October 5, 2006 -- Posted at 4:30 p.m. CDT
TYRONZA, AR --When you think of labor unions, northern cities usually come to mind. But, one of the first unions to ever organize got its start here in Region 8. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union grew out of a different time and place from the world in which we live today. It's for that reason... to better understand history that Arkansas State University has worked to build a museum in Tyronza. It's the birthplace of a movement that changed millions of lives.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union brought hope to sharecroppers caught up in hard times. The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the depression left cotton crops unsold. The President offered farmers a subsidy in exchange for not planting another crop.
"The landowners were supposed to share that prorata with their tenant farmers," said Dr. Ruth Hawkins, Director of Delta Heritage Initiatives for Arkansas State University. "Well, some did and some didn't."
Many of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers were harrassed, forced off the land and travelled like nomads looking for work and food. Then enter two socialists: H.L. Mitchell who ran a dry cleaning business in Tyronza and Clay East who operated the service station.
They organized the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in 1934 to band together for better working and living conditions. Formation of the union didn't come without problems. There were night rides and floggings. Many plantation owners in Northeast Arkansas wanted to see the union fail.
"No one discussed it," said Thelma Jett. "It was like a closed subject. So we were not sure what..."
What went on during that time of turmoil is now documented inside the same building that once housed the unofficial headquarters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Tyronza.
"It's a wonderful asset to Tyronza," said Marion Bearden, Mayor of Tyronza. "I see this as being a wonderful educational tool for our children, as well, as for the people living in the cotton region."
Here you can look into the eyes of those who lived the struggles... impoverished sharecroppers rising up against landowners in an effort to seek a decent daily wage.
"One of the key reasons why it is of such historic signifiance is that it involved black and white tenant farmers, men and women," said Dr. Hawkins.
And that was nearly 30 years before the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the gas pumps of Clay East's service station are restored, the signs refurbished and the building returned to its original 1930's appearance. Just a few years ago, it was a different story.
"The building was total junk. That's what it was," said John Wayne Austin who originally sought historic preservation of the building.
John Wayne Austin worked for a decade and a half to find an organization willing to recognize the building's historical significance. That ended up being Arkansas State University.
Preserving this chapter in history hasn't been easy. Many of the descendants of the landowners who displaced tenant farmers back then still operate farmland here in the area. And while they may not agree with what their grandfathers or great-grandfathers did, it is still history.
"Certainly this was not a pleasant time in our history, " said Dr. Hawkins. "But if we only remembered the pleasant times in our history, we wouldn't learn very much from our past. So we can embrace our past and understand what happend and try to learn from that..both the good things and the bad things. If we don't, then we really can't go forward as a society."