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: Prosperity, Depression, & World War II: 1920 - 1944, 20th Century | Themes: African American, Labor, Organizing, Racism & Racial Identity | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

This teaching activity examines efforts by black 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.

stf_union_power

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

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.

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—black and white—have been thrown off the land by plantation owners taking advantage of the AAA.

As Pete Seeger said: “Most school teachers are drowned in paper, but here is one book I want to recommend to them. [Power in Our Hands] is a way of getting American teenagers not just interested, but excited and passionate about their history—modern American labor history.”

The Power In Our HandsAvailable for Download

This is one of the 16 lessons available from The Power In Our Hands. Other lessons available for individual download are:

Opening
Unit I: Basic Understandings
Unit II: Changes in the Workplace/”Scientific Management”
Unit III: Defeats, Victories, Challenges
Unit IV: Our Own Recent Past
Unit V: Continuing Struggle

 

Order the book online from Rethinking Schools.

 

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There is one comment:

  • 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.

    Response shared by Kipp Dawson — February 11, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

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