New book reveals life of farmer who helped sharecroppers rebel

Friday, December 26, 2003

A protest by sharecroppers in Missouri's Bootheel drew reporters from newspapers across the nation in January 1939. Living in tents made of blankets and enduring frigid temperatures, some 1,200 demonstrators staged a sit-down strike along U.S. 61.

Among the cotton farmers, Mississippi County's Thad Snow -- the subject of a new book -- stood almost alone in support of the strikers. He did not help lead the protest, but trucks brought them gasoline and firewood and blankets from his farm, and he was friends with Owen Whitfield, the black minister and labor organizer who led the sharecropper demonstrations.

Many planters and editorials in the Sikeston Standard vilified Snow for betraying his class. The Missouri Highway patrol eventually ran the demonstrators off, and the planters demanded a federal investigation.

Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff, a professor in the Historic Preservation Program at Southeast Missouri State University, has written "Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel," which colors Snow in many different shades, showing his eccentricities, conflicts and faults as well as the parts of his personality that were heroic.

His version of compassion

Stepenoff first encountered stories about Snow while researching articles about Big Oak Tree State Park in the Bootheel. He had moved to Mississippi County from Indiana ambitious to become a wealthy farmer. He succeeded. "But as time went on he came to see the downside," Stepenoff said.

Snow used sharecroppers to work his nearly 1,100-acre farm, but he generally treated them with compassion, if a paternalistic version. He pleaded their case in letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and urged action.

That's all he thought he could do. "He admired Whitfield because he was in a position to take action," Stepenoff said. "He was not in that position."

Whitfield was beloved by black people in the Bootheel, and most, though far from all, of the strikers were black. Charles L. Blanton, the editor of the Sikeston Standard, tried to stir up white resentment against the strikers. "We are afraid the former Ku Kluxers of Southeast Missouri have lost their robes but maybe a few bed sheets or pillow covers would answer the same purpose if they could be revived," he wrote, urging a parade through Whitfield's hometown of La Forge.

But, Stepenoff said, "in a lot of ways Snow tried to stir things up, too."

Before the demonstrations began, Whitfield moved his family to Kirkwood, Mo. "He was looking out for the safety of the family," said one of his daughters, Shirley Whitfield Farmer, who still lives in the St. Louis area. She was only 2 in 1939 but was told about the demonstration later on.

The strike had at least two positive effects for the sharecroppers. Afterward, the Whitfield family was one of those that moved to Cropperville, a community of about 500 displaced families the minister and the Missouri Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers established near Poplar Bluff, Mo.

A year after the strike, Snow and other landowners donated property on which the federal government built housing for displaced farm workers. The collection of 600 houses in 10 racially segregated villages was called the Delmo Housing Project.

But Stepenoff acknowledges that the demonstrations didn't change the overall plight of farm workers in the Bootheel, home of some of the nation's poorest counties.

In 1955, Whitfield became the pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau. He was the pastor of the Pilgrims Rest Baptist Church in Mounds, lll., when he died in 1965. Another Whitfield daughter, Alma, until recently operated Whitfield's restaurant in Cape Girardeau.

Tragedies in Snow's life

Snow encountered great tragedies in his life. His first wife's death was caused by a fall from a horse. Many year after Snow remarried, a son-in-law murdered two of Snow's daughters and a granddaughter before killing himself.

Snow was a pacifist who opposed America's involvement World War II and the Korean War. In his later years he moved to Van Buren, Mo., where he became a fixture at the Rose Cliff Hotel, entertaining and debating visitors. "From Missouri," his book detailing his exploits, was published in 1954. He died the following year.

Snow "pursued the American dream in its most archetypal form as a twentieth-century frontiersman, seeking wealth by making a fresh start on a piece of undeveloped land," Stepenoff writes. "He died wondering if, in taming the frontier, Americans lost more than they gained."

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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