had about three different names for that little old building where we had that meeting. It was three miles south of Tyronza, right on the road, and black folks had been using it for a church meeting. It had been a schoolhouse until they consolidated the schools there, and they closed all those little schoolhouses like that, and put on buses. Run out of money, and they couldn't keep the buses on, so they took the buses off, and there wasn't but just a small percentage of the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] people that had cars or so forth that could take the kids to school.
That's good, that's good. Now, let me ask you, is there anything else that you can think of that you just want to tell me? Anything else you want to say? About the STFU, about you, about anything? And we can stop if you need to think about it for a minute.
OK, we'll stop.
Go ahead, Mr. East.
About, what was the question on that?
The question was, that you could say, if you had anything else you wanted to tell me, if you had anything else you wanted to say, about yourself, about the union, anything.
Well, in the first place, I never went into this to make a name for Mitch or make it my business or anything, which Mitch did. So, after I [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] getting out, I still faced two mobs in there, for the simple reason Mitch sent me, instead of going himself. One was at Forest City, Arkansas, and the other was at Marked Tree, Arkansas, and that is another thing I'd like to bring out. Mitch says that that charter was the only charter ever issued to the Socialist Party, or when they come to me in Marked Tree, trying to get me not to take that woman down there to talk, said, "There's going to be bloodshed." I told them then, then, "Look, if there's going to be bloodshed, it's going to be done by the other side, because we got no intention of shedding any blood." But they brought her down. Dr. Philips, who was a veterinarian, and Sean Burgen[?] Bloom, begged me not to have that meeting, and they was old socialists. So, at some time in the future, Arkansas'd have a Socialist Party. Of course, Mitch says that's the only time they ever had a charter, which had to be wrong, because, those—
Let me ask you, do you consider Mitch a friend, was he a friend?
Well, Mitch used other people. Me, and anyone that he could, he used other people all the time... naturally, he called me his friend, and so forth, and when he come to my house he made himself at home. He'd come in and spend maybe two or three days, I'd haul him around—
—he never did pay for anything. I'd go to some town where he was, and he never invited me to his home, he'd tell me where I could get a cabin or something. So, that was another case of him using me. 'Course, he always called me his friend, which I guess he should have, because I backed him all the time, and like his brother said, and like he said, I backed him when I thought he was wrong, which I did.
We just ran out film. Thank you.