Teaching Activities (Free)

Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: Black and White Unite?

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow and Norm Diamond. 12 pages.
Role play on farm labor organizing in the 1930s shows how racism had to be challenged to create effective worker alliances.

Time Periods: 20th Century, 1920
Themes: African American, Labor, Organizing, Racism & Racial Identity
Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: Black and White Unite? (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Sharecroppers listen to speaker on September 12, 1937, in St. Francis, Arkansas. Source: Louise Boyle, Kheel Center.

The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) was a federation of tenant farmers formed in Arkansas in 1934 with the aim of reforming the crop-sharing system of sharecropping and tenant farming. The STFU was integrated, women played a critical role in its organization and administration, and fundamentalist church rituals and regional folkways were basic to the union’s operation. [Continue reading the history of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.]

This teaching activity on the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union examines efforts by African American and white workers to overcome deep divisions and suspicions of racial antagonism. Students are faced with a “What would you do?” assignment that helps them grasp many of the difficulties in achieving some degree of racial unity. At the same time, they realize the importance of confronting and overcoming racist attitudes. The interview with C.P. Ellis by Studs Terkel is a remarkable example of one individual’s awakening to these issues.

Reading the “Sharecroppers’ Voice” during an outdoor Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union meeting in 1937. Source: Louise Boyle, Kheel Center.

Setting for the Student Activity

It is the middle of the Great Depression and farmers, especially those who rent land or are “sharecroppers” — people who use others’ land in exchange for part of their crop — are hard hit. For one thing, cotton prices have gone steadily down. The response of the federal government has made matters worse. In 1933 the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed. The AAA was intended to boost cotton prices by paying farmers to take land out of production. According to the law, no tenant farmers or sharecroppers were supposed to be evicted from their farms. But that’s not how it has worked. Between 1933 and 1934, an estimated 900,000 people — African American and white — have been thrown off the land by plantation owners taking advantage of the AAA.

Goals and Objectives

1. Students will explore the difficulties of farm labor organizing in the 1930s.

2. Students will understand how racism divides potential allies.

3. Students will reflect on ways to overcome racism while trying to change oppressive conditions.

“Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: Black and White Unite?” is one of the 16 lessons in The Power In Our Hands.

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1 comments on “Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: Black and White Unite?

  1. Kipp Dawson on

    Thank you for this excellent resource. I am a middle-school teacher seeking to infuse curriculum on the Great Depression with real-life history of the incredible organization and struggles of unemployed, industrial workers, African Americans, and others not in most current history books. Would love to share experiences and resources with other such teachers. This piece helps a lot; more to do.

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