The AKA’s and the Delta’s

Aid of Some Missouri Sharecroppers:

A Personal Reminiscence

By Dr. Lorenzo J. Greene (1899–1988)

Professor Emeritus of History at Lincoln University


(Excerpted from Missouri’s Black Heritage by Lorenzo J. Green, Gary R. Kremer, Antonio F Holland, pages 3, 4 & 5.)


On January 1, 1939, white and black sharecroppers and tenant farmers of Butler, Pemiscot, Dunklin, and New Madrid counties were evicted by their landlords.  On January 10, 1939, as a means of bringing their miserable plight before the world, they moved their pitiable belongings onto Highways 60 and 61.  There, in rain, sleet, cold, and snow, unable to obtain aid from local. State, or federal authorities, the croppers eked out a precarious existence for months.  Starving, freezing, living in makeshift shelters and having to walk a mile or more for water, they became a spectacle for reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers.


The striding farm workers demanded the abolition of the sharecropping and tenant farm system, the individual ownership of land, the organization of all farm workers, and wages of fifteen cents an hour for ten-hour day and twenty cents an hour for all overtime.  In addition, they wanted landlords to grant them the privilege of raising pigs and chickens; to furnish them with a milk cow, free pasture, a garden plot, and the use of a team to haul firewood; and to give them the right to raise corn and cotton on a fifty-fifty basis.  Finally, they demanded teams or trucks to get their produce to market.  When the landlords refused these demands the sharecroppers walked off or were evicted from the plantations.


In April I spoke to students and teachers at the Negro high school in Charleston and spent the weekend among the sharecroppers.  What I saw shocked me: little children with their bellies swollen from lack of food; men, women, and children barefoot in the slush and snow; girls and women scantily clothed, wearing anything to keep warm; shelters made the elements’ girls and women cooking out-of-doors with snow and sleet falling into their kettles; and a small church providing temporary housing for nearly one hundred people.


On returning to Lincoln, I told my class in American history about the condition of the sharecroppers.  I described their suffering their sickness, their starving children, and their pitiable attempts to maintain their dignity and strength in the face of almost impossible odds.  I asked, “How many of you are from southeast Missouri?”  About ten of my thirty-five students raised their hands.  “How many of you have heard about the sharecroppers’ demonstrations?”  Fewer hands were raised.  Student interest increased and the discussion consumed the entire class period.  One student enquired, “Did the sharecroppers ask what we thought of their condition?”  I replied, “Nothing, you are too busy preparing for your spring prom.”


Unknown to myself, I had dropped a bomb.  Following my second class, while sitting in my office, a knock sounded on the door.  Opening it, three young women entered.  One of them began:  “Mr. Greene, we heard what you said about the sharecroppers and we felt ashamed; so, we called an emergency meeting of the AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) sorority, and we want to ask you a question.  Would it be OK if we let our prom go and gave the money to the sharecroppers?  We have three hundred dollars.”


They left, and soon representatives of the Deltas (Delta Sigma Theta sorority) came in offering the same sacrifice.  Before I left for lunch, the president of the student council came to tell me that her organization had pledge eighty dollars to the sharecroppers.  The sororities, Particularly the AKAs and Deltas, gave, solicited, bought, and mended clothing.  Other students and faculty members did the same.  Money intended for proms went for clothing, food, cartons of baby food, sugar, cod-liver oil, cereal, disinfectants, soap, and the like.  Shoes, galoshes, and hats added to the collection.  About three hundred dollars in cash was left over.


When all was ready we had amassed nearly a truck full of clothing, shoes, food, medicine, and other necessities.  Off we went; the president and allowed the three young women who had led the campaign to accompany me to southeast Missouri.  The sharecroppers welcomed us with profuse expressions of thanks.  The girls washed and fed the babies and children and helped the women with their chores.


We made several more trips to southeast Missouri.  I wrote newspaper and magazine articles and letters to individuals, imploring them to aid the sharecroppers and displaced tenant farmers in any way possible.  From various parts of the country came contributions of clothing, small donations of money, and letters inquiring in what way they could help these unfortunate people.


In 1940 we bought land for the sharecroppers, built homes, and helped settle some near Poplar Bluff.  Finally, the Farm Security Administration came to the rescue and aided in settling the sharecroppers in homes that they could buy on easy payments.  When they could not keep up the payments, we established a volunteer corporation, guaranteed their payments, and set up a store at Lilbourn.  There the croppers could obtain food, clothing, and other items donated by involved persons for a pittance or ever obtain things, if penniless, free of charge. …