Tyronza, Arkansas Working closely with Sam Mitchell of Ottawa, Ontario since the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center, we have been stewarding the H.L. Mitchell Scholarship Fund in honor of his father, one of the founders and the long time chief organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), who I tracked down and got to know well in the 1970’s after founding ACORN, nonetheless I was still surprised when he mentioned on the phone over the last year that there was an STFU Museum now in Tyronza, Arkansas. How wonderful, and unbelievable, I thought, and of course promised that the next time I was anywhere near, I would be there, and so I was to my great delight.
The STFU was one of the seminal farm labor organizations of America along with the great movements of the Texas
Alliance leading to the Populists and in a continuum that ended with the United Farm Workers’ Union of Cesar Chavez, and has many chapters left to write I hope. The STFU was founded by 11 white and 7 black sharecroppers in 1934 in Tyronza in Poinsett County in the flat Mississippi River delta country of eastern Arkansas and quickly came to notice in those years by striking in various locations to force planters to raise the price per bale of cotton to the sharecroppers. These battles were bitter, sometimes violent, struggles. The STFU though founded in Tyronza had moved its headquarters to Memphis within a year or so due to constant harassment and threats. You get the picture, I’m sure. This was an amazing organization in its time and the lessons of its success and failures along with the special treat of my getting to know Mitch in the last years of his life were seminal in the development of ACORN.
Linda Hinton, the assistant director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, as it is formally called, walked us through the facilities. The Arkansas State University under Ruth Hawkins and others had made creating this museum a priority in the early years of the 21st century and opened the museum in 2006. They invested $3 M in the enterprise and acquired not only Clay East’s old gas station and H.L. Mitchell’s old dry cleaners operation and his dad’s barber shop, but the Tyronza bank next door to build out the facilities. The museum was handled very well, not only setting the context for the development of the union and its fights, but also giving a sense of the cotton industry in general and its labor practices from slavery to sharecropping in the museum.
I was delighted, but am still realistic even as I’m awe of the ASU commitment. There’s no question you have to be looking for the museum to find it in Tyronza. There’s no sign on the road and the road is off of I-55 and on the way to Jonesboro, but that’s about all I can say for it. There are so few institutions like this though that document the struggle of people for justice and power, that it’s worth the trip, and I’ll definitely be spreading the word!