During the Great Depression, decreased demand for cotton, the major cash crop in the Missouri Bootheel, resulted in the loss of profit for landowners and loss of work for sharecroppers. The federal government destroyed the Mississippi River levee on the Missouri bank to protect Cairo, Illinois, during a 1937 flood, placing additional economic pressure on the Bootheel region. Under the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act, the federal government paid landowners for their lost income. The Act required the landowners to share the stipend with tenant sharecroppers, but many landowners actively worked to circumvent this stipulation. Instead, they notified the sharecroppers that effective January 1, 1939, they were no longer officially tenants and would be paid as day laborers instead. As a result, landowners mass-evicted sharecroppers from their property, leaving many families homeless.
One of the sharecroppers, Owen Whitfield (1891-1965), a local Black preacher and officer in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, organized a sharecroppers’ strike designed to get the federal government’s attention. More than 1500 Black and white sharecroppers moved their belongings and set up homeless camps along U.S. Highways 60 and 61 to protest their circumstances. After a week, Missouri State Highway officials, claiming that the encampment endangered public health, forced the families to move to an area between the levee and the Mississippi River. The photograph above shows state officials in New Madrid County forcing the families to leave the roadside.
Meanwhile, concerned individuals in St. Louis established the St. Louis Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers to aid the displaced families, who sought assistance in their efforts to work to provide for their own families. With the help of students from Lincoln University, they raised enough money to purchase a tract of land on which some of the families relocated. They named their new home Cropperville. The federal government also built ten resettlement villages comprising about six hundred houses between 1940 and 1941. There were repercussions for the Bootheel landowners who had thwarted the terms of the federal aid. The Missouri Bootheel Sharecroppers Strike is a significant multi-racial victory in the fight for civil rights.