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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


In 1934 a group of African Americans and whites formed the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) in Tyronza, Arkansas. Cofounders were Socialists Harry L. Mitchell and Clay East. The interracial organization adopted two goals: to protect the Arkansas sharecroppers from eviction by planters and to ensure that the sharecroppers received their share of the money due from Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) payments to landowners not to plant cotton or to destroy the crop. The STFU appealed to the federal government to end AAA policies that in effect rewarded large planters by allowing them to eliminate their work force. The organization adopted a written policy of passive resistance. J. R. Butler wrote the first constitution, based on the Oklahoma Renters' Union's statutes sent to him by Oscar Ameringer. In 1935 the union staged a successful cotton pickers' strike that raised the price for picking cotton to seventy-five cents for one hundred pounds. The next year's cotton choppers' strike failed to gain its demands amidst violence and evictions, mainly in Arkansas.

In Oklahoma, Odis L. Sweeden, a mixed-blood Cherokee farmer living in Muskogee, became the chief STFU organizer. By 1935 the union claimed to number seventy-five hundred members in numerous Oklahoma communities. The state branch argued for land redistribution in eastern Oklahoma where banks and insurance companies controlled fertile cotton acreage. From the beginning, the union convinced ministers and musicians to change gospel music to fit social protest. In Oklahoma Agnes Cunningham and others excelled at this during monthly meetings that supported a conglomerate of organizations including the STFU, the Veterans of Industry of America, and the Farmers' Union.

In 1936 STFU and national pressure compelled Arkansas to create a Governor's Commission on Farm Tenancy. In response, Gov. Ernest W. Marland quickly named a large commission to study Oklahoma's tenancy problem and appointed Sweeden and other unionists as commissioners. Their reports led the Oklahoma Legislature in 1937 to pass a Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act, which was intended to establish a closer working relationship between landlord and tenant, to encourage long-term tenancy, and to authorize the state extension service to establish a Landlord-Tenant Relationship Department. The Oklahoma legislature repealed this act in 1939.

In the late 1930s the STFU peaked at thirty-five thousand members, mostly in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. During the 1937 STFU convention in Muskogee, communist factions tried and failed to garner leadership positions in the organization. At that meeting Walter White, noted NAACP leader, gave a speech complimenting the group on its interracial makeup. In the STFU report to the 1937 convention, Oklahoma counted 76 locals and 8,595 members, probably an exaggerated figure. Sweeden and John Denney had organized many of the eastern Oklahoma counties. Although he often disagreed with the national office over money, policies, and ideas, Sweeden earned a seat on the executive council.

In 1937 the STFU voted to affiliate itself with the Donald Henderson's United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) so that all could be a part of the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO). After that, an internal struggle between leftist factions created dissension, dividing the Oklahoma branches and essentially ending their effectiveness. In 1939 the STFU parted with the more radical UCAPAWA union, citing dues disputes and a desire for autonomy. This break emasculated the STFU, which never regained its clout, although H. L. Mitchell and the remnants of the union continued to support agricultural laborers and extended recruiting efforts into California and Louisiana.

In 1939 Odis Sweeden sided with Donald Henderson and the UCAPAWA, disassociated himself with the STFU, and initiated the Oklahoma Tenant Farmers' Union. Shortly, Sweeden apparently had a falling out with Henderson and slowly worked his way back into the favor of the STFU. In 1942, after briefly working for a railroad in Arizona and New Mexico, he pushed a program to relocate Oklahoma workers to the cotton fields in the West. Running into red tape with the War Manpower Commission, the Farm Security Administration, and the U.S. Employment Service, Sweeden typically bypassed the entanglement by persuading an Arizona cotton grower to send buses to transport 150 workers to Eloy, Arizona. In January 1943, after failing to coerce the STFU into offering him a paid position, Sweeden moved west to work for the Santa Fe Railway. By 1945 he had returned to Oklahoma and was working for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway in the clerical department, and he volunteered to reorganize the STFU. At the time, John Gammil, an African American from Clearview, led the Oklahoma effort, and the STFU office focused on organizing Missouri, and they found success.

Other Oklahoma STFU organizers operated over the years. They included John Denney, who planned many educational opportunities for farm workers and pushed for tenant legislation, W. N. McGoon, who worked in Creek County, Guy Thomas, a young, hot-tempered organizer from Braggs, and Henry Pippen, from the Okmulgee area. W. R. Purcells, an African American pastor from the All-Black town of Tullahassee, also served as an organizer.

In 1945 the STFU voted to change its name to the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU). In 1949 the CIO purged UCAPAWA, then known as the Food, Tobacco and Allied Workers (FTA), for being a communist-dominated union. In 1960 the STFU-vestige National Agricultural Worker's Union, the heir of the NFLU, merged into the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. Odis Sweeden died at Osage, Oklahoma, on January 18, 1977. Many claim that the character "Jay Strickland" in Edwin Lanham's novel The Stricklands was based on the STFU stalwart.

Larry O'Dell


David E. Conrad, The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965).

Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography, ed. Ronald D. Cohen (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

Anthony Dunbar, Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929–1959 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1981).

Donald H. Grubbs, Cry From the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971).

H. L. Mitchell, Mean Things Happening in This Land: The Life and Times of H. L. Mitchell, Co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (Montclair, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun and Co., 1979).

Southern Tenant Farmers' Union Papers, 1934–1970 (Glen Rock, N.J.: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1971).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Southern Tenant Farmers' Union,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=SO016.

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