From Preservation Issues, Volume 3, Number 1

"Homeless, Homeless are we..."

by Steve Mitchell
"Homeless, homeless are we, just as homeless as homeless can be, We don't get nothin for our labor, So homeless, homeless are we." John Handcox, "Hungry, Hungry Are We"
On the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 10, 1939, motorists traveling along US Highway 60 between Sikeston and Hayti were startled to see the roadsides cluttered with the meager and pitiful furniture, household goods, and livestock of hundreds of families of tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were camped along the highways. Their arrival had begun the night before and, by noon of the 10th, over 1,000 homeless people had camped along the road; most were there because they had no place else to go.

The roadside demonstration was in reaction to evictions of tenants and sharecroppers by local landlords who, by abandoning the share and rental systems of farm production in favor of day labor, were able to pocket government parity payments for crop reductions under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The payments, made to the land owner, were to be distributed to tenants and croppers in proportion to their share in the crop. To avoid this, the landowners notified large numbers of tenants and sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel that their labor would not be needed in 1939.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein, "Here our possessions lie." Evicted sharecroppers' roadside demonstration, January 1939.
The Missouri demonstration was largely the idea of Owen Whitfield, a preacher and organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). Although the interracial union was able to publicize the feudal conditions under which tenants and croppers lived (in Missouri and elsewhere), its success in improving those conditions was meager. Whitfield's progress in signing up new STFU members was also limited. Most Bootheel planters were hostile to the idea of a union for their tenants and croppers, so few of the participants in the roadside demonstration were union members.

The demonstration and the national publicity that it garnered incensed local planters and many local residents. Few planters expressed an interest in allowing their former tenants to return; and few of the demonstrators expressed an interest in returning to the uncertain conditions on the plantations where they had formerly worked. On Jan. 13, the state health commissioner pronounced the roadside camps a menace to public health, and in many cases the camps were forcibly disbanded by state police. However, the problem of where the evicted tenants and croppers could go remained.

About 100 families were relocated to an isolated area, christened "Homeless Junction," behind the levee at New Madrid, a location that did not improve on the conditions in the roadside camps but did remove the demonstrators from public view. The St. Louis Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers, organized by Whitfield, purchased a 90-acre tract of land near Harviell in Butler County, which served as a refuge for others. About 45 demonstrators were housed in an abandoned dance hall in Charleston. And about 100 families remained homeless.

Photos by Steve Mitchell, Delmo houses in Lilbourn have been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The demonstration was intended to draw the attention of the federal government to the plight of tenants and sharecroppers, and Whitfield and STFU leaders immediately began lobbying the Farm Security Administration (FSA) for relief for the demonstrators.

FSA deputy administrator R. W. Hudgens met with Missouri Governor Forrest Donnell and proposed the construction of housing for the displaced croppers on area plantations. The demonstrators and their representatives rejected the proposal, however, because the croppers and tenants would still be isolated and under the control of landlords. In February 1939, STFU co-founder H. L. Mitchell, STFU officer F. R. Betton, and a delegation of Missouri sharecroppers met with FSA administrator Dr. Will W. Alexander and proposed the established of 10 villages in five of the seven Bootheel counties to house the homeless croppers and tenants. The villages would be located in proximity to established Bootheel towns so residents would be available for employment in any existing or future industrial jobs or for employment as agricultural labor on nearby plantations. Participants in the roadside demonstration were selected as the nucleus of the new settlements, collectively labeled the Delmo Labor Homes Project by the FSA.

Construction on the Delmo Project houses began in 1940 and was completed in 1941. A total of 595 houses were constructed, with 30 to 80 houses in each village. The villages were segregated by race; four of the 10 - North Wyatt (Wilson City), North Lilbourn, Gobler, and South Wardell - were constructed for African Americans. Each village was constructed in a roughly circular loop around a central common area; Circle City near Grayridge in Stoddard County apparently derived its name from this arrangement.

The houses had four rooms with closets, built-in cabinets, storage space for fruits and vegetables, and were wired for electric lighting. Each house was furnished with one bedroom suite, a cooking stove, a coal heating stove, a dining table, its own privy, and an approximately one-acre plot for growing food. The total cost for each house was $800.

Photo not attributed, The Delmo Farm Labor Homes were bought by residents at $800 each. Payments of $10.20 per month began in January 1948; all payments were completed in 1954.

Each village also included a well and water tower, as well as a community building that housed a manager's office, clinic, showers, laundry facilities, demonstration kitchen, and assembly room. Necessary roads, culverts, bridges, and drainage ditches were also constructed. Rent for the new dwellings was approximately $6 a month.

In 1945, Congress ordered the FSA to sell its holdings. Original plans called for the sale of each Delmo village to a single purchaser, and the FSA succeeded in liquidating the village in North Wyatt before public support and support within Congress forced them to consider plans to offer the houses for sale to their occupants. However, this was beyond the means of most of the Delmo tenants.

To assist them, Rev. David Burgess, assigned to the project as a "farm worker minister" by the Congregational Church, formed a committee of black and white St. Louisans.

The St. Louis committee solicited contributions and was able to raise over $80,000. Many Delmo families were also able to make a $100 down payment toward the purchase of their homes. After rejecting lower bids, the FSA finally accepted a bid by the St. Louis group of $285,00 for the purchase of the Delmo Project.

On Dec. 18, 1945, the St. Louis committee was chartered as the Delmo Housing Corporation. The corporation set the price for each house at $800, the original government cost. Payments by residents began in January 1946 on the 549 houses that remained after the initial and premature sale of the Wyatt village; monthly payments were set at $10.20. It took eight years to retire the mortgage.

Although the original impetus for the Delmo Housing Corporation ended in 1954, the agency has continued to serve the residents of the Delmo villages and all of the Missouri Bootheel with varied social, health, and educational programs.

Photo by Steve Mitchell, Alex Cooper, current editor of the Delmo Housing Corporation: "The magnitude of the [Delmo] project has never been duplicated in the country."

The Delmo Labor Homes Project is significant as an example of New Deal relief and recovery programs designed to combat and alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. More particularly, the project represents the aggressive and frequently controversial agricultural programs promulgated during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, programs that were criticized for what were perceived as efforts at social experimentation or engineering. From their inception, New Deal agricultural agencies such as the FSA sought to mitigate the disruptive effects of massive unemployment and dislocation that were attributed to economic depression, but that were often as much the result of the evolution of agriculture to a more centralized and mechanized agribusiness.

In addition, the rescue of the Delmo houses from the contradictory policies of a disinterested bureaucracy was the initial victory of the first private social service agency established in the Missouri Bootheel. According to Alex Cooper, current director of the Delmo Housing Corporation, "the magnitude of the [Delmo] project has never been duplicated in the country." Approximately 500 of the Delmo houses are extant, and a number of those in South Lilbourn have recently been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
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