It was July in 1934 when a group of 18 people – 11 white and seven black – came together at the Sunnyside School near Tyronza to form a union to protect agricultural workers and others. This new union was unusual for its time. It allowed for both black and white members and it had both male and female members.
This union would be the forerunner of many other labor and civil rights movements that would follow in the decades afterwards. The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum celebrates this history.
STFM officials will host a celebration honoring the 15th anniversary of the center, Wednesday (Oct. 6) in Tyronza. It’s a part of the Arkansas Heritage Sites of Arkansas State University.
“I am looking forward to the celebration of our 15th anniversary,” said Heritage Sites executive director Dr. Adam Long. “We have several new components to the museum. Oral histories are now available on surface tablets placed throughout the museum and exhibit panels containing our original content have been updated.”
Several events are planned, including live entertainment by Charley Sandage. Sandage grew up in rural Hot Spring County. After undergraduate work at Henderson State, a hitch in the U.S. Army, and two graduate study stints at UA-Fayetteville, he had a career in teaching and administration at several Arkansas public schools, colleges and universities. Exceptions included time at AETN and on staff at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View when it first opened.
Retirement afforded him time to expand on a 25-year old project called “Arkansas Stories,” based on original songs about people and events in Arkansas history. Long-form projects currently growing out of that interest include two musicals, one historical novel, and a concept for programming at ASU’s STFM.
Free tours will be available during this time along with a lunch of soup beans, cornbread, and cobbler provided by Armor Bank of Tyronza. Recent renovations of the museum were made possible by a private donor.
“One of our additions is a timeline. This digital program provides guests with the history of the Mississippi Delta, beginning with the 1500’s. New additions also include artist renditions of farm tools, a front facade of a tenant farming house, and space for traveling exhibits. I hope people come out on Oct. 6 to see the renovations, have lunch, and enjoy the music of Mr. Sandage,” said Museum director Penny Toombs.
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum was the second A-State Heritage Site to open in 2006. The museum enhances knowledge and understanding of tenant farming and agricultural labor movements in the Mississippi River Delta.
The museum is the site of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union’s first headquarters, which operated out of the Tyronza businesses owned by H.L. Mitchell and Clay East in 1934. The museum preserves the memory of sharecropping and tenant farming in the Delta and presents the history of this rare interracial labor union which advocated for the rights and dignity of tenant farming families.
The permanent exhibit also discusses the overall economic system of tenant farming, its integral role in Northeast Arkansas farm life, and how changes in the development of modern agriculture affected farming families as the tenant farming system was replaced with mechanization.
The conflicts that accompanied social and economic change are a core part of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union’s story, with divisions between members impacting the union in addition to the sometimes violent opposition they faced. At its peak, it had 35,000 members across several southern states, but by the 1960s the union collapsed.