Camera Rolls: 315:86-96
Sound Rolls: 315:48-51
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Oscar Fendler , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 06, 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. If you can tell me about the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
This interview has been suggested to me would cover a period from 1933, maybe to 1936, which is probably the most miserable years ever spent in eastern Arkansas. We're in Mississippi County where you are right now in Blytheville. Money, nobody had any money in 1933. That was just before President Roosevelt, you know, took office, March 4th, 1933, and then when he was in there they had the Bank Holiday and they closed all the banks. He, he couldn't, it's hardly even to say they were plural because there were only two banks in the whole county and both of them were owned by R.E. Lee Wilson. He owned control of both of them. One of Blytheville, one in, in, in Wilson. The plantation people, and principally I'm thinking now of Lee Wilson and Company, they just didn't have any currency to speak of and didn't have any silver. So what they did, they used substitute money. Maybe now they would say that money was violating the, you know, the acts of Congress on counterfeiting and stuff, and they'd have coupon books, a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars, and they'd give it to the employees that worked there instead of giving them money, and if they didn't use those they used bronze coins which they called brozines. And that was a substitute for money. And those people could go in. It was not negotiable so they'd have to spend it at the company store. They called them commissary or the main store there at Wilson. And then at the other places where they had stores and they could use it just like cash. At the end of the year, of course, they'd settle up with them, that's true, how much they had earned, and give them, charge them using those coupons.
Now, what could you get at the commissary?
Oh, at the commissary you could get everything, at the Lee Wilson, now. I'm concentrating more on Lee Wilson and company, which was a little town in the South part of this county about twenty five, thirty miles from Blytheville. They had a company store there and they handled everything. You could start in and go in there and get all of your groceries. You could go in the drug section and buy your drugs. You could go to the dry goods section and buy dry goods, you know, because the women buying so many yards of calico or gingham or something like that or make their own. Or underwear or suits or trousers. Mostly overalls, of course. Like now they've become fashionable, you know, wearing the denims. Of course, then that's all they had, were denim stuff. And you name it and you could get it there. In fact, if you died they'd lay you out there, the casket there and sell you the casket and the whole thing. Everything was just, you had a one, one store place there. Very kept in real nice shape and very attractive displays at the Wilson. That wasn't true maybe in the other, maybe thirteen, fourteen plantations in the county. They'd have it on a lesser scale with a lesser bit, but they all followed the same procedure that I'm talking about here.
Can you tell me what kinds of things landowners provided tenants and sharecroppers with?
You have to make a distinction as we've discussed about land tenants and sharecroppers. And they, they, let's just say they provided them with a hundred percent of what they deemed to be necessities. And that, that doesn't only include the right to go to the commissary or the company store and buy things, but everything you could think of. Suppose you were sick, they provided you with a doctor. Suppose you had to go to a dentist. There weren't any dentist around in that vicinity, they'd take you to Memphis. Or if you had to have a surgeon, they'd take you to the hospital in Memphis. Trying to think of the...they not only, they...in Lee Wilson, for instance, let's say in the town proper, they had to buy 500 houses that were owned, and those houses provided them with water, provided them with electricity, provided them with sewage, and that was for the tenants or for the employees that there in Wilson worked for the store or worked in the factories. Out on the farms, it was a narrow, more narrow list. They hadn't gotten electricity there in 1933. That didn't come until they created the rural electrification, you know, group. That's under Roosevelt. Later they all got in there. And, but they, they substantially the same things provided. Now go to the sharecropper. Now, the sharecropper was a different, you know, species. The sharecropper didn't have anything. The tenant owned his mules, he owned his farm equipment and everything. He was ready to work, he and his family, for, you know, producing the crops. The tenant then was hired, I mean the sharecroppers, hired by the tenant. And he was actually an employer/employee relationship, that's really what it was. And they didn't have, they didn't own anything except themselves maybe and what the clothes they had on and little food in the house, and it was up to the tenant to provide the sharecropper with his necessities in life. And he, he did that for them. And they worked and they got a share of the crop they produced.
And you also said that on the Wilson farm they had like recreational facilities, like this was a really self contained community.
The Lee Wilson establishment was unbelievable, and it was just something different from anything else maybe in the United States. It was one of the largest plantations. The only other plantation compared with it was one the English owned out in Mississippi, Delta Pine, down there. And they, they provided everything in the way of entertainment for them. For instance, mostly entertainment I'd say for the, either one, the tenant or the sharecropper were religion. So they'd have a number of churches that they saw were built and they did for them. And the churches were, that's where the women would have, get together and they'd talk and sew and maybe cook and all of that sort of stuff. And then they'd have picnics. And they'd sponsor these picnics. This was before the time of the movie theater. And later on, of course, they had movies down there they'd go to. But otherwise for the men, for instance, they knew that they needed to keep their labor on the plantation on weekends. Today is Sunday, so they'd provide a place where they could gamble. And they'd have all, shoot craps, you know what shoot craps is, it's dice, rolling dice. Play poker, whatever. Provide them with alcohol or liquors if they needed it down there. They didn't mind how drunk they got, as long as they stayed there. Once they went into one of the towns, Osceola or Blytheville, and got drunk, they'd be picked up, put in jail, then Mr. Wilson or some of the farm owners here, cost them fifty, sixty dollars to get them out of jail. That was expensive. Other things they would do for them was, for instance, say, when it came to, let's say, taking part in governmental activities, Lee, Lee Wilson, and Wilson did not have a city, it wasn't incorporated, but it was just about like I said and Mr. Wilson was a boss and he ran it. After him, Mr. Crane. Mr. Wilson died in 1933. That's, he was Robert E. Lee Wilson and he was born in 19, I mean 1865, and of course very pro-Confederacy. Everything was directed to that. One distinction I haven't mentioned here is is the racial distinction. And Wilson, for instance, all of the whites lived on west of the railroad track. It was the St. Louis, San Francisco Railroad. It came from St. Louis to Memphis. And the blacks lived on the east side. Their houses were good, you know, they could live in them comfortable and everything, but it didn't compare with the ones that whites were living in. And for all of this Mr. Wilson charged them a nominal rent which included electricity and water, you know, utilities like that.
How were they different? How was the housing different between black and white?
Well, for instance, the white houses over there on the what do you call it, on the west side there, it would start, there are three bedroom house or a four bedroom house or a five bedroom house. It was very well-constructed. It wasn't elaborate, but very well-constructed. When you go over across the track where the blacks were, they were maybe a two bedroom, what we call a shotgun house, just two bedrooms right together and the bedroom was the kitchen is also the living room and everything. They provide screens for them, but the difficult is to getting them to know that they ought to keep the screens good. And they did not give them any sewers over there. We're talking now about '33, '34, '35. I don't know that you'd say that he was trying to favor one against the other, but he could, they did, what was economically necessary to keep labor. And they could get, keep labor without spending a lot of money on them. And that's what they did.
So it was different to keep labor, black labor, versus white labor. Can you tell me the difference?
Well, really, you really wanted to treat them both. That same old stuff, equal, but, you know, equal facilities, remember in the schools. We haven't mentioned the schools. We segregated the schools down there. Lee Wilson did. Had a beautiful school for the whites, about a three-story building and just very modern and everything. Go from the first grade to the twelfth grade. Just had excellent gymnastic facilities. Just everything you wanted. All, all sorts of stuff in your laboratories you know. He also built then a real fine school for the blacks. And—
—can you stop?
Roll out. OK.
Does this get what you want?
OK, so the difference between black and—yeah, OK.
The treatment of the labor down there at, and I'm now concentrating on Lee Wilson Company, was very favorable toward looking after the labor. He tried to do everything he could to see that they were happy and, you know, that they were getting along and satisfied staying around there. With Lee Wilson either on the place down at Wilson or one of their various satellite places that they had. Now, when it came to treatment with, treating the whites and the blacks, there was definitely this feeling of segregation in 1933, no question about it. But I, I don't believe that you could say that Boss Lee, who was R.E.L. Wilson, who was a founder there, or Mr. Crane would make a real distinction. What, necessarily when you had overseers of the farms, you know, who were all white, of course, there wasn't any doubt about it that there were favors, that the white tenants, maybe even the sharecroppers, I don't know what you say about the sharecroppers, but certainly the white tenants as opposed to the blacks were, were, were favored. To my recollection, I can't remember very many black tenants down at, on the Wilson place. I remember some black tenants at other plantations. But the blacks didn't expect as much. They never had received that as. Remember, we're talking about 1933. The War is just over in 1865. So there wasn't a long distance between the Civil War. Blacks got their freedom and everything, but for the most part the blacks would stay and did stay on this county on the same plantations where they'd been slaves before. And there wasn't a lot of movement. In fact, neither whites nor blacks tenants could move freely. Arkansas has a law that said before they could leave they had to pay the boss man whatever they owed him, and most every year they wound up in debt. They had to come out with a surplus, you know, and they always carried them over on the books. And if you left you violated Arkansas law. And if some other competing landlord wanted to take him and knew that Joe was a good tenant, white or black, he'd have to go into the office at Wilson and pay whatever they owed before he could move them. If he didn't he'd be violating the law, he could be prosecuted and pay a fine and the tenant would have to come back until he paid them out. I need to tell you, though, I thought I had been talking about education, about the comparative schools. Well, the, the, Mr. Wilson built in his time a real good black school, back in the early '30s. And after he got it all built and everything it burned down in about, within two or three days. He immediately turned around and re-built it to be sure that those black children had schools. And their schools, for instances, in contrast to the white school, was, I think the biggest difference was maybe teachers. The white teachers were so much better than the black teachers, you know, and, and there weren't any white teachers as I can never remember down in the black schools. And there weren't any black teachers in the white schools. Separate but equal. And, but the Wilson system for blacks had, had a very good system and did a good job. And that can't be said for a lot of the other plantations or parts of our county. It wasn't true otherwise.
Well, can you tell me about Mr. Crane and how he ran the Wilson Farm, and the worst as well as the good parts of how he ran that farm?
When Mr. Wilson died in '33 and we probated his will, in his will he provided for the continuation of a Massachusetts Trust organization. It wasn't a corporation, it something was created for tax purposes. And he named Mr. Crane, J.H. Crane, known as Jim Crane, and his son, to manage it. Mr. Crane took over because Mr. Wilson's son was not, he didn't particularly, wasn't too interested in, you know, in, in the farm and the operation. That's R.E. Wilson Junior. And so Mr. Crane had free range. He was a boss just like Mr. Wilson. R.E. Lee Wilson, he died. Whatever he said was the law and nobody every challenged anything, didn't make a difference what it was. We were his attorneys. And by "we" I mean Cecil Shane was our lawyer when, when I got back for law school, and we continued to represent him. And Mr. Crane actually managed it as well or even better, maybe, than, than Mr. Wilson had done, if he could manage it any better. He had—for all practical purposes the company was broke. So we, Mr. Shane, helped him get an RFC loan when the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was created just before ,you know, Mr. Roosevelt went in, and he got a substantial loan, a long time to pay it out. Then he started managing all of the farms down there. He was, previously had been the farm manager. He managed all the farm activities. Land, people, mules, every damn thing.
How did the sharecroppers and tenants feel about Mr. Crane as a boss? What was he like as a boss?
My observation was that, that they respected him very much. I'm sure that a number of them felt they were mistreated and had a deep-seeded hatred for him. They couldn't show it, because the minute they showed it they were out. They'd be moved off and do something else. Mr., Mr. Crane was an excellent manager and he didn't let anything stand in his way to see that his crops were produced. He was inclined to want to experiment with other types like breeding cows, for instance, or breeding pigs and stuff like that. He encouraged them to plant new crops, different types of crops. And, and, and he recognized their ability, particularly the farm managers. They were his elite group that were having a responsibility, you know.
You were saying he was sort of like a dictator the way he ran the farm. What, what did you mean by that?
Well, whenever a decision was being made down there on business affairs or social affairs, whatever it was, he made the decision. That's where he was a dictator. He was a benevolent dictator, but a dictator nevertheless, you know.
Let me ask you about the Agricultural Adjustment Act. You said you had some friends who didn't like it. Can you tell me why people didn't like the triple A?
You had two groups of people in this county. It was the, in regard to the Triple A system. That was a, that law was passed when Mr. Roosevelt in the Hundred Day period there in 1934. And that, that it was absolutely slanted for the protection and encouragement of the tenants or really, I would say, of the landowners more than the tenants even.
Can you start that over? It was actually the Hundred Days in 1933.
In '33, did I say '34?
'33 and, and, it was adopted, the act was adopted in '33, the AAA was. And it was slanted to, towards the landowners, not the tenants and certainly not the sharecroppers. And the reason it was slanted that way, when you read the act itself, all the settlements was to be made when they would give them money for not planting crops for 1934, '35 and '36, they give them a certain benefits, government benefits, cash benefits. It went to the landlord and then it was up to the landlord to distribute it down to his tenants. And they, they, they felt like maybe they had some hold over the landlord about doing it, but the provisions in the act were awful for blacks. As a result, any number of the tenants resented it. They'd get the government payments and they wouldn't get anything or would get very little and so they would feel that either Mr. Crane, with Lee Wilson, or these other plantation owners were getting the money and leaving them out.
Would you say, then, that the landowners generally did split the parity payments or what would you say?
My observation was is very, at the time, the landlord took his part of it, there wasn't much to split with the tenant. That was my observation. And the tenants were not in a position to argue with them. And they, they took what was there. And as far as the sharecroppers is concerned, they weren't even considered at all. They weren't amenities. They were just hired hands to work on a farm.
And how did your friends feel about the program?
When you, when I look back at back there, you know, sixty years ago and with friends, my, I'm confined let's say to legal, my legal problems, you know, at Lee Wilson Company and other places. And my observation was, of course, that the,
the landowners were pleased. They thought it was, if they went without it, they'd have gone broke. So they were very pleased with it and it worked fine with them.
** My, the observation, recollection of what tenants would say
** is there was talk to men and visit with them and stuff was that they were unhappy. They didn't think that they were getting their fair share, and of course those on the lower down, the sharecroppers, would, would, thought they just were gouged. They didn't get anything.
** [NOTE Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression - Mean Things Happening; Episode 315-06]
Now, last time when we talked, you said you had some friends who didn't like the Triple A because they felt what was Washington telling them how to farm in Mississippi.
It's the same thing that when, I suppose a person's out in the ocean and his, you know, in the Navy, and the ship's sunk on him, and you rescue him and you get him back on your ship, you know, save his life and everything.
He's very grateful, maybe, for a week or so, but after that he begins wanting—
Oh, we've rolled out. Too bad. Can you do that again?
OK. We're ready.
The, the distinction there on the, about the, I'm talking to you or discussing here, the Triple A program and how, what reaction we had in, in Mississippi County here in Arkansas, it was, they felt like when President Roosevelt and the Congress passed it, it was wonderful, a great blessing and big opportunity, because everybody's broke and this is going to bring in some money and create some jobs and create work. We had public works here with the CWA, railroad, bridges, and buildings, and stuff like that. So everybody is on a high spot. They thought it was marvelous and everything. Then after, when the money came back to the farmers, the landowners, let's say '34 or '35, most of the money stayed in the hands of the landowner. He was, gosh, he was broke and any way he could keep as much money as he could he did. And so the tenants didn't get too much out of it, and they weren't, of course, the tenants, a great number of them weren't too happy with it. But the situation had been improved considerably so they went along with it. With the sharecroppers, the sharecroppers didn't make much difference one way or the other, because a sharecropper in the eyes of the landowner was just as a, almost you'd compare him, he was one step above the mule. Maybe the mule was more, meant more to the plantation and the farm than the sharecropper did. Have somebody there working, just a hand laborer was what he was. And when they put in that program of which was awfully exciting, you know, going to plow up a third of the cotton. So they plowed a third of cotton, and everybody was a ton, saying, "Well, what the, what do you want to do that for?" Cotton was selling for five cents a pound. They couldn't even pay for growing it. So, they thought by cutting down production of cotton it'd raise the price, which it did. Then, when they started slaughtering the pigs, then that got everybody's attention, you know, and well, "Why do you want to slaughter them? Why don't you just give them to all of these starving people? There are plenty of starving people here in the county." Truthfully, I don't know what happened to the pigs after they got killed, because I wasn't down there and it wasn't my job to check them. But my guess is that none of that, none of that food went for waste. That it all went for the people that needed it. And you know, and really wanted it. But that caused a lot of criticism of the program, that it wasn't the right way to do it and everything. And, and our people in this county who had money or had a little property were conservatives. They, they felt what Roosevelt was doing was good for them and they wanted it and everything, but it was radical. His views were radical and, and that. So then they began saying, "Wait a minute here. What direction is President Roosevelt taking us?" And so you'd get, start getting criticism among the folks who had a little college education or thinking of that. That wasn't true of Mr. Crane, who was the boss at Wilson. He saw that it meant a great deal to his [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Wilson, and it did. In a sense, he was a political boss in the county. In other words, Hoover's going to be in any of our offices, who's going to be in the governor's office, who's elected over there, he was instrumental in seeing that they were elected. And—
Can you tell me about how people were evicted because of the Triple A?
Oh, now we're getting in, the, the eviction thing that happened there. They didn't need as many sharecroppers, workers on there. You cut down a third of their production and with that, so it means you could do with a third less of your labor force. And they, they didn't, Lee Wilson, never, as far as I can remember, ever bodily ever moved anybody off the farm, but they just let them know that it might be better if he looked elsewhere, you know, and they'd cancel his debt and, and let him go. And I'd, I'd say a great number of them sharecroppers were moved or voluntarily moved themselves. I can't remember in my representing them that we ever filed a suit to remove one. I don't think we did. Other, other, others did it, but now they had provisions in that Triple A thing, you couldn't move them until you show they were a detriment to themselves or to the community or to the landowner, threatening the landowner, before you could do it. There's an anecdote on that if you'd like to hear it.
Two of them. These are personal experiences as a lawyer. This happened in maybe '34, '35. An old, black couple came in. He must have been in his seventies, and she was close. Their landlord here in Blytheville, was not even a plantation guy. He was a tenant for somebody else, had used them as sharecroppers. And they were to get maybe the fruits of five acres after the cotton was laid by July. This fellow picked a argument with him to get him to move off. He had to do something to justify kicking him off, getting his crop. And it came to be about threatening to move him off. I told him not to leave. And so he went back and the next word I had he was dead. His landowner had gone and picked a fight with him, picked up a brickbat and crushed his skull. And of course, the widow comes to see me. And so I represent the widow in the courts. And these are blacks. Well, I tried my best to get him prosecuted and sent to penitentiary for murder or manslaughter. I couldn't, I couldn't get the prosecuting attorney to do anything with prosecuting him, finally they prosecuted him. It only took a few minutes and of course they turned him loose. I went ahead as a young lawyer and I sued him for her part of the crop and everything. The jury stayed out and not over, not over thirty minutes and came back and held for the landlord. And this poor little lady wasn't entitled to any part of the crop. That's one incident. There must have been numerous similar to that. It went on, that didn't get in the courts. The other one was you had to have a reason before you could move somebody, a victim. I had wanted to prosecute a case, just to get trial experience. See I'm, I'm just a youngster, in those days I'm twenty-five, maybe, something like that. So the prosecuting attorney says, "Here, you can prosecute this case." So I prosecuted it. The landlord put him, I talked to him and put him on as a witness about he accused his tenants of stealing corn from him, from his barn. It wasn't long before I saw that he framed the tenant. He wasn't guilt of anything. He just wanted to get rid of him. I tried the case and the jury stayed, oh, the jury didn't stay out fifteen minutes and they, they acquitted the tenant. See, that's the opposite side of the coin. The jury, that, that, that tenant was white. If he'd have been black I'd have lost it without any doubt.
Let's talk about the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Can you tell me what they were trained to do, who was in it, how they organized?
My personal experience with them, of course, was limited. But my observations of it was pretty broad. And the reason they were, that they did organize was that so many landlords, and I'm not casting a reflection upon Lee Wilson Company, because I don't think it applied to them at all, but so many in this county and the neighboring counties of Crittenden and Poinsett here in Arkansas, were taking terribly advantage of the tenants as well as the sharecroppers. Just treated them like dirt, you know. And so these people were hungry, they were starving, and they, children didn't have clothes, they, in awful condition. And they tried to get the attention of the landlords. Just ignored them and push them aside. "If you don't want to work, we'll get somebody else that will work. You know your job will be filled up pretty fast." The, they started organizing groups, down in, particularly, not as much in Mississippi County as they did in Poinsett, next to us, county. And they, it, quick, it was very quickly a fella named Mitchell was in here with them and he encouraged them and he organized pretty well. He finally made contact with, he and several others, with Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas was a candidate for president in the 1932 election for the Socialist Party, 1936 election, and three more elections after, Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas came down here to, at their request, and to help them. And if I am permitted to digress, I'll tell you, I was personally acquainted with Norman Thomas. I'd met him when I was in school at Cambridge, Massachusetts and had sat around at, at the houses down there on Sundays, and he would talk to about fifty, sixty of us students, and, you know, trying to inculcate us with the socialist philosophy. And then I'd heard him at Ford Hall, and he's just an outstanding man. Brilliant, good-looking, attractive guy, tall. And so, it, it, the invitation, these people invited him to come to Mississippi County to talk to the workers, tenants, and stuff. Our sheriff at that time was Big Boy Wilson and he had a deputy named Hale Jackson, and they met him at the county line that divides Crittenden County from us, also near Poinsett County line. They told him they would not guarantee him safe passage. That was in early 1934. And so he turned around. He went back up north and maybe four or five miles and then crossed over to the next county. Thomas really was sold on the plight of the tenants in, in, in this area as well as the sharecroppers. He came, he came back to, made speeches in Memphis, he came back to Poinsett County and then '34 and in '35. In '35 he finally got into Mississippi County and they had, he had a meeting down at the little community called Birdsong—
—in the very south end of the county, and he was up there talking to them, you know, to the—
We're out. Too bad. We're going to start back on the Birdsong.
Norman Thomas was, finally came to Mississippi County, finally visited this county in 1935, and he was, went to a little community called Birdsong. Mostly black inhabitants down there and the south end of the county. And was, he was talking on the front of the church, they set him up, too big a crowd, maybe several hundred, they couldn't all get in that little church or building they had there. And so he was, he was addressing them, you know, telling them about how they're being mistreated and how they could, you know, they, Southern Tenants Farmers' Union could be of help to them and all of that. Well, surrounding him on the side, on the ground, on the outskirts, were representatives of landowners, the ones that were the farm bosses, and they created an incident, and they just walked up there and they removed him and somebody else who was with him bodily from the stand and told him to get the heck out. They didn't use profanity. They didn't need a blankity blank, you know, Yankee to come down there and tell them how to farm and how to handle their labor and all of that. And they bodily just, with friends of Mr. Mitchell and others that were his friends there, had to spirit him out, get him out of there and get him back to the, the bridge across Mississippi River into Memphis to save him from bodily harm. Whether he ever came back to Mississippi County after that, Mr. Thomas, I don't know. He had made earlier visits over to Poinsett County, and with incidents. And one of the first incidences I can recall, that I learned about, was when he spoke to a group of, of pretty well-established businessmen and farmers, there at Marked Tree, which is a town right across there in, from Mississippi County, maybe forty, fifty miles from here. And he, he told them in no uncertain terms how they were mistreating the, these tenants and the sharecroppers and that they were violating all sorts of laws and a bunch of stuff. And that didn't sit kindly with his audience. And they, they sort of told him he was not welcome there in Marked Tree and wish he'd stay away from Marked Tree in the future. And they complained about it to the Commercial Appeal, that's the Memphis Commercial Appeal, ran big stories on it, big incidents. He was, Mr. Thomas was individually one of the finest men I've ever known. High ideals. He just happened to differ with me and with a lot of us in our views on economics. And one of the most pleasant visits I ever had with anyone was with him, was through him that I met another big socialist named Harold Laski from England, from London, outstanding man, met him in Cambridge and in Boston. They did not have much reason for being in, in Mississippi County and Poinsett County as to accomplish much. They, if—I've read their reports, Thomas and others, about what they accomplished. They didn't accomplish a great deal in the long run. For instance, back there in those days, they encouraged strikes. And of course to mention strike, a union, to a Southern landowner was just like, I don't know, what, you'd mentioned, I suppose, a Jew to Hitler, you know, and you'd back the same reaction. And the, they encouraged strikes for the cotton. They had a cotton picking strike where they didn't go out to work. He was able to raise the price of picking cotton from fifty cents a hundred to seventy-five cents. He got that accomplished for them. That was some good. And when they got to cotton picking, I mean chopping, I'm not sure that anyone is listening to what I'm saying knows anything about the cotton growing, but in order to grow cotton you plant it and then you have to go in there after it comes up. They have hoes, the people that had to do it with hand labor, and they'd have to chop it and space it so the cotton would grow and the weeds wouldn't stifle it out. And so they had a strike on the cotton. That was about 1935, I remember. And they, they created some, some problems for the landowners when they did it, and they got some benefits for them, for the benefit of those tenants and sharecroppers. They did do that. Landowners didn't like it of course.
How did they try to stop him? What'd they do?
Oh, they tried to stop him by threats, threats, and have these redneck people that were there, you know, work for him, the bustle boys, being around and threaten if he didn't scatter out and get away from there, they going to beat the devil out of him, whatever. Whatever came in handy. And, and if it was necessary to be thrown in jail, create a disturbance, they'd throw some of them in jail. And then the ironic part about it was, when they'd throw them in the jail and they'd, to get out, maybe some landowner would go in there and buy what they owed the county, the fine or that. And they'd have to work forcibly, so, so to speak, for that same landowner. That wasn't pleasant at all for them.
And what'd you think of the STFU?
What did you think of the union personally?
Oh, personally, I thought it was just a grandiose scheme that had no practical basis at all. There was no way in the world they could ever organize a union. I was opposed to it because my views were colored by the people I'm representing. I'm representing Lee Wilson Company and I'm representing other big planters. So, I wasn't objective about it. But as objective as I could be, I would say that was maybe a resort that they had to use to get attention. There's an old story about, they always talk about mules and how he's lazy and indifferent. A mule was, you know, you're trying to climb and everything, he just stop in his track. And the only way you could get his attention is to pick up a large club, a two by four, and hit him over the head. Once you got his attention then the mule would start moving. And that was the same theory, I think, of Norman Thomas and Mitchell. Maybe if you hit them on the head, the landowners, you'd get their attention.
That's good. [laughs] Last time, you told me that it was nearly impossible for sharecroppers to get out of debt. How so?
Well, when you talk about the debt of, about people working on any of the plantations, you're, were faced with the fact that—I, that I have discussed that—of using, not currency, not money, not legal tender, but using those doodly books or the brozines or whatever. But even more so than then, everything that he obtained, the tenant or the sharecropper, everything, was on the books. It was charged to him. And, and, and, and that's his doctor, I told you about and everything else. So, at the end of the year comes after the crops were, in maybe November, December, something like that. And he'd come in there, they call him in there for settlement. And invariably when he settled he didn't have any money left over. It was always on the landlord, hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, three hundred dollars. And then so he started out the next year in debt. And so, unless—the law was he couldn't leave if he was in debt. It was sort of like a type of indentured servant is what these people were. Even the tenants in a sense were. They didn't have freedom of motion, of action and stuff. And, and it's the same old thing, an old saying around here is, you know, that, don't pour out the water, you know, until you know you got some fresh water, you better keep the water you've washed in, you know, and keep that same water. That was the old saying. Better keep it. And be careful if you did throw it out, you didn't throw out the baby with the tub, you know. Be careful with that you did. So, they, they were, they had to be real ticklish in, in looking after their own interest. And the one that had nobody to look after his interest was the sharecropper. He didn't have anybody, you know. He, he sort of, I was, I tried to, I've always tried to think, where did the sharecropper came from? Where did he ever come from? And so he had to have migrated to, to Arkansas from North Carolina, Georgia, you know, where they were raising cotton. And then the boll weevil run him out of there, so they moved over to Alabama and maybe Tennessee, down to Mississippi. The boll weevil will run them out of there. And so they came up north where there weren't many boll weevils in Arkansas, and a lot of them came in here because they had scouting troops that go down there. People go down there and pick up, ten families, blacks or whites, and bring them up there. And they'd get paid for it. And that's the way they came in here. Some of them just drifted and came in here as drifters.
Tell me what kind of people sharecroppers were, black and white?
When you say, when, when I think about, try to analyze what kind of people they are, I have to go back and think about the poor whites in England back in the days when Charles Dickens wrote his books about them, you know, and some of the other English writers. Particularly the ones, you know, that, in England, they put him in jail if they couldn't pay their debts. There was no problem at all. Just stick them in the jail. I don't know what they did in jail, just sat there. And so a great number of them came over to this country in 1700s in Georgia, the debtors prison.
Can, can you keep me in the 1930s?
Alright. So these people would drift into Arkansas and they didn't have anything and nobody cared about them. And so they'd get a job at Wilson or any other plantation, these folks would, and they'd just hang on and stay until maybe they got tired and they'd move onto other places.
A lot of the landlords would intentionally, like I've told the story about moving them off forcibly—
The, the sharecropper and his family just barely existed. It was—and if you ever talked with any of them, it was very difficult to carry on a conversation with them, because they, they hadn't any experience except hard work. They didn't know what was going on in the world. So, where he got his knowledge in the 1933s, '34s, in those days, it was in, somebody told him he was going to have a meeting of workers at so and so church or some sort of public building. So he'd go there and he was very undemonstrative. He'd sit in the back of the room, trying to make himself so little that nobody could see him, you know. He didn't want to create any attention of himself. And they pretty well sat together. And that was true of the blacks and the whites. And it went further that they even, strangely enough they would segregate themselves, sharecroppers, the black sharecroppers at one side and the white sharecroppers over there with the others. And then, then you had the tenants and the, the distinction between the tenant, if you'd look at him, the tenant had a little bit better clothing that he wore. His wives had better clothing. His children were better. You could see they were better fed. They looked more healthy and everything. They had better clothing. And, and, I'd say that most of the people that were tenants, they'd, they'd had maybe three or four years in public school, you know, they gone maybe that far. They knew how to read, knew how to write. Remember in '33 that we didn't have any television and very few people even had a radio. It was expensive. Sharecroppers didn't have any radios. And some of the tenants maybe had radios that they listened to. They didn't, I don't think they did a lot of listening. Mostly for amusement, listen to music or Jack Benny or, you know, or Fred Allen or something like that. They, as far as they have any news programs that they listened to, the answer would be no, they're weren't interested. And of course they got interested when, when Mitchell and his Southern Tenant Union crowd came down here. Anything that would make them more money. Give them some more they can buy food for and live better. They were interested in that.
Now, the union tried to organize across racial lines. What kind of reaction did that get?
They ran into trouble. They ran into friction on that. And they, they had to tread on water, so to speak, when they were doing it. And, and, best as they possibly could they didn't want to have any segregation between them so they treat them all alike, and that caused a lot of whites to resent it. The white person, even the white sharecropper, thought he was better than the black sharecropper was. And with tenants, like I told you, tenants, black tenants, there wasn't, there weren't too many black tenants, at least that I ever ran into. You must know that in this county, which was unusual, much different from what they had in Poinsett and these other counties, a number of very fine blacks had acquired land, ten acres, twenty acres, forty acres of land. And though you, these were pretty decent blacks and they had gone and got some education in the black schools they went to. Of course, the black schools maybe outside of Wilson which stopped at maybe the fifth grade. But they went, they got as much as they could. They could read. They could write. They could talk sensible. And I represented a number of them. You have to remember that most lawyers wouldn't represent a black. That was—it was just, beneath them, either had prejudice toward it, or they knew that if went over there, the courthouse and jury trials they weren't going to accomplish anything representing them. That was the challenge as far as I was concerned as a lawyer. I was always as, as, as for the underdog so to speak, and still am. So I'd represent anybody. I didn't care if he had any money. I didn't care what his color was. Didn't make a difference to me.
Can you tell me how, how landowners reacted to the fact that black and white were organizing together?
They resented it terribly.
Can you say—
No, I, only started. When you think about the reaction of a landowner, of the landowners to blacks and whites being together in the organization, they not only frowned on it, they vocally said, "We're not going to have anything that's going to stir up racial matters. We'd had a riot down at Elaine in this state, and it's terrible, a bunch of them were killed, maybe two hundred or more. And we don't want anything like that." And so they're, they're remonstrance toward Mr. Mitchell and his Southern Tenants Farm Union, or to Thomas, didn't get anywhere. They just ignored him and they went on and did the best they could, hoping that they could attract more and more numbers.
And you told me that, about Senator Robinson. Let's go to him, that he was a kind of gatekeeper for Roosevelt and getting legislation through Congress. Can you tell me?
We had, we had some very fine representative from Arkansas in the National Congress in '33 and '34 and '35. The outstanding person was Senator Joe T. Robinson, and U.S. Senator Joe T. Robinson, and working with him was Hattie Carraway, the widow of Thaddeus Carraway who died. And Huey Long had elected her back in '32 in the campaign. Robinson was a brilliant man. Everyone here that, among the business professional people, looked up to him. He had been attorney before he went into the Senate for the utility company Arkansas Power and Light. He had made a number of visits to Blytheville for instance. And we, we, we favored him as well as our Congressman we had was Bill Driver and, and he lived at Osceola in this county and he was close to Joe T. He came here, my experience with Mr. Senator Robinson was that he came here and visited with us at, either at a city meeting of business people and professional, or the Rotary Club, a member of the Rotary Club, nearby Rotary. And we met him in the old hotel. The Old Global Hotel was a very fine modern hotel in Blytheville, the only decent one we had here. Three story building. Elevators. Big time, you know, city stuff. And the time I could remember so vividly in '35 maybe, that I remember him here, '35, '36 maybe, and he sat and talked with us and of course, just, I mean, just informal and answered questions. And we were very upset with Roosevelt. We, I mean the lawyers. He wanted to pack the Supreme Court, US Supreme Court, and we were very strongly against it.
You know, we can't actually get into the court packing. I'm sorry.
Can you tell me?
Well, let me tell you about him. So he's sitting here and we expressed our views with him, and we told him we understood why he would be sponsoring legislation, for, for the president, because it without Robinson's help as being the majority leader in the Senate we would have never gotten any of his legislation in the Hundred Days in '33 and some of us went in '34, '35. Robinson did it all. Robinson, I can mention this to you or to whoever's listening, Robinson wanted to be on the U.S. Supreme Court and, so he had an ambition there. The—
Can you tell me how Roosevelt depended on Robinson to deliver votes to get through New Deal legislation?
Well, the, any, the—how much did Robinson, what effect he had on the passage of legislation for President Roosevelt, I'd say the effect was ninety percent. Without Robinson steering it through the Congress, it never would have gotten out off base. Because there were a number of conservatives, particularly in the Democratic side, over there in 1932 and '34 in the Senate and the House, they would've never gone along with Roosevelt. And see, once you—
—accomplish and done so much good by getting the economy back stirring, and getting the banks open and everything, then by discussions today, I mention, people forget. It's always like the story of Senator Barclay and when, when, when he was a, remember, he was vice-president—
Oh, we're out.
We rolled out. No more film.
Joseph T. Robinson, in my opinion and the opinion of my peers in the County, was the most outstanding political figure. Almost, we almost thought of him almost like a statesman. He was super. And we swore by him, all of the crowd that I dealt with. The reason he had all that power was money. That's the, that's the way he got to be elected to Congress, as I remember. Then he got to be elected governor, and a new, he appointed himself, a guy died and he appointed himself to the Senate, and, and then kept being re-elected.
He was really the representative of the vested interests, the utility group, the large landowners, the banks,
** the big banks and everything. He had, he had one of the best law firms in Little Rock, in this state. And you just can't, you can't say too much. It was in his favor. I mean you can't say anything derogatory about him as far as I was concerned. Now, if were a person that didn't have any money like a sharecropper, what the heck, you didn't care about him.
** But remember, that sharecropper didn't vote. You have to remember that in those days, we voted by registration and you had to buy a poll tax, and you had to pay a dollar for it. Sharecropper didn't have a dollar to spend on it.
** He voted, some of his tenants or landowners bought it for him. Just like, for instance, Lee Wilson Company down there. And to have control, they'd buy five hundred of them, seven hundred, a thousand, give it, you know, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . And then they'd vote them as a block. You see when they voted, they had a control. That's why Mr. Crane had, was able to be a boss, political boss. Up here—
Robinson didn't really pay too much attention to—
Oh, Robinson didn't even worry about carrying Mississippi County. He didn't even have to come here to be elected. We're going to, we're going to throw...I, I doubt if he ever lost fifteen percent of the vote or twenty in this county when he ran. He got, got them all practically, because my group, and I was a politician too, you know, I was in the Democratic Party, very active, and we voted pretty straight ticket for, for Senator Robinson. And, where was he, where would he fit in with a fellow like FDR, you know, President of the United States, a New York politician? Well, you have to remember that four years before then he ran for vice-president on the ticket with Al Smith, '28, got beat, because Al Smith should've won, but he's a Catholic and nobody, I don't even think he carried Arkansas. Nobody wanted a Catholic as president, you know.
OK. Can you tell me about FDR coming to Arkansas, why he came?
Yes. I, I was trying to think about when the president came to this state and it seems to me in my recollection that he came to Little Rock in 1936. If he came to Arkansas before or afterwards I don't know, recollect. But he came in '36 only for one reason and one reason only. Joe T. Robinson of course, by spending all of his time practically in Washington and not being able to get out and see his constituents needed some help. I've forgotten who opposed him, but he considered that his opposition was sizable and he prevailed upon the President to come down here and say a good word for old Joe T., buddy buddy and what, how much you think of him. And that's what he did.
He came down there and made that speech at Little Rock. Norman Thomas had tried his best to persuade him to espouse the cause of the sharecropper and attending union out there. He ignored that altogether,
** of course, the president did, and he devoted most of his time on how lucky Arkansas was to have such a great leader in the, in the Congress. And he paid him any number of, I haven't seen a copy of it in years. As I remember, flowering tributes to Joe T. And Joe T. won that election by a pretty good margin. Went back, I think he, seems to me like he died in '36, somewhere down in there.
That's right. Can you tell me about the union's efforts to go to Washington and appeal to FDR to help them?
They didn't, the unions, without money, you know, they had barely just existed. For instance, a man, like H.L. Mitchell, I think he drew a salary when he could find it, maybe thirty, forty dollars a month. But they did save enough money. Thomas had told them and others that, "Your solution is not in Arkansas, it's in the Congress and in Washington. And you need to organize and group. And you get up there and you tell them about how terrible it was and I'll meet you in Washington." And he met a bunch of them up there in Washington, Norman Thomas did. They made, to my recollection, about three trips up there. And, and the first one's '34 maybe, '35, '36. And they accomplished very little. Nobody really paid much attention to them. If Norman Thomas hadn't been their leader or whatever their spokesman, and they paid attention to Thomas, they wouldn't have known they were in Washington. But at least they were making an effort. You know, they finally obtained, I would say in Arkansas, maybe there's a few other states around here, twenty-five, thirty thousand members. That was big. Nobody ever thought they'd get that many people interested or have the nerve to do it. The, right in Arkansas, I was trying to think of real support they had from the established—they had one lawyer. No, the lawyers were afraid to represent them. They knew they wouldn't get any money out of it. There's a very fine lawyer over in Marked Tree named C.T. Carpenter, graduate of Washington Lee, a very fine lawyer, and he had the nerve to represent him. And they threatened him over there, these landowners and others over there, if he didn't stop represented them, they're going to run him out of town, ruin his law business and so forth. It didn't bother Mr. Carpenter at all and he continued to represent them. And in Mississippi County, we only had one lawyer that ever represented them, and that was a guy named Cooper, C.F. Cooper, he's a lawyer, Cooper, a representative. And he was a shyster and he, they couldn't ruin Claude's business because he didn't, he didn't have any business. [laughs] You know, nobody substantial over here ever hired him as a lawyer.
How much of a threat was the union? If it had twenty-five, thirty thousand people, how much of a threat to landowners was it, do you think?
In, in my observation of the union as a threat to the landowners, I think it was over, it was exaggerated in the minds of the landowners. They thought if they don't stop it we're going to have riots and mobs and you know, going to take all the labor away from us. They're going to make us pay them two dollars for picking cotton instead of seventy-five cents, you know, a hundred. And, and, and so I think they lived in sort of fear of what the unknown and everything. My observation at the time, I cannot remember why, but I thought at the time I saw the dangers they, these landowners, my clients would tell me about it, and so they sat there and you either agreed or you just kept your mouth shut. But observation and study of the Southern Farm Tenants' Union, it served a purpose for the time, helped these poor devils when they needed the help and everything. In the long run no good at all, it just sort of water drifted away. The, it's almost impossible to organize a group of, of, of, farm people. One you, we haven't mentioned, one I, I haven't mentioned today is the other side of the association that was together and that's the Farm Bureau. About the same time this was happening in '34, the Farm Bureau started in Arkansas. The National Farm Bureau organized and in this county, right here, we had a very strong Farm Bureau which consisted of the, the tenants themselves or the landowners. And they did a lot of good, the Farm Bureau did, for the benefit of these people.
Mostly leaning toward the landlord, of course, the owners.
Can you tell me how you think FDR did by the sharecroppers?
FDR and I, unfortunately never did get a chance to meet him. Even I didn't meet him when I was in Boston. I campaigned in Boston for Al Smith, against him when he was nominated, you know, at that time up there and made speeches. So I never did get to see FDR himself.
His contribution to the welfare of the poor people in Arkansas, the sharecropper, the one that was starving and needy, was just maybe, from one to ten, possibly it'd register two.
** Two and a half. Very little effect for him. He really wasn't interested in them. He was interested in
** the, where the power was.
** The president was, he was, she was, he was a what do you call it? He was, wait, he was, he was a politician, one of the best we ever had.
** You know, real good politician.
Now the Wagner Act excluded agricultural workers. Do you know why that was and what it would have meant had it included agricultural workers?
I'm trying to, the, I'm just trying to think of other acts of Congress that would've had any effect upon the poor people down here, and, and possibly the Wagner Act, that was passed, what, in '36?
'35 or '36.
How much do we have left?
Nothing. We have nothing.
Oh, you rolled out.
—about Secretary Wallace, and what you think he did or didn't do for the sharecroppers, OK.
In the farm situation, since the government, the United States government's involved, you had a bureaucracy involved. Though President Roosevelt didn't know what's going on here at all and the one who would know about the farmer's situation was Henry Wallace. As I recall, Mr. Wallace was up in Iowa, came down from Iowa, and he's probably the first man we ever had in the Department of Agriculture that knew anything about our problems. Now, he didn't know anything about cotton particularly, but he had enough fellows that were with him in the bureaucracy that did know about cotton. Their attention was always centered upon how best to handle it, the situation so he could get, so that the fellow who produced the cotton could get his money worth. Cotton was only selling in '33 for about five cents a pound. Not enough to even pay for the...so, he, he developed that theory of parity. And even when they started giving money to these farmers so that they could have it, they, it's only on condition they signed an agreement with the United States for three years, with the Department of Agriculture, that they'd plow up right there in three, and third of the cotton and kill a third of the pigs and destroy other surplus crops and then for the next year they'd restrict their planting to forty percent of what they called well...the one that handled that was of course through Mr. Wallace himself. As a result he, he was a great help to the landowner and the, and the program as I've said. Without it these, all of these landowners were going bankrupt. What help was he to the tenant or to the sharecropper? That's, the, what do you call it? Trickle down theory of...you're going to give them money for the landowners and it's supposed to trickle down from them to the tenant, and possibly if anything was left over in the trickle it would get to the sharecropper. It never did get to the sharecropper, of course. The, I would, I would say that of all of them that would deserve credit for the farm, trying to rejuvenate the farm system and get it going would have been Henry Wallace, that's Henry Senior, not his son, who came along later. The, without his being up at the time, I don't believe we'd have ever gotten anything accomplished. The other fellas hanging around Roosevelt didn't know tiddly squat about agriculture. They didn't know. They didn't know a cotton, corn stalk from a cotton stalk from wheat to—they didn't know anything. Wallace knew it. And he came down here several times to Arkansas, met with them. Visited with them. Trying to find out what he could do. But most of those meetings, they were with the landowners. He did nothing for the tenant union. He did nothing. Made some effort, I remember back in '34, '35 so that they would raise the cost of what they'd pay for picking cotton. He helped do that. Remember, at this old time now, what was coming, there was a very big revolution, farm revolution. We're going to have machinery. We're not going to need those mules. They're not going to need those sharecroppers. We're going to have a cotton picking machine that'll pick that cotton. We're going to have torches that'll help get rid of these, the cotton chopper, you know, so we don't need them. So they started making arrangements in their own mind and their financing, the landowners did, "When would we get to a point we don't need this labor at all, not even worry about it?" Now, I don't believe the sharecropper ever knew what was going on. about this time a lot of you remember were going out to Hollywood, Los Angeles, _Grapes of Wrath_, if you remember that movie, and that was a fairly accurate movie.
Now, how do you feel about, how did you feel about sharecropping and that whole system?
To me, a man is a man. To...my feeling toward all these people whether it was a sharecropper, black or white, or yellow or brown. It didn't make a difference. He's a human being and to me he, he, he deserved to be treated as a human being and that's the way I always treated him. And if it ever got to a point where I had to chose and do the bidding of my client, even Lee Wilson Company, Mr. Shane, my senior partner and I, we would just tell him we, no way. We can't be a part of this, you'll have to get some other lawyer. And they did, they get some other lawyer.
Now, you were saying that turning to the political process to get a raise or turning to the courts, just wasn't an option for poor people.
Oh, no. The, I'm thinking about politician. I think maybe I told you that I've been engaged in politics since maybe I was thirteen. I voted when I was thirteen and continued voting. I never voted Republican for President in the whole darn time. I'm just a Democrat and I'm on the Democratic Central Committee, been on that for over forty years. If, if you're not, if you don't have some connection with political influence, you, you're the same as not existing in, in an agriculture county like this. And these, they knew this. Certainly Lee Wilson knew it because they controlled the whole thing. They controlled the, the political process. They elected a governor. They elected all the county officials. So they—but what could a sharecropper do? He couldn't even have a dollar to buy a poll tax. He could have no influence. The tenants, some of the tenants that voted and had those, some of them bought it, but they were good and rare. Most of them are bought for them by somebody else, and they voted the way somebody else, the fellow that bought it would do it. What, so what did he have? What rights did a sharecropper have? A poor laborer. He, he, were almost zero. Unless you'd have some lawyer that would go in there and talk for them or do something for him, he didn't have any. They treated him just like he would one of the mules. He'd kick them around, and wasn't anything he could do about it except leave. And that's what they did. They started leaving. And a bunch of them started moving out. The, the tenants who, who were making, making progress, they bought land eventually and they bought their homes, owned their homes, you know, owned stuff. And a lot of them are still here, some of them our finest citizens.
Did the union make any headway in terms of the Wilson farm?
None. The, the, as far as the Lee Wilson is concerned and the Southern Farmers' Tenant Union it's effect down there on any of the boys was less than one, as to ten, about zero. I never, his lawyer, I never had any trouble with the unions.
Why, why couldn't they make anything, any headway on the Wilson Farm? How was the farm structured so that they would've kept out the union so effectively?
The boss system of Mr. Crane, they, they knew that if they even talked or visited with the union people, they didn't have a job next day.
I think cut. I think this is all I had.
Does that catch you? [close up shot of Lee Wilson and Company scrip and brozine]