In March 1936 a coterie of liberal Christians, ostensibly led by Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), under the direction of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), established Delta Cooperative Farm near Hillhouse, Mississippi. The biracial farm was initially established to provide refuge for sharecropping families who had been evicted from their homes in the Arkansas Delta because of the crop reduction provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act. For a brief time, poor black and white farmers cooperated under the leadership of a fragile coalition of political socialists and evangelical utopians.
The Christian activists expected that the cooperative farm would demonstrate the redemptive nature of social and economic justice. The SPA and STFU planned to use the farm to modify the entire economic structure of staple-crop production. The SPA saw the Delta Cooperative Farm as the first in a growing phalanx of plantations liberated from their corporate owners and placed in service to the producers.
Using a twenty-thousand-dollar contribution from William H. Timken of Canton, Ohio, Sherwood Eddy purchased 2,138 acres of mostly “buckshot” Delta bottomland and established Cooperative Farms of Mississippi, with Niebuhr, America’s premier theologian, as president. The board of directors of Cooperative Farms was composed of luminaries and near-luminaries: Eddy, an international missionary and troubleshooter for the YMCA; sociologist Arthur Raper; John Rust, inventor of a mechanical cotton picker; William Scarlett, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri; and William R. Amberson, a physiologist at the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis. The board appointed Sam Franklin Jr., recently returned from a stint as a YMCA missionary in Japan, as resident director, and Blaine Treadway, a part-time press operator for the Memphis Press Scimitar and full-time socialist, as assistant resident director.
Scores of national publications covered the activities and success of the Delta Cooperative Farm. Articles in national magazines and influential newspapers spoke of economic justice, human dignity, and the surprising financial success of the farm. According to articles penned by Niebuhr, Eddy, Amberson, H. L. Mitchell, and others, the cooperators were making money and finding dignity in the very heart of cotton plantation country. At a time and place when the average cash income of sharecropper families totaled less than $200 per year, the members of Delta Cooperative Farm enjoyed the benefits of a medical clinic, a varied diet, and an annual income of almost $450 in cash and deferred certificates. In the first year, despite a slow start and bad weather, the farm produced 152 bales of cotton. Members established a sawmill; poultry, hog, and dairy operations; and a consumers’ cooperative, named after England’s Rochdale Cooperative. In 1937 the US Postal Service established the Rochdale post office.
Student volunteers organized by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee came to Hillhouse and labored with the Delta Cooperative Farm members. Other volunteers staffed a summer labor school under the auspices of the STFU. The farm’s appeal enabled the directors to launch successful fund-raising campaigns in the midst of the Great Depression. The state of Mississippi provided funding for eight months of school for white children and only four months for African Americans, but white farm members insisted on hiring a teacher to provide a full eight months of instruction for the black children.
Indeed, Delta Cooperative Farm was successful, its supporters claimed, because of the remarkable cooperation of black and white members. The farm retained some of the traditional mores of the South regarding social equality: for example, blacks used the community house for social activities on different nights of the week from whites. However, a biracial committee selected by the members managed the farm, and the families lived in close proximity, separated only by the road that traversed the farm.
In 1938 favorable publicity; compliments from Eleanor Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, and Jacob Coxey; and financial support from liberal Americans encouraged the directors to acquire 2,880 acres in Holmes County, on which they established a second enterprise, Providence Cooperative Farm. But all was not as the press reported. Serious dissension emerged among the board of directors. Amberson accused the board in general and Franklin in particular of misrepresenting the farm’s economic success. Amberson charged the board with blatant dishonesty in its fund-raising appeals, alleging that the farms had lost money in every year of operation. Journalist Jonathan Daniels agreed, suggesting that the primary income for Delta Cooperative Farm came not from cotton but from Yankee benevolence. Amberson and Treadway castigated the board for financial chicanery and for deemphasizing membership in the STFU. In addition, the SPA faction criticized the board for its paternalistic and elite management of the farm. According to Amberson and Treadway, the farm was not managed by the members but instead was a dictatorship headed by Franklin and the board of directors, no different from any other Delta cotton plantation worked by sharecroppers.
The racial harmony and cooperation lauded by Eddy and Niebuhr deteriorated or perhaps never really existed. Arguments, charges of racial injustice, and dishonesty plagued membership meetings. Despite the farm’s deteriorating financial condition, the members did have access to on-site medical care and some outstanding educational programs.
The economic morass of the Great Depression and Delta Cooperative Farm’s inability to make money from its operations influenced the board to sell the property in 1942. The lure of employment in wartime industries and the inefficiency of the operations had made continued operation untenable. The board subsequently focused on Providence Cooperative Farm, but operations there gradually dwindled to providing community education and a medical clinic. The enterprise struggled along until September 1955, when a teenaged white girl reported that some black boys from the farm had whistled at her while she was waiting for the bus. In view of the recent Emmett Till case, the citizens of Holmes County met at the Tchula school, heard the taped “confessions,” and voted (with only one objection) to expel the staff of Providence Cooperative Farm from Holmes County. On 12 October 1956 the stockholders and director voted to sell Providence Cooperative Farm to the Delta Foundation for one dollar.
The cooperative farms did not achieve their goals. The Christian Socialists did not usher in an age of social justice and economic success, the Socialist Party of America did not transform Mississippi sharecroppers into a rural socialist vanguard, and their vision of biracial cooperative farming died.
- William R. Amberson, Nation (13 February 1935)
- Will Campbell, Providence (2002)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Jonathan Daniels, A Southerner Discovers the South (1938)
- Sherwood Eddy, Christian Century (3 February 1937)
- Jonathan Mitchell, New Republic (22 September 1937)
- Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Century (10 February 1937)
- Fred C. Smith, Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014)