Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum

IMG_0208 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

Mitch's dry cleaners

Mitch's dry cleaners

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, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history

Linda Hinton, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history

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!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail