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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Eviction of sharecroppers in Missouri draws Burgess to the South

Burgess discusses the 1939 eviction of Missouri sharecroppers, which drew federal attention. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union sought the moral high ground by helping to organize workers to resist forced eviction. Through this example, Burgess came to see the South as the new leg of the labor movement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with David Burgess, September 25, 1974. Interview E-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
But you were very skeptical about the conventional labor movement up to that time?
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes. I thought that the growing edge had to be in the South. There were plenty of people like Walter Reuther and Phil Murray and Sidney Hillman that were doing the job in the East and the Midwest, but very few people were involved in the South. The next big thing in my life was just before the end of the war. In 1939, if you remember, there was a group of sharecroppers thrown off the land in the middle of winter in southeast Missouri. They were thrown off on the highway, and instead of just meekly putting up with their fate, they put up tents, for black and white. Mrs. Roosevelt heard about their plight and as a result through the Farm Security Administration led by Dr. Will Alexander, ten farm labor communities were built in southeast, or popularly called "swampeast" Missouri. In the spring of 1945 these migrant homes came up for sale because FSA Administrator Frank Hancock, an ex-congressman from North Carolina, Oxford, under congressional pressure and landlord pressure decided to take such action. Fortunately Pete Hudgins was the deputy Administrator, a good Alabama southerner, a marvelous person really who ran the show in the FSA. Soon I learned that these houses which represented the family residence of almost 500, or rather 600, were up for sale to the highest bidder. And so some of us got together and organized the resident families. Mitchell and Bell Johnson, the STFU organizer in southeast Missouri worked with me. It took from March 'til December to win the fight. Bishop William Scarlett of the Episcopal Church was involved. So were H.L. Mitchell, Jim Patton, the President of the Farmers Union. Gardner Jackson was one of the lobbyists for them. During the campaign I got acquainted with Franz Daniel and Myles Horton, Marshall Field, Mrs. Emmons Blaine McCormick of Chicago. We raised $82,000 from outside contributions and formed a corporation. For the next year and a half I lived at one of the housing communities at East Prairie, Missouri and travelled to the eight other communities. The FSA finally sold the nine housing communities to the newly formed Delmo Housing Corporation for $280,000. Each family paid $100 as a downpayment and agreed to pay a monthly rent of $10 over an eight year period. Actually the payments were all completed in only six years.
BILL FINGER:
National Sharecroppers Fund have anything to do with this?
DAVID BURGESS:
Oh, yes. Fund officials were very helpful. I spoke a word of thanks to a group of the Fund supporters in the Spring of 1946. Roger Baldwin of the ACLU was there.
BILL FINGER:
That was the focus of a lot of more than liberals . . .
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes.
BILL FINGER:
You were able to zero in their support on that one particular project.
DAVID BURGESS:
Yes. I remember that Orville Zimmerman, the Congressman from southeast Missouri who fought us all the way through, told me after we had won that - he died about a year later - said that, "The Lord is going to remember you for this act when you go to the Pearly Gates." During this, we were taking whole delegations to Washington, and Congressman Dingle, who was the father of the present Congressman Dingle, Senator Langer of North Dakota, had a bill that was defeated. In the end it was Pete Hudgins, the Deputy FSA Administrator, who did the job . . .