Camera Rolls: 315:78-82
Sound Rolls: 315:44-45
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with John Twist , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 30, 1993, 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, so if you can tell me about the agricultural depression.
Well the agricultural depression, I think, for the farmers started not long after World War I because in 1918, 1919 cotton was forty cents a pound and it steadily began to decline until the '30s, 1930, 1931. It was down to five cents, four cents. But all the time in a declining price market the farmer was being hurt while the rest of the country was prospering. So he was already in the depression by the time that the Great Depression hit.
So what was your survival strategy? How did you and others get by?
Well they just ate more cheaply. They stayed at home and they cut their firewood, so it took very little to live but that's what—
Yesterday you told me about how they had to cut back on the furnishings to sharecroppers. Can you tell me about that again?
Yes, well I can't remember the exact figures but as the price of cotton went down from forty cents to four cents obviously the amount of advances on a crop had to be curtailed, and so what might have been a year's furnish in 1920 would not have been possible in 1930. So the amount of money that could be lent with the prospect of selling cotton at five cents just could not be as much as the advances for a higher price.
Tell me about the Twist Farm. How many acres there were, what kind of layout you had, how many share cropper families, what did their houses look like?
Well the plantation was about 17,000 acres.
I'm sorry, do you want to say "The Twist Plantation?"
The Twist Plantation was 17,000 acres. That would be approximately twenty-five, twenty-six square miles. This particular farm was really bounded by two rivers. The people who lived there could very well spend their life there, never leave the plantation. I suppose there were people who were born and died on the plantation that never went off the plantation. The plantation was operated under an arrangement of small units. Each unit might be a thousand acres and would have a unit manager, sometimes called a riding boss. He was a riding boss because he went about his business on a horse everyday and he visited the tenants to observe the progress of the crop and to make any advances that were necessary. I am trying to think of something else to say.
How many sharecroppers?
Well there about four hundred and fifty, five hundred families, probably make the population around twenty-five hundred to three thousand people. Each family had its own house. It would be a small three room or four room house, very simply built. The houses were strung out all over the farm, so a family could actually live right on the patch of land that the family was going to work that year. So all they had to do was really walk out the door and they were in the cotton field. The houses were very simply built. Each had a hand operated pump in the backyard. They had then a small pen for hogs or chickens. There may be a small garden, they may operate a small garden for the early part of the summer but usually by mid-summer the gardens burned up and that was always a problem.
And can you explain to me that someone could be born and live and die on the plantation without ever leaving?
Well it was sort of a self-contained economy. He got all his needs tended to on the farm. He had no real good convenient way to go anywhere. He would have to walk or ride a mule and the nearest town would be twelve miles away. He's not likely to go there, and he's not likely to have any money to spend. He could obtain what he needed at the company store.
Last time you were telling me that most of the renters, or all of the renters were white. Why was that? Why were the renters white and sharecroppers black?
Most plantation operators much preferred the black sharecropper to the white renter. Usually the whites were more difficult to get along with. They were more quarrelsome. They would probably question the price of cotton. They were just more contentious and really most of the plantations did not really want to have any white tenants. Usually the white tenant would prefer to arrange to have his own mules, his own tools, his own hay and pay a fourth rent rather than a half rent and have the landlord furnish all of the tools and equipment, the mules and equipment.
So how would you describe then a black sharecropper?
Well, the black tenant in that day really had no power. He just pretty well had to accept whatever the arrangements were, and if he—well, say when it came time to price the cotton. Usually the landlord would buy or would settle with the tenant as to his share of the cotton and then he would send the cotton on over to Memphis and sell it himself. At a time like that the white tenant might want to know, "The price you're giving me, is that the same price you're going to get in Memphis?" He would ask troublesome questions so he was just a more difficult fellow. He maybe resented his position more because if he felt that he was white, he shouldn't be somebody's sharecropper. So I think he felt better if he was a tenant, and I think that he could very well be more resentful of the landlord and the whole arrangement.
Would a black sharecropper ever say, "How much money do you get a pound?"
He wasn't likely to in the '30s. It didn't do him any good. He just had to count on being reasonably treated. His only recourse was to move and if he owed some money he didn't feel free to move so really as the Depression ground down all the tenants were chronically in debt and couldn't move, had no money to move on, had no place to go if they did move. I think it came down to a—scratch that. I don't know what i was going to say.
OK, if you could tell me about the—
Well I think if you imagine the price of cotton at forty cents in 1919 approximately, right after World War One descending to four or five cents a pound in 1930. You can extrapolate from that that a sharecropper, a whole family, maybe five people working could manage to grow and harvest the cotton that they could raise on fifteen acres, maybe twenty acres. If in an average year they could make fifteen bales of cotton and at four cents a pound a five hundred pound bale cotton would be worth twenty dollars. That's three hundred dollars a year total income for a whole family. Now that's not the income to the family, that's the year from the crop. Then the landlord, who has supplied the land, the mules, all the equipment and the feed to feed the mules all year, if he takes half of that you've got the family with a hundred and fifty dollars annual income. Now if he's been fed all year at almost any cost he's going to owe more at the end of the year than his cotton is worth. It was a hopeless situation. There was absolutely no way for him to ever climb out of the sharecrop situation. There was no way for him to become a tenant. He didn't need to go to town because he had no money to spend when he got there. He was just hoping that the landlord would please keep lending him money over the winter and the next year to have a chance to make more cotton on a hope that times would get better. He was locked in, he was just locked in. There was no way for him to improve his lot. Actually it was impossible for everybody, any landlord that owed anything on his land was not likely to be making any profits either. So as the years went on, starting even in 1920 it got worse and worse and worse. Nobody was surviving. The plantations were getting deeper and deeper in debt. The tenants were getting deeper and deeper in debt. It was the Great Depression itself that was the horrible force. A lot of people might think it was the stinginess or the cruelty of the landlords that made life so terrible. They were caught in the same trap and they could sense that they were going down. I think the Mother of all Droughts happened in 1930 or 1931, right at the very worst part of the Depression. The South experienced a terrible, terrible drought. I imagine in that year the average yield might have been no more than a fourth or half a bale of cotton to the acre. Now if that fell in on you and you only had ten bales of cotton at four cents a pound, twenty dollars a bale, two hundreds dollars. And a hundred dollars would be the sharecroppers because he still had to pay the ginning cost. He had to pay the cost of wrapping it and baling it and hauling it to market. There was just no way for him to survive. So the diet had to be curtailed. People just had to eat on nothing at all.
Can you tell me the story about people eating the gars?
Yes. One summer as the drought set in and the rivers fell, on a spur of the St. Francis River a collection of these mammoth gars had been trapped as the water level fell in the river. A number of these giant gars were trapped in the brambles and the trash of the spur of the river, and were then just floundering in a mud basin and dying. The people who had not been able to have any meat for months heard about the gars, these big, long , ugly monstrous things that were six and seven feet long with hides that were tougher than leather. They would walk out on this mud flat and butcher these gars. It was a pitiful sight to see some very hungry people eating something they normally would not touch. But it was meat.
People were in debt and couldn't get out of debt. What if they wanted to leave?
They were too intimidated to leave usually.
I'm sorry, can you say who "they" were?
Oh. The tenant, the sharecropper would be chronically in debt. It was impossible to ever pay out. But he would be [sic] too intimidated to leave. There was sort of a code among farmers, among landlords. Almost any landlord that wanted to be thought well of in the community would not take a tenant from his neighbors farm. So the tenant who decided he had to leave just had all kinds of problems. He really was unlikely to have any place to go to. In the first place he was intimidated. I'm sure that there was a wide range of intimidations, everything from physical restraint to threats of physical restraint. He was not free to move, and more than likely if he had to move he needed to keep on going out of the area entirely.
What would a sharecropper do if he wanted to leave? How would he manage it?
He'd leave at night?
I'm sorry, do you mind just saying—
[laughs] Oh, if a sharecropper wanted to leave, had to leave, then he would more than likely leave at night. He would just have less resistance to his leaving. He wouldn't have to talk to antibody. He wouldn't have to endure any threats. He would just evaporate in the night.
Do you remember if your grandfather or uncle tried to prevent things from moving towards that?
I'm sure that they tried their best to disapprove of it. They might have the unit managers speak very harshly about anyone trying to leave. The extent of threats I don't know about.
How do you think your grandfather or uncle would have felt about somebody trying to leave?
Well they would have felt it was wrong. They would have felt that—oh, excuse me
That's OK. No problem.
The landlord would feel, if a tenant wanted to leave, it was wrong of him to want to leave. The money had been lent to him in good faith and if the tenant left the landlord would know that he would never get his money. If he permitted a wholesale evacuation he would—
Can you tell me—
There was a fish in the rivers, the Alligator Gar was such an ugly, tough, inedible fish that people wouldn't eat the gar normally. I remember one summer when the river fell suddenly overnight and a large amount of immense six and seven foot long gars were trapped in a spur of the river because they couldn't swim out and were found there just in the mud flat of the spur. People in the '30s were so desperate for food, for meat that as the story got around that there were these immense ugly gars lying in that mud flat dying people came from all around and walked out on the mud flat to hack off pieces of these gars. Although they would normally not eat that fish they were so hungry, they were so desperate that the sight of seeing all these people walking around, competing with each other to find a gar that wasn't dead yet to cut up, to hack off some of his flesh to carry home to cook. It was a pitiful sight to see the people eating the Alligator gar.
Can you tell me about your job on the Twist Farm as a water boy?
All right, yes. When I was ten years old I spent the summer on a horse. That was a wonderful time for me in a way, ten years old. I could not understand, could not appreciate the poverty, the pain, the hunger of the people. I saw them as all wonderful, friendly, loving, affectionate people who were nice to children so they were nice to me. I would get a job every summer. I was paid fifty cents a day to be a water boy. I had my horse, all I wanted to do was ride my horse all day anyhow, and my job would be to take a couple of water kegs, small enough to hook over the horn of my saddle and I would go to a nearby hand pump, prime the pump and fill the two kegs with water, hook the kegs over the horn of my saddle and ride back out to a cotton chopping crew, a crew of maybe twenty or thirty people who were hoeing the cotton in the company crop. Somebody had to bring them water on a regular basis and I would just ride in among the cotton choppers and they would unhook the keg and have a drink and hook it back and when all the water was drunk I would go back to the pump and fill it up and come back again. That way I came to know most of the people on the farm. I knew them by their names and they knew me and we were good friends. It was a lovely time for me. I didn't understand at that time how much suffering they were enduring. The Depression didn't exist for me except for what I could hear.
You were ten years old, so did you go to school with the sons and daughters of sharecroppers?
No. Actually the plantation was large enough to be its own school district. It had only one taxpayer and that was the plantation. The funds that came into the school district were paid to an adjoining school district to bus the white children into the town to school. The Twist School District paid a fee for each child to be educated in the nearby town. There was no arrangement for the blacks. There were one of two school teachers. who were not trained, I suppose they were more baby sitters than anything else. There was a school on the plantation for the black children, if and when they came there. But so often they were kept in the field, had to work through the harvest. They didn't go to school. They might go to school sometime in the winter if it wasn't too muddy and too disagreeable to get to the school. In the spring they went back to the fields to work, so school for the black children on the plantation was pitiful. It was almost nonexistent.
How come the disparity? White children were bussed to and from school and black children were left mostly to defend from themselves?
That was just the times. That's the way it was. Black children didn't get to go to school. They certainly didn't go to school with the white children, and the black schools I'm sure varied a great deal from the city to the country, but many, most black children in the country did not get an education, did not become literate.
In terms of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, can you tell me a little bit about the act and also how it was decided how the money would be split up?
When Roosevelt came in he passed through Congress the Agricultural Adjustment Act, I think in 1933. It was designed to bring some relief to this dreadful situation in the rural South. One of its principles was to curtail the production of cotton. In that first year people were paid to plow up some of the cotton. To get the bill through Congress Roosevelt had to make certain concessions. He thought that any funds paid by the Agricultural Adjustment Act should be paid half to the landlord and half to the tenant. The Southern Congressmen were not going to stand for that. They refused to pass a bill on that basis and they told Mr. Roosevelt that if he insisted on that he'd get no bill at all, and if he got no bill at all chaos was going to reign and if—
Why did the Southern Democrats refuse to go along with something like the fifty-fifty split?
Well of course they were responsible to their voters and that would be the white man. The white people were going to vote them in or out of office and they could tell Roosevelt, "Look, you won't get any bill at all unless you design it our way. Here's why you should do it our way. If you insist on half the money going to the tenant, to the sharecropper then the landlord will just kick them all off and work the cotton as a day crop, as a company crop. He'll just hire them for work when he wants to hire them but he won't furnish them for a crop and then you've got a worse situation." So as I understand it then Roosevelt agreed that ninety percent of the money would be paid as rent to the landlord and ten percent would be paid to the tenant. Then, by the time the bill was passed in Congress and got down to the county level, the county committees, which were all white, made an addendum that any money paid to the tenant would be paid to the landlord on behalf of the tenant and could be applied to his debt if there was a debt rather than to be paid as cash. So it ended up that the tenant got no relief in that way, but the Adjustment Act did have this effect. It immediately pushed cotton out of the four and five cent level to the seven, eight, nine cents a pound level, so that it did have a very tremendous relief to the economy, almost doubling the price of cotton in a year's time.
Last time you said that as time went on there was increasing pressure to give the tenant more of the payment. What kind of pressure, and where did that come from?
I don't remember.
As to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union I heard about as a boy. I know very little about it. I know that there were efforts to organize the sharecroppers. What I could hear from the white people was that it was a horrible idea. It was communistic and it was only going to just make things worse for everybody. I did hear of a race riot down in Elaine, Arkansas and I think I did hear that one of the founders of the union came from Tyronza, Arkansas, which was not terribly far from our farm. But I didn't know personally anything about the Tenant Farmers Union.
What were they trying to do?
I suppose they were just trying to better the life of the sharecropper. I guess to get a better deal for him, by striking just forcing a better contract for the sharecroppers, as far as I know.
Did you ever hear about any of the strikes?
I heard about some strike down in Elaine, Arkansas. I didn't know anything about it.
Take five is next.
The nearest town was the town of Earle, Arkansas. It had I think about maybe twenty-five hundred people and half white, half black. It was a small agricultural town. It was about thirty miles from Memphis. It was mainly a cotton ginners town. There were three or four cotton gins. The richest people in town would be the people who owned the cotton gins. They would furnish the small farmer, make advances to the small farmer for his crop, gin his cotton and quite often buy his cotton from him there at the gin.
So can you tell me about Paul Peacher, whose nickname I understand was Peaches?
Last time you talked a little bit about Peacher and you said you'd met him a couple of times and he was OK towards you, but if you had been black you wouldn't have felt that way.
Can you explain to me Peacher and the difference?
Yes. If you met Peacher on the street you would think he was a very nice man. He had the most beautiful daughter in town, I remember that. She was two or three years older than me. But he was a terror on the other side of town, across the railroad tracks. Anytime there was some sort of fracas, disturbance Peacher would have to go over there and restore peace and quiet. When he came in the place he might, with his black jack restore tranquility pretty quickly. He was a terror. He was a terror for the black people of the town. He just demanded immediate obedience. He demanded compliance with his orders or he would just come over with a black jack. He was a terrible, terrible man.
And his prison farm, was it more black than white?
It was all black, best I remember. It was all black. I don't really believe he had white people on his prison farm, but I'm not sure about that. But he could be very cruel, even to white vagabonds, people drifting through town, he could be pretty terrible. There was a story I heard about when, it wasn't Peacher but it was another police officer in the same county. He stopped a young white boy walking down the highway and asked him where he was going and what was he doing there. Then the boy would answer, young man, say maybe twenty, twenty-five years old. The story went around the county that the officer said, "I can't hear you, I can't hear your answer. Come in a little closer." So the boy was required to stick his head inside the window and officer just rolled the glass up under the young man's chin and said, "Now listen if you break my glass it's going to cost you a hundred dollars and you're going to have to work it out at fifty cents a day in prison. Now don't you move and break my glass, that's what's going to happen to you." Then he whips him with his black jack with the guy's head caught inside the car. Then when he gets through he releases him and he says, "Now you tell all your buddies, don't ever come into this county. You pass the word, all you hoboes. This is what's going to happen to any of you."
I remember my grandfather saying that he knew at the start of the year that he was going to lose fifty thousand dollars
** by the end of the year, more than he'd already lost. The landlords were going broke. Fifty thousand dollars in those days was a lot of money.
** He knew that there was no way for him to feed the people and sell from a crop enough to get his money back. He knew that to start with. I remember those remarks were made inside the family. So I think the big misunderstanding, the myth is that the landlords, if they hadn't been so stingy, so cruel, so mean the sharecroppers would have had the idyllic life. They could have lived well...it's just not true. Everybody, the Great Depression was destroying the whole rural economy.
** Anybody who owned land was going broke if he had advanced money based on four and five cent cotton. People could not live on a hundred dollars a year. A family could not live on a hundred dollars a year, yet they had to be fed to work the crop another year. So everybody lived on the hope that things would get better, and of course President Roosevelt did begin to improve the situation in '33, and from then on conditions did improve.
Can you tell me the story again about the sheriff in Crittenden County?
There was a story that went around Crittenden County that one of the law enforcement officers—