The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939, Missouri Bootheel

Sharecroppers Strike of 1939, Missouri Bootheel, U.S. Highway 61 at New Madrid County Route H, looking north, 7 miles south of Sikeston and 8 miles south of U.S. Highway 60. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF34-9058-C]

On January 10, 1939, my dad turned 18 years old. Born and raised in a slightly worn patrician white business family in Arkansas, he came to the Missouri Bootheel (that little hangy-down uvula-like part of the southeast corner of my state) two years earlier when his father (my grandfather – Big Dad) secured a deal to rent and farm a half section (320 acres) of rich Mississippi River ancient alluvial dirt, which Big Dad would plant fence-row to fence-row in cotton.

Dad had helped out on the plantations his dad worked on in Arkansas. He rode a horse he loved as he roved through the fields checking out the operation. I don’t know how the white workers addressed him, but the black workers called him “Mr. Doug”. He was only 14 or 15 years old. He told me that a few times in his later years, and it always seemed to me that it was a vaguely obtuse confession of sin, of regret, of guilt, and he never took it further. Yes, he grew up racist, as did my mom. (You know how little kids tend to put things in their mouths (choking hazard!) ? When I would pop a coin into my mouth, Mom would say “Spit that out! Some ~n-word~ might have touched that!”)

I’m not sure why, but that overt familial racism didn’t get me, didn’t get to me. It seemed as crazy when I was six as it does now I’m 67. (But, yes, I figure some of that early training must still lurk somewhere deep in my bones. I just hope I’m where it’s undetectable and untransmittable. I saw a post somewhere awhile back that says something like “If you’re white and say you don’t see color, then you don’t see what black people in the U.S. have struggled with, still struggle with every damned day!” That’s a paraphrase, but man!…)

But I digress. January 10, 1939 – Dad’s birthday. Tuesday. He wakes early on the farmstead, located between Matthews and Canalou (at the confluence of Third Ditch and Otter Slough, to be precise), and jumps into Big Dad’s pickup truck to head to Sikeston, a few miles to the northeast. He never told me why he was going. He approaches U.S. Highway 61 driving east on New Madrid County Road H, and he sees a bunch of people lining the highway. With tents and cookstoves and, and. WTF!, or 1939 words to that effect. (Yes, that’s the exact intersection in the Arthur Rothstein photo above. You can click on the photo for a larger view.) He turns left/north onto Highway 61 and drives into Sikeston, passing striking sharecroppers lining his entire 7+ mile route. He does his business, and returns to his home. And that was that. (My mom was 12 at the time, living in the house where I’m typing this, one block from then U.S. Highway 60, which is reported to have also had families lined up. But Mom said she has no recollection of the Strike at all.)

I so regret not asking Dad more about his and his family’s reaction to that moment. He swore Big Dad did not employ sharecroppers, and that Big Dad supported their anger at being shut out of payments. Payments? See the video below that is the whole purpose of my rant here.

So, finally, here is isn’t, but used to be the video I found tonight. There are lots of stories about this mostly forgotten Sharecroppers Strike. Their collective story is truly amazing, and it deserves a wider reading. This video kinda nails it in just a few short minutes, even as it leaves out a bunch of heroic details. I hope it moves you as much as it does me. (I SO want to credit this video to whoever created it, but I haven’t found the source yet! If any y’all know, PLEASE comment!)  UPDATE May 30, 2021: I’m SO disappointed to see that YouTube has removed the video I linked to! I’ve searched, but I haven’t been able to locate it elsewhere yet. I’ll keep looking. (But scroll down for a couple more videos. And HERE is another Missouri blogger’s account (of yet another longer account) of the strike that I found today. I highly recommend the read.)

UPDATE July 26, 2020: I’m so happy that Judy/Remi reblogged this just now, and I just found ANOTHER video about the Strike that also resonates! It’s done by Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University. Check it out below!

UPDATE July 30, 2020: I’m happy again to find this video compilation of photos from the Strike! The first photo shown is the intersection of Highway 61 and County Road H, where my father would have first seen this amazing event.

13 thoughts on “The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939, Missouri Bootheel

  1. In our present day of political and racial (often racist) polarization, how invigorating it is to see my old friend, ForgottenMan, coming to terms so eloquently with the continuing challenges of the sharecropper strike of eighty years ago. ForgottenMan’s reading of the Bootheel’s present in light of its shameful and courageous past shows that the lessons of the sharecropper strike still resonate.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: The Sharecroppers Strike of 1939, Missouri Bootheel. Fascinating. | lifelessons – a blog by Judy Dykstra-Brown

  3. I’m working on a documentary on history of the Missouri Bootheel. The strike is a big part of the story. I’d like to talk to/interview any descendants of the strikers. I’ll be filming in the bootheel this coming fall. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good evening, Phil. I hadn’t looked at this post in months and had to edit it today after returning to see your comment. When I found my anchoring YouTube video had been deleted I spent hours scouring the interwebs in search of the same video on some other website. No luck yet. (I’ve added some links relating to the Strike in my post. They may be of interest to you.) I’ll email you at the address you left with your comment – I’m not keen to post my further contact info here. What I’ve posted in this blog is really about the extent of my personal knowledge of the Strike. I’ve no info on any descendants.

      Thanks for reading, and all best!


  4. As I reread this, two years later, I think of the Mexican laborers in the strawberry fields of Southern California. The work “from cain’t to cain’t” bent to the ground picking strawberries, a job that no self-respecting white Californian would accept, for low wages, dorm-style housing, and moving on with the ripening crops. They are vital to the agriculture of the most productive state in the union, working strawberry fields, artichokes, beans, tomatoes, and many other vegetables. In 2021, there are laws that regulate the use of these workers, but their conditions are not much better than those presented in the videos here. Thanks for sharing this informative piece!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Another Remarkable Bit of History I Just Learned | stevewiegenstein

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