Camera Rolls: 315:13-18
Sound Rolls: 315:08
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with George Stith , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 8, 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.*
Since we're talking about the Union, I want to tell you something happened in the early days of the Union. They were meeting in a church house on the plantation. The plantation bosses, along with some deputy sheriffs, went in there and caught a bunch of them and whipped them. Turn them loose, they went down on a [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] and hid, afraid they would come back. There was one preacher in the bunch who was black, and he said "Don't you worry, the Lord knows how they treating us." The others thought he said the law, and they said, "Yes, he know it, but he just don't give a damn."
Stop. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
George Stith, take two up.
First question is, I want you to tell me about the living conditions on the plantations for the croppers.
OK, that's where you want me to start?
The union started because of the bad living conditions of sharecroppers on the farm. They decided to do something about it, they were so bad.
Sharecroppers had no voice. You made your crop, you gathered it,
** you carried it to the plantation, you gin and gin it, and when it was all in, the boss told you how much cotton you made, how much money you owed, and how much you got, if any. You didn't figure with the boss. Your pencil didn't count. He did all the figuring, and when he got through, you'd say "Yes, Sir. I'll take it."
** Some people got a little money if he liked the family pretty good, if the others didn't, he'd say, "You did pretty well, you come out in debt this year, maybe you'll do better next year. Here's twenty-five dollars, take this and buy something for your people for Christmas."
Now, tell me a little bit more about the process of "settling up" after the crop was in. Tell me in detail what happened, how you did it.
Well, after the, after the crops were gathered, you went to the commissary store. A commissary store was a store that had just about everything in it that you needed. Overalls, shirts, shoes—
Begin that again. Sarah, was that OK or did we get interrupted?
We did, but it's all right.
You're going to have, you're going to have some of that.
Overalls, shirts, shoes—
Start from the beginning again.
OK, you want me to start over. A commissary store was a place where they had everything that they said you needed. They had shirts, shoes, overalls, gear for mules, whatever you might need, all kind of grocery. So when it was over, the commissary already had an office in it. They would give the plantation owners, workers, a day to come up and get their settlement. You lined up kind of like in the army. You went up one by one. The plantation boss already had his picket up. He told you how much cotton you made, he told you what you owed, and how much money was paid on the debt, and what you owed, if any, and what you cleared, if any. Now, the better liked people, what they called the better workers, usually got a little money. That was cleared, they didn't owe any more. The ones didn't, they would say, "Well, you done well this year, you almost got out of debt. Here's twenty-five dollars, now take this and buy your family something for Christmas, come to the commissary and get what you need." That was clothes, shoes, or whatever.
Tell me about the process of accumulating debt at the commissary store.
Well, the debt was what you got, actually got, but that wasn't what you told. You went up, every first of the month you got a coupon book, look just like food stamp books do today. Now, that's what you spend out of every month to buy your grocery, what you needed to make a crop on. That was charged to your account, yet you didn't keep a record of it. In the end of the year, he told you how much you owed. I remember, one sharecropper who lived on a plantation, and they had start poisoning cotton and he had a good crop, so when he went up to get his settlement, the man told him how much he owed. He said, "I didn't use that much poison." He said, "Oh, you didn't?" He said, "No, sir." He said, "Well somebody out there used it one on the farm. You got the best crop there is out there. Somebody going to have to pay it." So he charged the greater portion of poison to him because he had the best crop.
Tell me about the process of sharecropping, how it actually works.
Well, well maybe I need to tell you the difference of a sharecropper and a tenant, well, we had both on the farm. A tenant was a man who had his own mules and his own plough tools. He worked, he give a fourth of the cotton and a third of the corn to the plantation-owner. A sharecropper was one who the plantation owner furnished the mules and the plough tools and the seed. He worked the crop, he gathered it, and he was supposed to get half of it, but most of the time he didn't. He got what he gave him. Working hours were from, mostly from daylight to dark, which includes from twelve to thirteen hours a day. Don't go to the lot with the man and the mules until it was sundown, that was a violation of the rules, sharecropping rules. And you must have them out of the lot by sun-up.
You guys had this saying about working from...?
Sun 'til sun, or daylight 'til dark.
You also told me something about, can until can't. Can you tell me—
Wait, wait, hang on... now tell me.
Yes, it was from can 'til can't, from the time you could get to the field until you couldn't see. And most of the time your time getting to the field was daylight, just enough light to see how to chart a plough. I can remember when the mules was in the field, hooked up to their plow, waiting on it to get light enough to see how to plow the cotton without plowing it up. Same way with cotton choppers. They were standing on the end, and after a while whoever the leader of the family would say, "Well, it's about light enough, let's see, let's get it," and they'd start chopping cotton. Women, the head of the family, the woman took off at eleven-thirty, she went to the house, she cooked, the rest didn't stop 'til twelve. They ate dinner, but everybody went back to the field at one, so she had an extra half an hour to cook. There were no such a thing as gas. They used wood-stoves, so the wood-stove had to be heated hot enough to cook the meal in thirty minutes for them to eat when they got home, and go back to the field.
Do you want to do the last part about the cooking?
Can you, can you tell me that again about—
Begin with the women, the head lady of the household left at eleven-thirty to go home and cook.
Yes, one lady of the house, that usually was the wife, she left the field at eleven-thirty to go to the house to cook dinner for the family. The rest of the family quit at twelve, course they had to walk from wherever they was in the field to the house. They gave them time to eat dinner. After they eat dinner, the rest of the one hour, the head of the family, which usually was the man or the oldest son, spent that time sharpening the hoes, getting ready to go back to the field, chop cotton that evening.
Now, from all the, some of our research, and also from my conversation with you, it seems that there was quite a bit of movement of tenant farmers and sharecroppers from farm to farm. Can you tell me about that, and tell me why people moved around?
Yes, I can tell you some of it. They moved around because, actually they were looking for a better deal, but there was a problem in moving. When you got ready to move from one plantation to another, whoever you was going to move with, went and checked with the plantation owner you was living with to find out why you wanted to leave, and if the report wasn't good, you didn't get a place with him. You had to go somewhere else and look. So, some moved as much as five or six miles, which was a long distance. Five miles was a long distance back in those times.
Tell me about the process of moving, I mean, how would you do it, how would you move the stuff?
Wagons and mules. If you made an agreement with the man on the next plantation—he decided to take you—he would send two or three wagons or whatever was necessary, and load them all at one time. His other sharecroppers would go and help you move. They didn't get paid for that and it wasn't no cost to you. They were loaded into the wagon, carried to the house. You moved in, unloaded on the house, on the porch or in the house. And most of the time they helped you to put up your furniture, such furniture as was, which included a stove, cook-stove, and beds. Well, hay mattresses. You went out in the field, you pulled the hay just before it started getting dry, you let it dry, you put that in an open, in a split mattress, and that's what we slept on. Some people used shucks off their corn, go out and shuck the corn, and then do what they call strip the shucks to make it soft, put them in the mattress and we slept on shuck mattresses.
Now, tell me what living conditions were like on the plantation, like, for instance, what would your living quarters be like?
Well, your living quarters was a house made out of mill-run lumber, put up green, and when it dried, it had a crack in it, maybe anywhere from a half to a three-quarters of an inch. They nailed over the house a one-inch plank, what was called a batten, that covered the crack, if it didn't fall off, or blow off, or get dry and pop off. The floors were made out of the same. Now there wasn't no battens putting over the floors. When it dried there was usually a crack in it. And what we did in the house in the winter-time, we would save paste-board boxes, we would nail with tacks those paste-boards over the cracks, and in the winter-time chickens would come up under the house to keep warm, and usually we fed the chickens through the cracks.
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
You're good to go.
Plantation houses were usually built out of—
I'm sorry, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
Plantation houses were usually built out of what they call mill-run lumber. They cut it at the mill. The plank was anywhere from twelve to twenty-four inches wide. They built a house out of that plank when it was, a house out of it, when it was green. When it dried it had anywhere from a quarter to a half an inch crack in it. So they would take a one inch, a one by four, and nail it over that crack, which was called a batten. It would cover the crack, until it got dry, and if the nail wasn't strong enough it'd pop off so you had a crack. Inside to cover the crack, we used what they call wallpaper. We'd take the wallpaper and put it on with wall tacks. The floor was built out of the same kind of lumber, only you didn't have a batten over it. So we used pasteboard boxes, we would take wall tacks and tack the pasteboard box over the crack, to keep the air from coming in. When it was cold, snow and ice on the ground, a lot of the chickens would roost under the house, so we'd feed them. They wouldn't come out, so we'd feed them through the cracks in the house. They would stay under there 'til it got warm enough to come out. After they come out, we helped crawl up under the house, and gathered eggs that they had laid under the house during the cold weather. That is what the housing situation was like. They normally were built, in a lot of cases, they were built in what they would call quarters, that would be four or five houses in a row, not far from each other. That was because of the situation of the mules, they had to go to the lot to get the mules, so they would be closer to the lot to get the mules than they would have to be if they were forty acres apart. There were some sharecroppers' houses were forty acres apart. They were the good sharecroppers. They were allowed to keep their mules all winter. They had to raise enough corn to feed them. So, they kept them all winter, they used them, in a cinch [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] like they were their—they used them to go to church, to go to town, and back home. That's as far as you got.
Now, you told me earlier about moving from plantation to plantation, can you tell me a little bit more about the kind of laws and restrictions that existed to forbid you, or to impede the cropper movement?
Well, in a lot of plantations, you didn't own anything. Everything you owned actually belonged to the plantation owner. When you finally found out if you owned everything, it was in his name. You couldn't move it unless you got his permission. If you moved, they would arrest you, and the plantation supervisor had [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] of commission. They would arrest you, accuse you of stealing, carry you to court, and they would censure you, and most of the time they carried you back to the same plantation and put you in the same house. You was a prisoner, then, until you worked that out. And it was up to the boss to decide when you worked your fine off.
Now tell me about the actual process of picking cotton, in terms of how strenuous the labor was, and actually taking the cotton out of the bulb, and what that did to your hands, and so forth.
Well, picking the cotton, usually, with the burrs on it, usually it would cause the fingers to be cracked up. And we'd use an adhesive tape on it, a lot of time, to keep it from cutting the fingers. But picking cotton is like any other job, it's a job that is skill. If you learned the skill, though, you could pick a lot of cotton. Now, I was a, I was a three or four hundred pound cotton picker. Every day I picked three or four hundred pounds of cotton. Some people couldn't pick over a hundred and a hundred or fifty, it's just how skilled you were, just like any other skilled job. But it was strenuous on your back, you'd put anywhere from fifty to a hundred pounds in the sack, depending on how much you can have. You went to the wagon, you weighed it on a hand-scale- sorry, I don't have any to show you. You weighed your cotton, you climbed up in the wagon, and you emptied your cotton in the wagon, and you tromped it.
What would happen for, like, women and smaller people in the field that couldn't handle those kinds of loads?
Men usually did it for them, there usually were men in the fields that would do it for children or widows who couldn't do it. It was sort of a neighborhood deal.
Now, you told me earlier that you made your first crop as a cropper, as a sharecropper, on the Howe plantation. What was that like?
Well, maybe I better go back to the situation. I wasn't twenty-one years old, so my sister, who was older than I was, the crop had to be put in her name, yet I did all the work, the plowing and everything. It was a violation of the law to hire a man and put him for [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] unless he was twenty-one years old. So, I made the crop, and I brought my first crop in as a sharecropper in nineteen and thirty-five. I brought my first crop in. We picked the cotton. We carried it to the gin, we gin it, then you carry it to the plantation store, and they take your sample. Later you get settled for it, after you, most of the time after you pick it all. If Christmas came before you got it all picked, they would usually give you what they called a partial settlement at that time.
Now, but you had made a crop earlier, for, your education had been interrupted so you could help make a crop. Now, can you tell me about that?
Well, yes. This was in southeast Missouri, we're living on a small plantation. My father had rheumatism—what we called it then—I think is called arthritis now. He couldn't plow, so if you lived on a plantation somebody had to work, I was the oldest boy. The plantation owner drove his car up to the two-room schoolhouse, teacher went out, put her foot up on the running-board of the car for about ten or fifteen minutes. She came back and said, "George, you get your books and go home with Mr. Carter. He has something for you to do. I'll see you when you get back." I never got back. I was a plow-boy from then on for the family, up until I got grown.
What did Mr. Carter say to you when you came out there?
Nothing but, "I got a fine pair of mules for you, I'm going to give you best in the bunch," and he did. He gave me the best, the most simple pair of mules he had, easy to handle.
I need for you to say that again to me and say, Mr. Carter said to me, or whatever, include the question.
Yeah. Mr. Carter said to me, "George, I'm going to give you the best pair of mules I got in the lot," and he did. He gave me the best pair he had.
We'll let it go past.
Are you comfortable, Reverend, are you—?
You can use your hands like that.
I can use my hands, that's all, oh! Oh, OK, good, good, just so long as I keep the feet still [laughs]. OK.
I might ask you to preach a little bit before we get finished.
You come back tomorrow.
My subject, my subject's going to be, a soldier on death row [laughs].
OK. Now, this Howe plantation, and this first crop you made, what was, and not only on the How plantation, but also on other plantations, the relationship between the owner and the croppers, particularly in regard to black sharecroppers or white sharecroppers?
If you were a good worker, the relationship was what, at that time, they called good. You got along well, you got mostly what you asked for so far out of the commissary store. So far as money, nobody got too much of it. Now, it was a violation of the law to congregate together, so white sharecroppers was usually kind of separated from the black sharecroppers, but they met in town, at the same store. They did business at the same store. I'd like to tell you about, in July, they call that lay-by time, so then you had to go out and work for money to feed your family, and we worked for this plantation owner, cleaning up land. The white, there was a white man who was our supervisor. When we finished the crop, everybody come in, he said, "Oh, y'all did such a good job, I'm going to give y'all a cold drink," so he give everybody a cold drink. When he got down to the supervisor, who was white, he gave him a Coke. Negroes couldn't buy Cokes, it was off-limit to Negroes. So he gave him a Coke, and the rest of us got grape, strawberry, orange, whatever, whatever you wanted, but you couldn't get a Coke. Blacks, Cokes wasn't made for black folks.
Now, you just told me that this relationship between the croppers and the planters was OK if you worked OK—
Yeah, if you worked good.
You got along OK.
You got along OK.
Why'd you form the Union, then?
Well, working conditions. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours a day. The system of settling for your crop, which you had no voice. One of the reasons we formed the union was because, if you can remember, during the Roosevelt time, they had 'plow-up', you plow every third row of cotton up and leave it was. When it came to that, they decided, the sharecropper has no part in this. This money belong to us, so they didn't want to pay the sharecropper. When we finally got to Washington, got some of it settled, they decided sharecropper did have his, this is what they did. They would send a check to the county seat, the county agent would get the check. He would notify the plantation owner that the checks was in. The plantation owner would notify everybody, come to the store on tomorrow or Wednesday or whatever day, your checks are here. When he come, usually he would turn the check upside down, you didn't see, sign your name here. OK, now this'll go on what you owe. You didn't see the check, but you had signed it, so it was legally his.
I refused to sign mine. Mine stayed there three months. He finally says to me—
We have to stop.
We have to stop now—
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Maybe I ought to tell you how it started. The STFU started when there were two men in Marked Tree. One owned a pressing shop, the other one owned a service station, and farmers, sharecroppers and tenant, would usually hang around there when they wasn't doing nothing. Conditions got so bad, they sit around, got to talking about it, and somebody says, we ought to do something about it, or be something done about it. So they start talking about it, seven blacks, seven whites, five blacks got together, and they organized. Wasn't called a union, they just got together and decided to do something about it. That's the way the STFU started. They finally decided the best thing to do was to go to Washington and get something done. They thought you could get something done in Washington. So they went, and they were told to go to the Department of Agriculture. Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture. They went to the Department of Agriculture, and they walked in, told them they wanted to see Mr. Wallace. "You got an appointment?" "No." "Well, you're going to have to have an appointment." "Well, how I get one?" "Well, you have to write in for an appointment, and then we'll let you know when Mr. Wallace says you can come back." So they come out and decide, well, somebody says, "Well, the best thing to do is picket," so they start picketing, and they start talking about arresting them. Then one man walks in and says, "They're citizens, they can picket if they want them." Somebody come up and said, "I tell you what y'all need, y'all need to go back and form a union," and they didn't hardly know what the word union meant, but after they got the details they come back and started on it. When they started on it, that's why trouble started. When the plantation owners found out the word union, and it all come back from John L. Lewis and the coal miners, they were afraid of the name union. They started to break up the union, and they grow around and tell them, "If you Negroes want to do well, y'all stay out of that union." But it didn't work. They formed them [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , and they would meet on the plantation, in church houses. And the church house was on the plantation, so that's why the problems started. That's when the deputy sheriff, who was usually a plantation supervisor start going in, arresting them, beating them up, taking them out, whipping them, turning them loose, but it just kept growing, because conditions were so bad. Working conditions were so bad. In that era there were no money, they had what they called brozeen [sic]. [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] You got paid off in plantation money, and the only place you could spend it was on the plantation, you couldn't spend it anywhere else. They start work on the union, and it just kept growing and growing.
Now, how did you get involved in the Union, how did you first hear about it?
A friend of mine, somehow, had joined the Union. I yet wasn't twenty-one, I yet wasn't grown. He came by my house and said, "George?" I said, "Yes." "Come on go to union meeting with me," I said, "What's that?" He said, "It's something that'll make it better, for the working man, make our conditions better. We won't have to work so hard and get nothing." I said, "Yeah, I'll go." So I went. When I got there, they said, "He can't come in unless he's a member of the Union." "How much it cost to join?" I don't know how—what it cost to join, but I paid twenty-five cents, and I didn't have any money, so he paid the twenty-five cents for me. And after I joined, that night, when they broke up, he got up and moved that I be made secretary of that local, because I could read and write better than he could, and I never finished Edgar middle school
So that was, that was fun. But we start organizing that area. That was Long Cotton Plant and Howe, and Brinkley, that's the, that's the area, and we start organizing that. But
when we met at night, we were so afraid until we had watchmens [sic] out, there would be always three or four men, depending on the size of the place where we met. Sometimes we met in homes, and they would be out watching, to see if any strange person would come up, and they had a way of giving a signal, and if they did, we would be having us either a Bible study class, if not that, we'd be playing a friendly card game.
** And that was no problem, that was all right. Sometime, we would be having us a card game with some whiskey around. There was plenty of bootleg whiskey, so we'd have us a little whiskey sitting on the table and a card-game, and that was fun to the plantation owner. "Them Negroes are just having a good time," no—pardon me, "Them niggers are just having a good time down there. There ain't nothing going on." And we'd start our union meeting and go ahead with our business.
So, what would they say when they would come in, I mean, they come in and you say, oh, this a Bible study, or a card game—what would they say to you?
If it, if it was Bible—if it was a Bible study class they'd turn around—
Wait, wait, wait... now tell me.
If it was a Bible study class, they would turn around and walk out.
If it was a card game, they would stand around and watch for a while, and maybe if it was good moonshine whiskey they'd take a drink or two. You niggers make sure y'all don't have no union going around here, long as y'all doing this it's all right. They didn't know what we were really doing, they didn't know we were organizing a union. So in some cases they helped us by saying go ahead, as long as you do what you're doing.
OK, so, but the union was mixed, though, it wasn't just black people.
Well, no, it was black and white, but the way the plantation was situated, most of the time you'd have what was called a white local and a black local, because they were separated on the farm. But we had what they would call a district meeting, and we found a way to meet somewhere, even though it was a violation of the state of Arkansas, but we gathered together as a group. We'd meet out in the woods, in parks, any place we could find. We'd meet together. We'd sing together. We'd eat together, and pray together. They couldn't separate us. It was a violation of the law, but they just couldn't—the conditions were the same. The only difference were, you were a white sharecropper and I was a black sharecropper, and they said to you, "Don't mix with those niggers, you're better than they are," but then they began to find out their conditions were the same as ours. We had what they called a split-term school. Negroes went to school when there was no cotton to chop or none to pick. The whites had a nine-month school term. But to the poor whites who were sharecroppers, it was a disadvantage to them, because their children had to stay out just like we did, and help chop and gather the crop. So therefore they'd miss an education just like the blacks of the poor did. So we finally wound up meeting together, even though a violation of the law, but we met together anyhow. We got arrested, some got beat, and we had some come up missing. There were some people join the Union, we don't ever know what come of them. We never seen or heard of them anymore. So we don't know what happened to them.
Was that common, I mean, was the threat of violence always present?
The threat of violence was always present. They came in with shotguns, and straps, and pistols, they did what they figured it would take to break up the Union.
** You know how lucky I was? I never got strapped one time. But I was a good runner, I knew how to stay out of the way [laughs]
Now, I want you to tell me a little bit more about this black and white issue, the fact that the locals were segregated, in terms of coming together. Was there any discussion regarding the pros and cons of coming together as one under the STFU? Or, just, how did you handle that?
No, there was never no discussion. When they said, if he belonged to the union, we say look, we're going to have a union meeting, a district union meeting, or we're in the woods at such and such a place. Everybody would be there. There was no question, there was no argument. There was no—I sometimes, and I don't think the whites understood it, it was just something we felt we had to do, regardless of what the price of it was, so we did it. We would meet together, discuss our problems, and we'd finally wind up eating together, we'd always [scad?] [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] some food. And we'd set on out there in the woods, or wherever we met, sometime [sic] we found a place where we could meet. In Cotton Plant there was a little academy there. We always was able to meet at that academy 'cause, the academy was for white, but I think it was by a Presbyterian church, and whites were always allowed to go there. So we'd go down and have our meeting in the Presbyterian church, and we'd always sit down and eat dinner together before we left, and we usually had a song. I think you have a copy of it, "Roll the union On," that's what we usually wound up ending up the union with, "Roll the union On," and down in it I guess you heard them say, if the planter's in the way, we're going to roll it over him. And we decided that's what we were going to do.
Now, the planters were always, were, the threat of violence from the planters was prevalent. What did you guys do about trying to defend yourselves from the planters?
Run and hide. The planters was always prevalent, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , but we'd always find a way to run and hide, or either as I told you once before, we'd be giving a card game. Now, when we were integrated, it did wind up being a problem sometime. We'd just separate, and everybody go his own separate ways. Some got arrested, some got jailed.
Was there any, was there ever any thought or discussion at the meetings or whatever, about fighting back, carrying your own weapon and being able, trying to defend yourself?
No. We decided to do it without violence. We didn't want to be known as a violent group of people. We wanted to do something to help the sharecropper and the tenant without being violent. No, we never decided to carry our own guns, or nothing of the kind like that. Now, I'm not going to tell you some people come and didn't have them. I might of had one sometime. But the purpose wasn't to defend ourselves as a group with violence, no, we'd find a way—
—to split up and go our own ways without violence. Some got arrested, some got jailed, but we still did—
You can begin.
Triple A ruled through the government that the best way. We had too much cotton—was to plow up, I believe it was every third row. That was to the farmer. It was left to the farmer to share, to the sharecropper and tenant, his part. The government did not give a part to the sharecropper, but he give it to the farmer. And if you were a farmer, or if you were sharecropper or a tenant, it was left to the farmer to give his share, they decided they didn't want to give it. This was when the union start working to try to make sure the sharecropper and the tenant got his share, and when they did, they started to move them off the plantation. We don't need them, we'll plow it up. But those who were left, this is what happened to them. The plow-up checks were sent to the plantation, to the county agent. First sent to the State Office, the State Office sent them to the county agent, that was the way it was distributed. Then the county agent would notify the planter that the checks were there, after they ruled, there was a ruling made that the sharecropper and tenant should have his part. So, they would notify you, you come, they come and bring the checks, and the plantation owner would say, checks are here, come up whatever day, and sign up for them. Now, that's what he said, sign up for them, and you'd go up, and your check would be turned over, and you'd sign it here. OK, now we're going to take this and put it on your debt you owe. You didn't know how much it was, you didn't look at it-
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
—or did you get that?
We seem to be having camera problems here, it goes on for a little while—
—have to begin when I say it.
Want to take a break?
You don't have to say it exactly the same way.
You didn't take no break back there when you—
George Stith, take six up.
If we want to take a break, we can take a break.
Well, I'm pretty tough, you keep—
I know you are [laughs].
The triple A.
Concern of triple A, when the government decided the best way to get rid of the cotton was to plow it up. They left it to the farmer to divide the sharecropper and tenant part with him, but it didn't work out that way. Not very many of them divided anything. So when the government decided that the sharecropper and tenant would have to have his part, they started getting rid of them on the farm, but now, when they got rid of them, some they kept 'cause they had to have somebody on the farm to work. They couldn't get rid of all of them. Those that were left, they would send the check, the government would send the check to the state, the state would send it to each county, and the county agent would make sure the farmer got it, and it was left to the farmer to give the sharecropper and tenant his part, so they didn't do it. So when we finally got a ruling they would have to be paid, they would send that check to the plantation owner, he would say, "Well, the government say I have to pay you, I don't think I owe you, but I'm going to give it to you. Y'all come up in, your checks are here. Come up." And he'd lay that check upside down, sign right here, and you'd sign your name. Now, you know, you owe, this will go on your debt, and he'd take the check and keep it because he had got you to sign it. I refused to sign mine. It stayed there three months. He sent for me come up one day, he said, "I've got your check up here. I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to give it to you, you sign it. I'm going to give you your check. I'm going to pay you cash money and you keep your mouth closed." Yeah, I did [laughs]. Not many people were getting money, so, I mean, you know, that was a victory. But then we decided it wasn't fair for just a few, so we went all out. Then they started sending your check to you from the county agent by mail, it still come through the county agent. They sent you your portion of the check. But we had a problem with that. Very few people had a mailing address. Couldn't get a post office box, so he got his mail at the commissary, so the boss man got the mail anyway. He opened the check, if he decided to keep it, it wasn't no violation of federal law, he kept the check, you come up and sign it again. So we had that problem to work on. We never did altogether get it settled, but a lot of people began to get a rural outbox, or whatever, and if it went to the post-office in a small town, well, a lot of time, your post-office was at your commissary store. Lot of commissaries had the post-office for the entire farm. Your mail went there.
OK. Now, tell me about the process of actually plowing the crop under.
Well, the crop would be partially matured. Say, for instance, it would be bloomed and had some bolls on it. You go out there and you take your mules, and plow it up. Now, the mule wouldn't walk the top of the row. He wasn't trained to walk on top of the row, and you put him up there, he wouldn't stay up there. So they had to take two mules, put them to a middle buster, and put the mules in the middle, and put the middle-buster under the cotton to plow it up, 'cause that mule would not stay on top of the row. He had been trained to walk in the middle. He would not walk on top of cotton. So, [laughs] you had to use the same process to plow the cotton up you used to plant it, two mules, mostly to plow it up.
Now, this triple A ruling was part of FDR's New Deal legislation. What did you all think of FDR and his administration?
Well, so far as FDR, I mean, all the people who knew about him, and so many people didn't know what a President of the United States was, they just knew the word, but the people who did know thought he was a wonderful man. He did do a lot to help the poor people. The poor people got a lot of help out of what he did. And on the plantation, see, if you go from the Hoover days up to FDR, it was a great change. So he, in the eyesight of sharecroppers and the tenant, he was a wonderful President.
And you said that he did a lot of things to help poor people?
Yes, the things he did did help them.
I don't know if, like, plowing up the cotton, which raised the price of cotton—see, cotton was, so much cotton raised—until the price of cotton went down to nothing. So those who did get some money out of it, and we had some small loaners in the black who joined the union too, and we had some tenants who got money. On the big plantations where the problem was, they didn't know what a President was. I might tell you, black people weren't allowed to vote in the state of Arkansas then. Blacks didn't vote. So...
Are you saying that there was a law?
There was a law. Blacks didn't vote in the state of Arkansas, you couldn't go to the polls and vote, no. Then there come a law later, that if you were a landowner, if you owned twenty acres of land out here and you payed your tax, then you could buy your poll tax to vote. That's the only way, if you were a sharecropper or a tenant you couldn't pay a poll tax. You had no voting voice. That's right. You couldn't.
Now, with the large, the plantation owners abusing this triple A regulation, not paying some of you all, did you all feel like Roosevelt or the federal government could or should have done more about that?
Yes, we did. We felt like it should have been a law that made it more fairly distributed. But the biggest of the blame [sic] went back to the Department of Agriculture, not back to Roosevelt. I believe I told you Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture, and everything was said, "Well, this is done through the Secretary of Agriculture." So the blame didn't really go to Roosevelt; he got the laws passed and it was left up to the Secretary of Agriculture to see that all this other part was handled. So it really went on the Secretary of Agriculture. Wallace got a terrible blow from the people. You could name among the sharecroppers and the tenants, Wallace, and nobody liked Wallace. Everybody hated him, but they didn't hate Roosevelt, no.
And you all didn't feel that, because Wallace worked for Roosevelt, Roosevelt needed to make Wallace do what he was supposed to do?
If you want, tell the truth, we didn't understand it [laughs]. Nobody among the blacks, the sharecroppers and tenants, knew anything about government regulation or what was required. President Roosevelt did this: he went, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] us from what was called Hoover-halls, which was [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , up to here we didn't have to, things got better. So, Roosevelt, in our, in the sight of the sharecropper and tenant, was a wonderful man. It was Wallace, everything went to Wallace. I think Roosevelt said the Secretary of Labor, that's his job. And all we knew, we didn't know the government, we didn't know anything about Congress or the Senate, making laws and regulations that rule. No, we didn't know it.
Did you know anything about Joe Robertson, who was the Senator from Arkansas at that time?
We knew he was up there. We didn't vote.
And, how did people generally feel about him?
Well, he's up there. He's the Senator from Arkansas. He's doing his job.
But did you feel that he had your best interests at heart?
No, not really. We didn't feel, fact, we didn't feel like none [sic] of the senators in Congress up there, even our own, had our best interests at heart. We felt like they represented the big farmer, and really he did, because that's where he got his vote. He didn't get votes from blacks, so he didn't pay any attention. I went before the Senate Agriculture Committee sometime in the, I believe it maybe was the late 30s or early 40s, and I testified.
I told about of the split-term schools in all the Southern cotton-growing states—
Now, we're talking about triple A, not sharing and whatnot, which leads us to the '35 Cotton Picker's Strike.
Oh yes. The cotton picker's strike was something we felt we had to do. They were paying different prices for cotton-picking, which ranged anywhere from fifty to seventy-five cents, top price, for picking cotton, per hundred-pound, that's with seed. We decided we had to do something about it. The union went through—this was in the second year, it was in '34 that we started deciding to do something about it. But in '35 we got it all put together, that we would have a strike. The question was, how would we handle it, how would we get the people to strike? So we finally decided to tell our local union people that we were going to put out strike hand-bills, saying, the union was having a strike. And we educated, and we educated them to say, the union is doing this. So we got together, and decided to put out strike hand-bills on a certain night at a certain time. Each local union would have his own strike bills, they had an area to distribute them over. So, what we did, went to Memphis, each secretary of a local union, and we had some two hundred, I guess, local unions, went and picked up his own strike bills, and he had his area to cover. So, that night, when the time come to strike, we put out the hand-bill, and we put them all over the farm, and on plant—we made sure we put them on plantation commissary store doors and steps. They found them next morning, gathered them up and put it in the trashcan, but when they got down on the plantation they found them down there, and they decided that, airplane put them out. But we did them all by hand, and mostly on foot. They said, "Y'all go back to the fields and work. Don't pay that damn union no 'tention [sic]." "Yeah, but you be at home in your house 'sleep, and the union folks'll come behind and burn our house up with all our children in it. You get rid of that union thing and then we'll go back to the field." And that's the way the strike was successful, they wouldn't go back because they said were scared. I don't mind going back, but I'm scared, I'm not going back 'til y'all get rid of that union thing. The union just held out that they must have at least, I believe it was one dollar per hundred pounds. And they finally decided—I don't know why they decided—but the farmers somehow got together and decided they would pay it. They went back and said, "Well, we're going to pay you the dollar. Don't you worry about them damn union folks. If any problems start you let us know, we'll get rid of them."
Let's stop, let's stop. That's good—
—were union members.
See, we don't—
Oh, I'm sorry.
That's lost in the, you know—
Now, where you want me to start, to put that in?
At the beginning. Can you do that over for me?
[laughs] Yeah, I guess I can. But now, you lost some tape there. You lost some tape there, didn't you?
That's OK, don't worry about that.
There's one, there's question I have, OK, now, I've read that—
OK. The cotton picker strike. It was in '34 we decided we had to something 'bout the cotton-picking. Wages was so low picking cotton per hundred pound, we started in '34 talking about doing something about it, but we never really did anything about it until 1935, when we got together and decided we would have the cotton-picker strike. We decided to meet at a certain, in Memphis, all the local union secretaries would get their handbills, and put them out on the plantation. Now, what the plantations owner [sic] didn't know, that ninety-five percent of the members, of the sharecroppers, on the plantation did belong to the Union. They didn't know it. But we put the handbills out, and when it come time for the strike, they went down and says to the workers on the place, "Don't you pay that union no 'tention [sic]. Y'all go to the field and go to picking the cotton." And they said, "No, we're not going out there, because if we do those union folks'll come here and burn our house up with all our children in it, and you're going to be in y'all's house 'sleep somewhere, and we got nobody to protect us." What they didn't know what that, all those folks they were talking to were union members. They stayed at home on the grounds that they were afraid of the Union, but the union was their own selves, and they stayed home 'til the price of the cotton-picking, they decided to pay the one-dollar-per-hundred per cotton-picking, and everybody went back to the field. They went down and said, "We're going to give y'all the dollar-a-hundred, but y'all let them damn union folks stay out of here," 'cause they was talking to union folks all the time. They didn't know who they were really talking to. One, one something happened, just before the strike, when we got the handbills in Memphis. One fellow from Clarksdale didn't show up, and we never did find out why he didn't show up. They said, "George, you go through Clarksdale, why don't you catch a bus through Clarksdale, and cab." So I caught the bus, went to Clarksdale, got off the bus. It was night. I started down the streets walking with my briefcase in my hand. Police car pulled up and said, "Nigger, where you going? Don't you know we don't allow no niggers walking the streets here at night?" I said, "No sir, I didn't, but I'll go back to the bus-station. Where can I get a cab?" They said, "Where you going?" I told them, they said. "Oh, get in, we'll carry you. We know him." I got in the police car and they were driving along, they says to me, "Reverend, where you going to preach, tomorrow?" I told him the church where we was supposed to have the meeting. I told them the church where we were supposed to have the meeting. [laughs] They said, "Oh, we know where that's at. I tell you what, you better be glad that you're preaching when one of them damn union organizes, because we'll put a chain around your neck and put you in the Mississippi River." And I was looking over in the Mississippi River then. They drove up to the house, stopped, and shook hands with me, and that's—some white people didn't do—and they all, they both give me a dollar a piece, says, "Put this in your church collection on tomorrow." They thought that all the money raised in the church collection, the preacher got it, so I had two dollars. I put it in my pocket. I went in the house and told the fellow, "Take this and hide it somewhere before they come back," 'cause I had a, I had my strike handbills and his, I had a briefcase full.
There's one, there's question I have, OK, now, I've read that—
Now, I need for you to tell me that, at that time, anytime they saw a black person with a briefcase, they automatically thought he was a preacher. I can put it in later, just tell me that.
Yes... how's that? Wait, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , tell me what you—
Just tell me about how, at that time, whenever they saw a black man with a briefcase, they automatically thought he was a preacher.
Yes, the only thing saved me was, I had a briefcase. Any time they saw a black man carrying a briefcase, they thought he was a preacher, 'cause black people didn't carry a briefcase for nothing but to preach. So, that's what got me by, on that hand, briefcase full of strike handbills. Didn't nobody carry briefcases but, black folks carry briefcases but preachers.
Good, how much we got, Mike?
Oh, OK. Four minutes?
OK. That long? Oh, what do want?
OK, OK, tell me about the '36 chopper's strike.
Well, the '36 chopper's strike wasn't near as popular as the cotton picker's strike, but it was effective, because it only mostly included day-laborers [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Some sharecroppers did chop cotton on the plantation by the day when his crop was finished, but we had this '36 cotton chopper's strike, and it was effective. I think the plantation owners had got afraid of the union. So they finally, after the strike, after a long time on the strike—see, it's only a few days on the strike, because when it's time for cotton to be chopped, it must be chopped, or sooner or later, it don't make anything. So it was effective because of the time limit. Cotton chopping is more perishable than the picking is, you have longer on the cotton-picking than you do on the cotton chopping.
You mentioned, just a minute ago, tell me about the change from sharecropping to day laboring, and how you all felt about that as an organization.
Well, we had a problem of going out and trying to get day-laborers covered by more than just their price. We thought they ought to be on Social Security, and minimum wage, which we fought for a long time. Because after they converted them from sharecroppers to day-laborers, their price was so low 'til they, they couldn't survive on the plantation, like they did on the sharecropper's rule, because they went to the store and got what he wanted, but after they started to paying [sic] him they decided he should buy what he wanted. His wages was so low, until we had a problem with that, trying to get the wages up, trying to get him covered by Social Security and minimum wage, which went on over a long time. We finally got him covered. This union had just about disappeared because sharecroppers had disappeared, but out in California, the California Farm Labor union had taken over, and they continued the process. The California Farm Labor union first started under us, when we were out there.
Now tell me, you said that this union had just about disappeared, one of the reasons for that disappearance is mechanization.
Did you see mechanization coming, and if so, how, and tell me about what you knew about it?
I saw mechanization coming when I went out in California doing the Giorgio Fruit Corporation, and we saw huge cotton picking machines out there, picking cotton. We also, in the spring of the year, we saw airplanes used in, herbicides to keep the grass from growing. It wasn't a hundred percent at that time, but we got the idea that it was going to finally work, so we came back and started to, telling people, they need to find ways to get themselves ready for other jobs, because this was going to happen. Now, when I got back to Arkansas and told that, they didn't believe it.
What year is this?
That was in '46, or 7, I believe, in '45 and '46.
So you went out and saw these combines in the '40s?
Yeah, cotton-picking machines. We were more interested in cotton-picking.
At that time, wasn't [sic] many combines being used because they were only growing cotton and corn here.
And, marker. Marker.
Now, there may be some questions about blacks and whites coming together in Arkansas because of the Arkansas law, which was a violation of the law. But working conditions and wages were so bad, which included both races, we decided this was the only thing we could do, and whatever the cost was, we were going to do it. Even though there were more blacks than whites, the whites that was [sic] involved, felt like whatever they could add to it, to make conditions better, and they also felt like they had a little bit better chance. There were things they could say, places they could do, go, things they could do that blacks couldn't go, and they were willing to go do it, they were willing to go say it, they were willing to do whatever. They also felt this, that someday—
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Start from "they also felt."
They also felt that someday, this would help both races of people [sic] living conditions be better than what they are now. They talked about our children, because their children were at a disadvantage as much as the blacks, because even though they had the open schools, but they couldn't go. They had to stay at home and help make the family living, so this was when the decision was made, that if we worked together and do this, things would be better for all of our children, both black and white.
Now, how important, what role did Socialism play in terms of the STFU and the idea of blacks and whites coming together across economic lines?
Well, Socialism was an organization that just sounded like it was for poor people. Now how much it was, I don't know, but it just sounded like, these are the people who'll come in and do some of the things we need to help us, and they said, we don't care who they are. Communism is one thing, that, if you use the word Socialism's all right, if you use the word Communism, that's two different things. They couldn't see, shall I say, Hitlerism? They couldn't see that, but anything else, if it would come in and help our people, I think the Socialists had a pretty good membership in the sharecropper's union. There were quite a few people joined it. At that time I didn't join anything, but...that's another thing. Blacks could—whites could join the Socialist Party, but the blacks had no, they wasn't [sic] allowed no political activities, in Arkansas anyway, no matter what party they belonged to.
So, Norman Thomas, was he, did he come and fundraise and do things for you?
Oh yes, Norman Thomas came down any number of times. I can't say how many times. I remember going to a meeting, two times he was there. He came down and did whatever, said whatever that he felt like it was said [sic]. He was a man who had no fear, even though he was in danger a lot of times. Also, I guess he wasn't a Socialist, but it was a senator from Iowa, I can't think of his name now, I believe he's out of Iowa. He came down and spoke in Brinkley one time. No whites would welcome him. We met out in the woods, in a pasture on a truck, and he spoke from a truck bed, which was a great help. I don't know if he was Socialist or not, but he talked like the Socialist Party talked.
Senator William Langer, North Dakota.
Now, a lot of this organizing and whatnot, a lot of these meetings, and so forth, actually happened in churches. How involved were the ministers, I mean, were the majority of ministers supportive of the STFU, or was there resistance from large numbers of them?
Majority of the pastors of churches wasn't [sic] supportive of the Union, at least openly, because they were on the plantation. And they were saying, you going to fool around and lose your church, and church is more important than any union, so y'all do whatever you want to but I won't take no part in it. Because usually, on a lot of plantations, the preacher would come by on Sunday morning, on Saturday, and he'd go by the commissary store and they'd say, "Well preacher, you go down there and preach to them niggers, and tell them how to behave and act right, don't worry about your pay." And they would hand him out some money. So most of the plantations, the large plantations owned a church. Preachers was [sic] not active in the Union, no. There were only local preachers who were sharecroppers who were there locally, mostly they didn't pastor a church.
Now, when you think back about the STFU, and all the battles you fought and all the dangers that you faced, what is it that makes you feel most proud? What is it that you want to think STFU meant, or want to be remembered for?
Well, I think it should be remembered, 'cause, we looked at it as a humanitarian organization. People who worked for poor people, no matter what race, creed, or color they were, and that's what makes me feel good. See, we went down to Louisiana in the sugar cane, where it was pretty bad down there. We organized groups down in sugar cane area, and we pulled them out on strike for twenty-eight days. We won the strike, but no membership. I mean, they paid the price, I can't go into too much details on it, but the price was set by the government. The government would have a hearing mostly in Thibodaux or somewhere, down by Bowlett Bush, and the government would have the hearing, and nobody would testify but the plantation owners.
What makes you most proud?
Proud that we were able to get good housing and better wages and Social Security for the farmers, which they probably never would have got even, unless it weren't for the Union. They're all covered by Social Security, minimum wage, which, there was a great resistance to giving them Social Security and minimum wage. They said they weren't entitled to it. That's one of the most proudest things, I guess that's why I'm living on Social Security today, if I hadn't got it I don't know what I'd have been living on.
When you think of the planters and the kind of violence and pain and the economic oppression that was inflicted upon you, how do you feel about them?
Well, I'm a born-again Christian, I hate nobody. I don't think I was treated right, but I don't hate. I never did hate, I never will hate. I can't hate. I grew up in the Baptist Church, my grandmother told me, don't hate anybody. She would use the word, You can't go to Heaven hating nobody. I guess I believed, I still believe it.
Did you think they hated the STFU?
Yes. You mean the plantation owners?
Yes, they hated the, they went to any lengths to destroy it, even violence, which they did use a lot of it. Now, the plantation, the big plantation owners themselves didn't do the work, they ordered it done. So that's just like a mob, the head of a mob ordering you to kill me. I mean, I think he's the guilty person, that's why I think the big plantation owners are the guilty people. They had their supervisors on the farm or deputy sheriffs and everything else, and he'd tell them, "Go out and stop them niggers." And they'd go out and make that effort, and they did whatever they could and was told. However, we did have a few supervisors on the plantation that sneaked into the union, said, "Don't tell it. I'll do anything I can to help you all." There weren't a lot of them, but there were a few.
So, as far as you're concerned, in terms of the way that the planters acted, there was no excuse, there was no reason for them to do the things that they did?
Greed, is about the only thing I can think of. It was the greed, and they wanted it all. They had it all, and they wanted—I think the main purpose was to keep it all. It's been this way all the time, and we're going to keep it this way. I had, a person told me one time, niggers were brought here just to serve white folks anyway. I remember the first time I went to vote, after the state passed the law that if you paid poll tax you can vote. I walked up to the poll to vote, they said, "What you come for?" I said, "To vote." They said, "Your vote ain't going to count. What you want to vote for?" "Just because I can," and they let me vote. And I didn't really know whether I was going to walk away alive or whether they were going to shoot me in the back when I left. But I met one of the judges on the poll three days later, and he said, "George?" I said, "Yes, Sir?" He said, "Guess what?" I said, "What?" He said, "Your vote counted." I said, "Thank you." [laughs]
OK, we've got two minutes left.
Is there anything else you want to tell me? Susan, do you have a question? Stop, let's stop.
My sister married a man who lived on Wilson Plantation called [Amerell?] [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , and they weren't allowed to leave. They had to sneak away by night. They loaded all the things they had, all their personal belongings in the car, and carried nothing that belonged to them, no furniture, no nothing, except their clothes. And they sneaked away by night, and he was afraid to death. Every time a car would drive up to him on the highway between Blytheville and Steel, Missouri, I mean, he was scared enough that he wanted to jump out the car. And the man who was driving the car—it was a taxi that went and got him—and he was saying, "You don't have to jump out. This a taxi, there ain't nobody going to bother you while, while we're in this car." So we finally got her away, and she never went back.
Why'd they sneak away?
They sneaked away because she didn't get any money. They paid off in what were called brozeen [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , and that was a farm money, and you could only spend it at the farm store.