Camera Rolls: 315:01-03
Sound Rolls: 315:01-02
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ward Rodgers , 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.*
Well, I wanna tell you today about my arrest at Marked Tree, Arkansas, in 19, in January, about the middle of January in 1935. It's important because, it had, it was on the front page of, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] most newspapers across the country. , from then on, they wanted to see anything that Mitchell or anybody wrote. It's what, it was the first publicity we'd had, really. I was a worker's education teacher, federal teacher at the time, but I was also on the board of the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, and Mitchell had taken a group of sharecroppers with him to Washington, D.C., to try to get the Roosevelt administration to move. But he was due back on that day, and he had wired me to chair the meeting, and they'd get there hopefully before the crowd left, and they did. This was right in the middle of Marked Tree, there was a platform there, we'd been using it from time to time, and everybody else did too. The sharecroppers and other people we [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] and Marked Tree especially, planters and sharecroppers were all out, all five hundred of them. Platform was about five feet high, and it had only two places to climb up on. I opened the meeting, and told them about the night before, at the, the superintendent of schools in Tyronza had visited the country schoolhouse where I was to have class on unionism, which I was supposed to do as a federal teacher, and they broke up the meeting, and the superintendent wanted to see me the next morning, which happened to be the morning of the day that we held this afternoon meeting. He had threatened me, if I didn't stop those kinds of meetings in his country schools, so he had to, see that you didn't do any more. He did it in a threatening way, and I said, well, that sounds like Klu Klux Klan [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . And he said, well yeah, it is. So I didn't argue with him anymore, but that was the background of my talk at, and I said that day that I could recruit enough sharecroppers to lynch any plantation owner in the whole Poinsett County. That of course, the sharecroppers were enthusiastic about it, threw up their hats in the air, and the planters were there, you could tell they weren't, they were mad about everything I was saying, so I thought I'd said about enough, so I called McKinney to the platform. He was our vice-president, and he was one of those people who could sing, and he could lead sings, songs, we had several of them. I turned the meeting over to McKinney, and I noticed that the sheriff and one of his deputies and his secretary were at one corner, and I figured that they were gonna to arrest me, so I went to, there was only two corners where you could get up and down on that five foot platform, so I just walked right, straight to him, and sure enough, they took a hold of my arm and walked me to, around the corner, to where they, they had an office there for the deputies and for the prosecuting, assistant prosecuting attorney, who was also present. While we were in there, the clerk, who had taken down, I guess, most of what I said, and she was translating from, put it in, she used a typewriter, she translated from her fast writing. A couple of the deputies came in there and told the sheriff, the crowd's getting, it's gonna be, they figured they couldn't control the crowd. See, they were gonna take me to Harrisburg, the county seat, and they were afraid to take me to the car, because they were afraid that the sharecroppers would take me away from them, you see. The sheriff told them to, well, tell them to move back, out of the way. Oh no, they won't do it. Pay no attention to what I, I says, Well, let me talk to them. I didn't wait 'til the sheriff answered, I walked right straight out and stayed right in front of the door, and it was at that time—oh yeah, the assistant prosecuting attorney says, "Oh, Rodgers, they'll do what you want to," and I said, "That's right." Sure enough, McKinney, after I had told him to get clear out of sight, and they did. Then the, there was three deputy sheriffs in the back seat, and the sheriff and I were in the front seat, and we went over to the county seat.
OK, let's stop right here.
This is good.
Mark. Mark two.
All right. You turned the meeting over to Mr. McKinney.
McKinney, he was our first, the only vice-president we had.
I want you to say, when it was time for me to turn the meeting over to Mr. McKinney, our vice-president...
Yeah. I decided to introduce him like he was, Mr. McKinney, and I knew that the planters wouldn't like that at all. He was our vice-president, and he, in fact he'd been active in the World War, World War I.
OK, let's stop for a second. Let's stop. Stop.
Introducing McKinney to carry on the meeting, he was, he's black, and he's also our vice-president, and he's been active in the organizations for years. But the reason I thought, McKinley, I just called him Mac, or—I called him "Mister" because I knew the planters wouldn't like it, and I was correct on that. But this incident was picked up by the newspapers, and we were on the front page of those papers for a long time. A lot of people didn't know what a sharecropper was, but the time Norman Thomas started on a tour and explained about the sharecroppers, they learned, before, but—
OK, that's good, stop right there. Stop.
You can begin.
Mitchell once asked me about, he knew that he and I had both been in tight situation, and we could have been attacked many times. He asked, and he helped me answer the question too, about, why do we take such chances, you know. Well, I says, well, you and I, we find something that has to be done, we just up and do it. My own mind was, the white sharecroppers had been joining as fast as the blacks were joining the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, but enough whites that the planters didn't know who to call upon to do his dirty work. The bosses didn't know who to depend on for help, and that's why we, there was people injured, 'cause they would drive past houses where the sharecroppers lived and try to shoot in there, and sometimes they'd hit people. I was in and out of a lot of those homes.
In Tyronza, before the union was organized, there was a Socialist Party group that Mitchell and others of his friends that he'd explained Socialism to, they were active. But Thomas, when he was down there at a state convention in Tyronza, he told them afterwards that, well, you don't need a Socialist Party here, what you really need is a union. And then that's how we got started on a union.
Tell me about the reasons why—just let it roll—tell me about the reasons why the Union had to be interracial. You told me yesterday about the Elaine Massacre, which was, happened sometime before in Arkansas, so tell me about why, the same reasons you told me yesterday, about why it had to be interracial.
Well, I, I made a survey, what was printed about the Elaine Massacre in the Memphis papers. See, it happened right after World War I—'18, '17 or '18, '19—I don't know exactly the time now, and I had a little time, and I went to one of the libraries in Memphis, and I was getting papers, and the man who was in charge of the research. He got interested in what I was doing, and he dug up anything he could on the Elaine Massacre. Thing was, it was only black, it was a black union, none of the whites joined, and furthermore, none of the whites in Arkansas or any other state helped them. And first, after they had, the Massacre, finally there was a lawyer from Kansas that came down there to help them with some of their cases. But, and that's, I said well, I told the librarian, well, that our picture's not like that, we got both races standing together, have from the beginning. That, that made the big difference.
Now I need for you just to pick up and tell me what happened at the Elaine Massacre, I mean, they were at a meeting, and, tell me what happened, OK? And how these people got killed, and who killed them.
Well, it was, killed by the Klu Klux Klan.
No, at the Elaine Massacre, there, at the—
They didn't have a chance at all, to—well, they didn't have ammunition, even if they had a gun. The Elaine sharecroppers, they were trying to get better wages, and the sharecropper, he gets half, is supposed to get half of the money, depending on the weight of that cotton they brought in. But the gin, they would give all the money to the planters, and the planters are supposed to divide it up too, but most of them didn't.
Let's stop. That's good.
Ward Rodgers, take six up.
He was staying at the big hotel, which was quite close to the—
OK, the question is, did you realize—
You may begin.
What, when you, at, we didn't know how far we'd be able to go...but actually, before we got through with February, we knew we'd attracted the attention of the country, and if we won, why, we're really gonna be done as real progress. For instance, one of the writers in the had a series of articles, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] talking about myself, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ...'Lots of trouble brewing in the delta section of Arkansas, and in the center of that is a young Methodist preacher, Ward Rodgers', see. Course, we hadn't thought about it getting all that publicity, but, it continued, and Mitchell was awful good on, if something happened, he could write just a few words and send it off to Washington and New York.
We're out. We're out of film.
—takes me over to, oh, the town that, where they make sewing machines, Singer Sewing Machines, and the other place was—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Wild track, Ward Rodgers, take seven up.
—kidnapped us, and so, if you want to get out of here, why, you call the newspaper in Memphis and tell them that you were kidnapped with Ward Rodgers, it'll hit the pages. He got so excited he went in and told the sheriff that, and then he come running out, and went on towards where the phone was, and then the sheriff had a grin on his face when he came out—
That last was a little wild track, and you can ignore it. Take seven up, Ward Roger [sic].
You have to say he was, Edwin Mitchell—
Well, H.L. Mitchell had a younger brother. His name was Ed, but we called him Little Boy, and he'd been to sea several times, but he visited us every time he was—he could get off the boat. One day, it was, nothing seemed to be happening, so he said, "Let's stop and get a newspaper and see what we're doing today." All of us got a kick out of that.
OK. Louison Cotch, hanging story. Tell me that one.
Well, it happened this way. Mitchell had arranged two meetings for me to speak, but it was the same night, same time, and he didn't realize it until that afternoon, so he came over and told me about it. He took me into the Singer Sewing Machine Co. place, and that night he got in touch with Koch and his brother Reed, Buddy Reed, and they went to Clinton County, which was one of those two spots. And they get over there, and Koch was giving a talk, he was president at, Mina, Mina College in Arkansas. He'd followed everything we'd done, and he was pretty careful what he would say, but the planters and their riding bosses came in there, and one of them had a rope, and he put it 'round his neck and dragged him out. Reed followed right on out. But fortunately, a deputy sheriff from Clinton County got there, who knew me by sight, I've forgotten his name, I didn't even know his name then, and he said 'Well, this is not Ward Rodgers'. They threw the rope down, and all got in their cars, and left. So that's why Koch and Reed just, it was kinda like a lariat rope, but they had a real hanging knot, I couldn't, it was a great big—
Now, does anyone else have a question they'd like to ask?
I guess this is more wild track—
—and turned me loose, that puzzled me. I know very, you've got as much, Mitchell's got as much about it in the book as—
Yeah, yeah, but it's better when somebody like you can tell us, it's much better. So, we want two things, OK? Because we're about to run out of film.
That last was just trying to grab hold of the wild track, Ward Rodgers, take eight up.
How did you pass the word that there was going to be a union meeting at whomever's church, or wherever it was going to be? OK? And then—
Well, they did it themselves, we—
You weren't involved in that at all?
You can't give me anything on that, eh?
OK. Can you tell me, when, the two things, can you tell me the [Mary Conner Myer ?] story, what can you tell me about her?
Oh, yes, the red-headed lawyer that—
Yeah, that, the triple A investigation.
That's—she, she'd worked for the FBI, and—
Put the poem away, we don't want to know that on film.
You don't want that on the film?
No, we just want to notice—
—there was any, wasn't any notice about the thing, but she came there and that's where I saw her, firs time. She was—
—what had happened to sharecroppers.
Oh, I know, I know.
Sorry about this, we're just trying to grab as many wild track comments as possible. All the previous is wild track. Rodgers, take eight up.
This is the last question.
Well, we had difficulty—
Hang on, just a sec. We're not quite ready.
Well, the Roosevelt administration, you see, the senator, Robinson was the older senator from Arkansas at the time, and he was very, very conservative. They, he controlled a lot of votes in FDR's administration, so, and he would always vote with anything that always came up with the planters. But he died, and a woman, I forget her name right now, was elected, and the senator from Louisiana came up there and campaigned for her. She would come to our meetings, for instance, she was at the, when LaFollette called a meeting, and he had invited several—but she, she came—
Mr. Rodgers, that's good, but I want you to tell me how the STFU felt about Roosevelt and his New Deal administration.
Well, I was on one of the trips to Washington, and we weren't able to get to see the Secretary of Agriculture. We saw one of his assistants, the one from University of Chicago, but he wouldn't take any stand either, he wasn't any better than Robinson.
OK, that's good, but I need for you to tell me again, and we have to do it quickly before we run out film, how you felt about Roosevelt, and his administration. Did you feel that he was a friend, that he was a foe, that he didn't care about you, how did the STFU feel about Roosevelt?
Well, Thomas told us that he got in to see Roosevelt a few times, and he was talking to him, and Roosevelt told him, "I'm a better politician than you are", and Thomas said, "Naturally, you're on that side of the disc, and I'm on this one." [laughs] [pause]
You know anything about the farm tenancy commission? Can you talk to me about that?
Yeah, well, that, not directly, but I wasn't involved with that, but they did set up, finally, a, the second president we had, I forget his name now, but he was appointed to represent us at that tenant...I think they had about a dozen people on it, on the one, firstly it didn't have any—
That's good, let me ask you something else real quick, did the sharecroppers and tenant farmers realize that mechanization, and small farms and whatnot, that that was on the way out? Tell me about that. How did they feel about mechanization?
Well, the cotton-picking machine was invented right there in Memphis, and the two brothers who invented it contacted Mitchell, and he invited Mitchell to come up and see the first test of it, and Mitchell took me with him. They had it fixed up for only one row at a time. They use a unit over one, two, or three, now. This was a great long cotton row, and it went up to the other end and back. It had two hundred and fifty pounds of cotton on it, and two hundred and fifty pounds is a good day's work, see, and this was made in about twenty minutes. So, Mitchell and I knew that our sharecroppers union wasn't gonna be here too long, because cotton-picking is, see, the spring is cotton [unintelligible] they thin that out, well, you thin that with a tractor going across—maybe it wouldn't be quite as good as a man with a hoe.
OK, let's stop for a second.
Yeah, I've been trying to tell you one, about that, about that guy who claimed to be a reporter. Well, when he, see, he was making telephone calls, so I stopped him and I said, Could you still get on the phone? He said yeah. I said, if you want to get out of here, why, you call the newspaper over in Memphis and tell them you're being held over here with Ward Rodgers, and they'll put it on the front page and we'll get out. So, they let us out, without him even calling.
OK. Do you know any more jokes?
That last was wild track. Ward Rodgers take nine up.
—do you remember that? They thought it was gonna lighten up their load?
Yeah. But along about that time, they moved me out here to California. Probably to save my neck.
OK, let's do this—
That'll be it, we only, we don't have—
Ward Rodgers, take nine up, that last bit was wild. Take nine up.
Wait, do you have another joke that's a little bit more universal? That anyone from the Depression would know? Is there any music, is there any song?
Well, we had a couple, two or three people that wrote songs.
Do you sing?
When you get down San Diego way, you'll see.
Yeah, Mr. Hancock.
OK, tell me the joke, and then—
We've got speed. [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] rolling. Line.
The one you were just telling me. About the guy who wanted to get out, you told him...
Well, we went back to the hotel, and he talked to me for a while, and then I went, he was going up to his room, and I went back to the newspaper office, and I told him what had happened. So they, the editor, publisher, he called the paper in New Orleans, and they'd never heard of him, you see. So the whole thing was a set-up, see. The next day I went over to, about five o'clock when the police come out of the City Hall, and all of them went home, you know. I waited there, and sure enough—
—the guy who drove us over there came down the steps too, and then I knew it was the police.
We just ran out, that was good.