Camera Rolls: 315:04-06
Sound Rolls: 315:03-04
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Evelyn Smith Munro , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 1, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Take one up.
One of my most vivid memories of those days—
Can you just start it over?
OK, sure. One of my most vivid memories of those days in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union began, it started really, very early, and was quite important in every possible way. I'd only been there perhaps a week when Mitchell said, "Now we're going to go out into the countryside and I want you to meet some people who are very active in the Union, Uncle Charlie McCoy." And so I was looking forward to it. I was a city girl and I didn't know a lot about the country. We arrived at a pleasant little cabin type place with a tree in the yard and a picnic table, and I sat down to the table for a noon meal with black and white sharecroppers. And I had never so much as shaken hands with a black person, much less had a meal with them. First, I must admit my first thought was, "Oh, what would Mother say if she could see me now?" And then I realized, then, as I think this was part of the whole reason I was there, because the racism that existed in my home town, New Orleans, had just never made it with me. I seemed to have been born without it, so this was just wonderful, one of the great things that happened to me.
Can you tell me about the demands and the vision of the union?
Well I wanted to be part of this because it seemed to be a possible dream. There aren't very many that are. I had spent a lot of time reading poetry and philosophy and all those things, and here was a chance to be part of something that could work, and that might work, and people cared enough about it to make it work. These people were perhaps, undoubtedly, the poorest people in America, the people who had no chance as the situation was set up, but they were willing to try and change it. And the people I was working with were willing to try and change it, and it seemed worth doing.
What exactly was the union demanding?
Well the union was demanding decent living conditions. At that time, today we wouldn't think so...they were asking for twenty-five cents for workers, no, twenty-five cents an hour, a dollar fifty a day for a ten hour day in the fields. At least that's what the strike demands were when they called the strike. They were asking for a fair deal for workers, and the only way that they could get it was joining together in an organization.
Can you tell me about the near lynching in Earle with Howard Kester and Goldberg.
Well, another one of my adventures in the field was the day that I went with Howard Kester, who was an Evangelical preacher, Presbyterian I think, and Goldberg, who was the union's lawyer. We went from Memphis to a little town, Earle, Arkansas where there was to be a meeting of the union in a small church. I wanted to go in but Kester and Goldberg insisted that I stay in the car and lock the car securely before they went in. They knew that there might be violence. I knew that there might be violence, because the night before we had met with some people and they were afraid. They had wanted to fight back and we had counseled them to be absolutely passive, passive resistance if anything, but at least not to fight back. So as I was sitting, they'd just gone into the church, I saw a group of riding bosses, men dressed in khaki and carrying clubs coming down the road, and I knew this was going to be it. Almost immediately after they went in to the little church the windows burst open, and the glass was shattering and people were jumping out, and in a little while,
I saw them strike people. I saw them strike one old man. I vividly remember that. People were just running and getting away as fast as they could. And then two men came out, one on each side of Kester and Goldberg, and brought them to the car, put them in it, got on the running board
** —we still had running boards in those days—and drove us out of town. I remember it because I had the feeling, and I know we'd heard of lynches and seen pictures of them, but this was the first time I knew what it might be really like, because there was a palpable feeling of hate and fear.
** It was pretty terrible. They stopped, finally, out of town, near the border, and somehow reason prevailed, and they threatened us with worse than death if we ever came back and left us at the border between Arkansas and Memphis.
** We left. I think it was possibly because I was a woman and all that legend of Southern chivalry that may have prevented there being a lynching, but I was as close to one as I ever want to be.
Did they also think that you were a reporter?
Yes. I didn't know that at the time, but they did, actually say, "If anything comes out in the paper, you know, there's going to be trouble," because they thought that maybe that's who I was, that I was a reporter for the .
That was wonderful. Can you tell me the story of Frank Weem's disappearance during the cropper strike in 1936?
Well I don't know a great deal about it. I spent most of my time in the office during those days, but of course we all knew about it because he was reported as having disappeared.
Can you say who it is?
Frank Weems, yeah. Frank Weems was reported as having disappeared. However, shall I go on now?
Yes. I'm sorry.
OK, all right. We, you know, went through all the usual routines of asking when he was seen last and what had happened, and it seemed certain that he must have been killed. People had been before, and perhaps his body was in the bayou. And that was the belief, actually, for some time. Much later—I guess a year or so later—I went with Mitchell to Illinois, actually, because we had heard that possibly he was still alive, but we didn't find him, whether that was so or not. But certainly it was a very emotional period.
Can you say what it felt like to be looking for this man with Mitchell, who you didn't know if he was alive, if he was at the bottom of the bayou, what that felt like?
It's a little hard to really know what your feelings are at a time like this. I didn't know Frank Weems personally, but I knew a lot of people like Frank Weems and he could have been one of any of the people that I had traveled with, eaten with, stayed with, and I felt devastated.
Can you talk about how the union went about trying to get national attention and the success that you had in that?
Well one of the reasons, I think, that the nation sort of focused on our union at that period—part of the period—was because Mitchell particularly was an extremely capable publicist. He really knew how to write letters. He knew how to reach people, and we had become—after some of the incidents that had been publicized and some of the visit our people had made to Washington and to New York—we'd really become the live laboratory where you could learn what it was like to be a poor sharecropper or a poor southerner, and many people came to visit and went back with stories that, "Yes, it's true. These are people who are living in abject poverty but are struggling to get out of it."
Shortly after you arrived—I guess the strike ended shortly before you arrived in Memphis—and you talked about the enthusiasm and the growth in the union. Can you tell me about that?
Well I used to get letters. I went primarily to be the office secretary and set things up and help, but I became many other things, including the sort of head of the Women's Auxiliary Organization. So I got a lot of letters, both from women in the field and from men. Some of those were on record in various libraries, but there was obviously a great surge of enthusiasm and our conventions were very large. I remember Cotton Plan, Arkansas we filled a church. There must have been several hundred people there. The same thing was true at a convention in Oklahoma. So it, we had a lot of members.
What kinds of things did the sharecroppers write you?
We ran out of film.
Evelyn Smith Munro, take two up.
Another dramatic event during the 1936 strike, the sharecropper strike, was the disappearance of one of our most active organizers, a man named Frank Weems. He had not been seen for some time, and the fear and almost certainty was that he had been killed, and his body thrown into the bayou. This was a very difficult time for everyone because there was fear and there was sorrow, and although I didn't know him he could have been any one of the people that I did know well, the black men that I had gone on trips with, that I had learned to know and respect. So I felt pretty devastated. We later found out that perhaps he was still alive. I went on a trip looking in Illinois because he had heard that, but it was a very bad time for all of us.
Yesterday you were telling me that the union only went places that black and white members could stay. Can you tell me about that?
Well we did make trips, because Mitchell, for one, would decide on the spur of the moment and I was also happy to decide on the spur of the moment too to go on a trip. One of the reasons we rode so much and took such long trips without stopping was because we were all absolutely consistent about not stopping anywhere, spending the night or having meal anywhere that both black and whites couldn't go because we always traveled together, and that was how we became comrades and brothers.
Great. Can you describe H.L. Mitchell?
Well I have described H.L. Mitchell to myself and to others several times. I knew him at many different stages of his life. When he was quite young, I was twenty-one and he was not much older. I think he was under thirty when I arrived in Memphis. He was a very attractive, young, slim, boyish looking man with a block of hair that fell down over one eye. He had the vernacular of the South, the drawl. I'm not sure that he didn't learn to exaggerate it a little later on. He was kind. He made me feel at home. He was charming. He was very, very able and very, very dedicated. I think there wasn't anything else in the world as important to him as the union, and this continued, not only in his young years but later because he is a person that—if this interview was dedicated to anyone it should be dedicated to Mitch—because he was the person who kept us all together, who saved the letters, who wrote the people, who got in touch with libraries, who made a lot of things possible.
Tell me about his new cars.
Oh yes. Mitch, there were other aspects that sometimes people might have been a little critical about. Mitch always dressed pretty well, and always looked pretty neat, and he told me that this was because, he said, "The union members want me to look like a boss. They don't want me to look like a sharecropper." He also drove a good car, which he turned in every year for a new car. He began this practice when his old Jalopy was retired because members of the Socialist Party in New York were afraid he couldn't get away fast enough if he continued to drive it, and they gave him a new Chevrolet, which he then continued to use. In fact I think he always used a Chevrolet, and usually a new one, and we always made these long trips in it.
Great. Can you tell me about the office environment? What did it feel like on a typical day?
Well the office was upstairs on a little street in Memphis. Dark entrance with a wooden stairway going up. I really remember its smell. I don't know why I remember smells, but I do. It always smelled like cabbage. There was a family upstairs at the end of the hall that played hillbilly music most of the time as well, and probably cooked cabbage. The office itself was two rooms, very full of tables and a typewriter or two, and we had an old Xerox machine. We called them mimeograph machines in those days. We also had a number of leaks. Whenever it rained we had to run for the buckets to put under the leaks. It was not the coziest of places but we spent a lot of time there, and I sat in smoke-filled rooms. Everyone would die at just the thought of it today, because whenever we had meetings and folks came in for meetings they smoked and they chewed. We also had spittoons, and we also had people spitting tobacco juice, and I guess there was a bit of snuff around and there were lots of cigarettes. I managed to survive during that whole time.
Did Mitchell have a sense that he was making history as it was happening?
I think that Mitchell must have known that he was making history because he was a very clever man. He had no formal education, but he was well-read. He had actually studied a lot of things, materials, that were available to him. He knew what he was doing. He persisted in the things that he was doing, and I think that he lived to see a lot of his dreams realized, because we may not have cured all the problems, but we certainly did make a difference.
How do you...?
Well I think we made a difference in the Roosevelt New Deal. I think we made a difference in all the reforms that were made by the government agencies. We certainly made a difference in the fact that the world knew that there were these poor people, black and white sharecroppers in the South.
Now originally when you came to the Union you were going to stay a month. You stayed five years. Why was it so special to you?
Well I came for a month because I wanted to know whether the things that I believed as a young Socialist were true, were possible, what it was really like. I think I probably, as a person, always wanted to be involved directly rather than simply to hear about it. While I was there, a month would have—I was just beginning to get the file set up by then. There were just—it was much more than a university could have given me in every way. I learned more about humanity, I learned more about economics, I learned more about writing. I got my first lesson in how to write a press release when I was there, and it's stood me in good stead the rest of my life. I met people that I will never forget, that I would never have met anywhere if I had not been there. The Negro preachers, all of these people who were wonderful. So I just wish my own children had the opportunity to do something of this kind.
Evelyn Smith Munro take three up.
Well perhaps of all of the, perhaps you might call them Yankee Outsiders, I'm sure there was no one who had as much influence and impact as Norman Thomas did. Among the inner circle of the organizers, Butler, who was President of the Union, Mitchell, Kester, Ward Rogers, myself, most of us had come to this point in our own lives because of the influence of Norman Thomas. He represented the kind of person and the kind of reforms that all of us believed in, and all of us believed in Norman. In fact when we sang "We Shall Not be Moved" sometimes at conventions we also sang "Norman Thomas is our leader. We shall not be moved." But Norman was known to most of the key organizers and certainly to all of the office staff. He did make several trips. It was a new experience for him to be treated rather roughly at times in the field, and was educational for him.
That's good. We're out of film. We're just going to change rolls.
Take four up.
Perhaps one of our biggest and most effective pieces of publicity we didn't really have much to do with because
The March of Time,
** which was then a newsreel of , I presume, decided to make a film and reenact the scenes from the strike and other aspects of the union organization.
** They sent from New York the man who was in charge of it, was a man named Jack Glenn who I remember was a very, very pleasant, cordial fellow, and we talked a lot. So I knew at least what was going on although I was not actually in the film itself. There were some actors, some people who were actually hired to do a few of the scenes.
** However, some of those were those who did a march which reenacted what took place during the strike, in the early days of the strike when they were trying to get people to come out of the fields. Local organizers and local people did conduct these strikes, and those were reenacted by the March of Time. However, there were scenes with real staff members.
** Certainly there were scenes in the office and I remember scenes around the table with a number of people who were actually involved in the union, so they were not all actors. It was apparently a pretty successful piece of news coverage because it continued to be shown for many, many years and there certainly were repercussions as a result of it, as there were from other publications: articles in the Nation, articles in Time magazine, particularly at the time of the Frank Weems problem. So this was another aspect of publicizing that was very good.
Great. Can you tell me the story that Mitchell told you about the first meeting and the decision to become an interracial union?
Yes. I can tell you a little of it because it's very easy to visualize, I think.
Can you start over?
Mitchell told me about the very first meeting when the union really organized, and it's very easy to visualize because one can easily imagine this small group of I believe seventeen—I'm never good at numbers but I think that was the number—who met in this little church in, I don't know where it was now. Somewhere near Tyronza, Arkansas where Mitch was. They talked about the possibility of organizing a union to address the problems that everyone was experiencing. And there were both black and white people there, and most people know that even before the Civil Rights Movement there were real problems, and this didn't happen very often that people got together. But they did at this time and there was some discussion as to whether there should be a black organization and a white organization sort of working parallel. However,
one man, Mitch told me, got up, a white man who said that he had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the past, and however he felt that this was a situation where they were all in this together and there wasn't any way to get out except together, and he was all for having a union of black and white sharecroppers.
** This certainly was a historic organization, a historic thing to do because they decided that night that is what it would be, and it was certainly that.
Can you just tell me that part about the man who said he was in the Klan? It was actually his grandfather who was in the Klan.
His grandfather was in the Klan? OK, all right. [laughs] Just start again?
If you want to just say, "There was one white man who stood up."
Yeah. The white man who stood up said that his grandfather had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but that he realized the importance of people working together, and that they must be together as both black and white in the organization.
Take five up.
I've been asked what is the aspect of this whole experience of which I am most proud, and that's a kind of funny word to have to deal with because pride isn't the easiest thing to talk about as a concept. But I think I can do that because I think I probably am most proud of the fact that I was able to accommodate myself to the situations that I faced, that I was able to take advantage of the absolutely terrific opportunities that were presented to me to learn about human beings, to value them, to be part of a movement that offered hope at a time that everyone needed that. I think that I am proud of the fact that I was chosen to do it and that I was able to continue and also to continue those associations until today, until Mitchell, who died only a very few years ago and with whom I was in contact always throughout all this time.
Was there one planter who was worse than all the others, who would evict people without a second thought?
Yes, but I can't think of any one planter, but I can certainly think of one individual who was the villain of the piece and who certainly scared the Be-Jesus out of me, and that was Paul Peacher who was a Deputy Sheriff in, oh I've forgotten which county it was, but who also kept a farm in which arrested people and then kept them in peonage to work on the farm. He was later convicted, probably the only man in the USA ever convicted of peonage. I, in my youthful innocence and ignorance, volunteered to go down with another young woman and take some pictures of the farm so we'd have the goods on Paul Peacher. We did indeed go, and we parked outside the place and climbed the fence and went in. And walking down the path with my camera when who should appear but Paul Peacher with his gun who immediately wanted to know what we were doing there, and we said we were looking for a place for a picnic. He took my camera, took the film out, threw it away, threatened us with all sorts of things and saw that we got back in the car and left. He sort of represents to me the kind of person that was pretty bad.
Can you tell me how it felt to be a Socialist in the '30s?
It felt good to be a Socialist in the '30s. I think it felt better than to be a member of any political party...we are now. [laughs] Because there was a feeling that things were possible, that you could make a difference, that you could change things, that people could work together, that there was good in every man, that we could be brothers. I think that a lot of it, at least for me, political theory wasn't so very important, but the feeling of people working together and caring about each other, and having a dream and a vision was important, and that I'm very glad I had.
Did you feel that FDR and the federal government were behind you and the sharecroppers?
Well not...I didn't always feel that the federal government and FDR were behind us. I think that there was a bit of that, certainly with FDR because political situations are always more complicated than that, and they were not always behind us. Eleanor Roosevelt was always behind us. I wouldn't say that FDR was. Certainly Eleanor Roosevelt was very much a supporter of the organization.
Do you remember when FDR came to Arkansas in 1936 to speak on behalf of Senator Robinson?
I don't remember when FDR came to Arkansas. That I don't know.
Do you remember any evictions?
Oh yes. I certainly remember the evictions. In fact I had visited with Norman Thomas one man who was evicted from the plantation. He was one of many, I think his name was Benny Fleming, who was living on the roadside. He was actually the germ in a way for what later grew into the Delta Cooperative Farm in Mississippi, because another person who heard about the plight of the sharecropper was Dr. Sherwood Eddy, who was an important minister and leader of a church group who sent another young minister down to stay overnight in this tent colony with Benny Fleming and later raised money to start a farm of black and white sharecroppers.