Myrtle Lawrence was sharecropper and labor organizer who worked within biracial Southern Tenant Farmers' Union from 1936 to 1943, and was honored on the 1976 Bicentennial Freedom Train Exhibition.
Myrtle Lawrence relaxes on her front porch, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
Myrtle Terry was born in the hill country of Alabama, near Sulligent, along the northwestern border with Mississippi. Her grandparents had been white pioneers to Lamar County, a cotton-producing area hit hard when the price of cotton dropped in the 1893 depression. Myrtle was orphaned at the age of three, and she and her older brother and sisters were sent to live with relatives, moving when whomever had taken them in could no longer support the children. She began working in the cotton fields by the age of six. In all of her childhood, she only went to school for two weeks. Her labor was needed in the fields.
Her first daughter was born in 1908, and a year later she married Benjamin Franklin Lawrence. They had five more children: four boys and another girl. One son died in infancy. She and her husband worked as sharecroppers, moving several times during the first few years. At one point, almost remarkably considering the struggle cotton farmers faced, they had saved enough money to afford their own farm, but lost it when Benjamin became ill and they couldn't make the payments. The 1920s were especially difficult for cotton farmers. In early 1920, the price of cotton was $0.42 a pound, but by December, it had dropped to $0.13 a pound (1). Many farmers lost their farms, and others tried to band together to form grower's associations to try and control the flow of cotton to the market, and thus attempt to control the price. The federal government stepped in with programs to try and help the farmers, but few were successful in controlling the price or providing much support for struggling families.
Lucille Kimbrell, Icy Jewel Lawrence, Myrtle Lawrence and Elroe Kimbrell shelling peas in the family dining room, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
In 1926, they followed Myrtle's brother to Saint Francis County in Arkansas, where they believed they could be more successful. The year before, Saint Francis County had been the second highest producer of cotton in the country. Sadly, the Great Depression struck only a few years later. In some areas, the number of farmers working as sharecroppers or tenant farmers increased from 58% to 65% (1).
In 1933, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was founded. In 1934 the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) was formed in Tyronza, Arkansas, with the goal to stop evictions, and to help address problems associated with the AAA, mainly by giving a voice to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and giving them a platform to interact with the leading politicians and decision makers. The STFU, a biracial organization, was the loudest and most recognized voice of the rural poor -- white and black -- during the 1930s (2).
At first, Myrtle didn't pay much mind to the union. Its revival-style meetings made it seem more like just another church, complete with impassioned oration and witness accounts of being saved by the union. But in 1936 the union formed a cotton-planting strike, following months of terrorizing raids on union offices around the region, and a new wave of evictions (3). These actions finally convinced Myrtle to join, and to encourage her extended family and network of friends and neighbors to join as well.
Extended family sharing meal together at breakfast table includes (seated clockwise) John Messemore (Sylvia's father); Myrtle Lawrence's granddaughter Lucille Kimbrell; grandson Elroe Kimbrell; son Allen Lawrence; Myrtle Lawrence holding grandson Ray Kimbrell; son Elvin Lawrence; Joel Messemore, Sylvia's brother; daughter Icy Jewel Lawrence; daughter in law Sylvia Lawrence; husband Ben Lawrence; and daughter Snowbank Lawrence Kimbrell pouring coffee, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
Shortly after joining, she and her husband were informed by their landlord that they would be forced to leave their home, claiming he was changing his rental agreement. Convinced that they were being evicted because they joined the union, she responded in the best possible way saying, "Mr. Block, you've done yourself the worst day's business you ever did when you didn't give me a crop. Because if I'd have had it, I'd have had something to keep me busy part of the time, but now I'll have nothing to do all year but sign up all your tenants in the Union, and I'll do it, too. (4)"
And she did. She showed her leadership skills by quickly becoming the most effective cotton organizer, with a special talent for organizing African American farmers, and convincing many skeptical whites to accept them, saying, ''They eat the same kind of food that we eat; they live in the same kind of shacks that we live in; they work for the same boss men that we work for; they hoe beside us in the fields; they drink out of the same bucket that we drink out of; ignurance is a kill'n' them just as the same as it's a kill'n' us. Why shouldn't they belong to the same union that we belong to?'' (4).
Myrtle Lawrence and others listen to a speaker at an outdoor STFU meeting, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
In the spring of 1937 the STFU, which had expanded to six states and had over 25,000 members, sent a contingent of organizers and staff to the National Sharecroppers Week meeting in New York City. Among them was Myrtle Lawrence, who entertained the northeastern liberals with her mannerisms -- in particular, her loud, hearty laugh, and her custom of carrying a pink spit can every where she went to use while dipping snuff. Horrified, STFU co-founder H.L. Mitchell, refused to allow her to part-take in any future national events. He didn't want to disturb the sensibilities of the wealthy supporters (2).
That summer, after returning from New York, she traveled to Little Rock, to meet with the commission of labor, E.I. McKinley, and even called on Governor Carl Bailey, seeking help for STFU members who were receiving threats of violence (4).
She continued to work tirelessly at the local and regional level, though. And later that summer, she was selected to attend the 12-week Southern Summer School for Women Workers in Industry (founded by Louise Leonard McLaren), held in Black Mountain, North Carolina. While there, she met Caroline Ware, a professor from Vassar, who recognized Myrtle's innate intelligence and ability, and introduced her to a wide range of influential people, ranging from writers, other professors, students, and "visiting dignitaries interested in reform in the South" (2).
Myrtle Lawrence sits on her porch holding a sleeping baby, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
Two of the people she met at Black Mountain were Priscilla Robertson, a journalist and graduate of Vassar, whose research had focused on nineteenth-century history and the history of women and family life, and Elizabeth Boyle. Lawrence invited Robertson and Elizabeth Boyle's sister, photographer Louise Boyle, to visit Arkansas and report on the work of the STFU, and for two weeks in September of 1937, the two followed Lawrence, documenting her life and her activism, and captured many revealing images of the special partnership between blacks and whites in the STFU -- certainly uncommon at the time.
Priscilla Robertson remarked on her ability to rally the farmers saying, "[W]hen Myrtle first got involved in the STFU, she was probably thinking of feeding her family. Then she discovered she had this extraordinary gift" (4).
It's believed that she remained active in STFU until sometime just after the start of World War II. In mid-1943 she and her husband moved to Florida, where she worked for a while as a janitor in a ladies' lounge at a shipyard during the war. Soon, though, she retired from work outside the home and instead dedicated herself to the care and raising of two children with cognitive disabilities they adopted. Her husband died in 1970, and she remained in Tampa until her own death in 1980.
Myrtle Lawrence and others at an evening meeting, 1937. Photographer: Louise Boyle. Photo source: Kheel Center
While she was effective organizer, she did not always receive the praise she deserved, as it pointed out by historian Dr. Elizabeth Anne Payne:
"Myrtle Lawrence's story raises profound questions about the relationship between disadvantaged Whites and the course of southern reform. Committed to building a biracial South, Myrtle Lawrence, however, was excluded from the circle of individuals who helped to reshape southern race relations. Labeled ''not respectable'' and even dishonest for little more than spitting publicly and acting exuberantly, Lawrence was dismissed by the very individuals who represented her organization to the nation's liberals" (4).White liberals at the time more readily accepted the images of poverty shown by Dorothea Lange or James Agee and Walker Evans, depicting poor farmers and sharecroppers staring off into the distance with a mournful stare, rather than Lawrence's vibrant, "redneck" customs (4).
In 1976, though, it was an image of Lawrence and her daughter that was selected as "representative Americans" to travel across the country on the Bicentennial Freedom Train Exhibition.
Note: It's worth noting that much of the research to uncover the life's story of Myrtle Lawrence has been undertaken by one dedicated historian, Dr. Elizabeth Anne Payne. This simply underscores the value of the work done by her and countless other historians, sociologist, anthropologists, and more, to research and record these important women in our history. Without their tireless efforts, these stories would be lost to time.
For more info:
(1) Encyclopedia of Alabama
(2) Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, by Susan Ware, entry written by Elizabeth Anne Payne
(3) Sunflower Plantation, "Hillhouse, aka Rochdale Farm"
(4) "The Lady Was a Sharecropper: Myrtle Lawrence and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union" by Elizabeth Anne Payne, with photographs by Louise Boyle. How one woman transcended regional and gender stereotypes in her pursuit of justice for tenant farmers, black and white. From: Southern Cultures, Volume 4, Number 2, 1998, pp. 5-27 (accessed via interlibrary loan.)
Podcast: Shattering white solidarity: A history of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union
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