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 home >> Civil Rights History Project >> Survey of Collections and Repositories >> Collections >> Collection Record

The Civil Rights History Project: Survey of Collections and Repositories

Oh freedom after while collection

Repository: University of Memphis. Special Collections/Mississippi Valley Collection

Collection Description (CRHP): This collection consists of the raw footage and other materials used for the making of the film: Oh Freedom After While (1999), directed by Steven Ross. Approximately 40 transcripts are included of interviews done for this film of scholars, sharecroppers, and sharecroppers' children. This strike helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights activism of the 1950s and 1960s. The interviews only discuss the 1950s and 1960s civil rights activism peripherally. A few of the interviews discuss differences regarding race relations between 1939 and the time of the interview, and the scholars interviewed for the film discuss its larger significance to the civil rights movement.

Here is the synopsis of this film from the California Newsreel website (at
One wintry morning in January 1939, residents of southeastern Missouri awoke to a startling sight. More than 1,000 sharecroppers - mostly African American but whites too - had camped out alongside two state highways with their families and a few meager belongings. They were taking a stand - against the planters, the federal government, and the desperate conditions of their lives.

Their tale, told by interweaving recollections by former sharecroppers, their children and scholars with vivid archival footage and striking Farm Security Administration photographs, encapsulates the saga of rural African American life since Emancipation: how Black farmers' back-breaking efforts to become self-sufficient were continually undermined by patterns of land-ownership, swindling planters and misguided government policy; how a debt cycle induced by sharecropping - explained here more clearly than in any other film - condemned them to wretched poverty; and how attempts by sharecroppers to organize and improve their lot were met with often-bloody white opposition.

The final straw for these sharecroppers came when they were evicted by planters out to pocket New Deal depression farm subsidies for themselves. The Rev. Owen Whitfield, a cropper and part-time preacher who became vice president of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, began to organize the desperate farmers. 'Take your eyes out of the sky,' Rev. Whitfield preached, 'because someone is stealing your bread.' Many white sharecroppers also recognized that their interests lay with Rev. Whitfield and joined in his roadside protest strike despite the racist pressures of Jim Crow.

Day after day, the protesters huddled in tents with little protection against the frigid cold. The American Red Cross refused to help, calling their struggle 'a man-made' disaster. Rev. Whitfield was forced to flee because of threats against his life.

But as Rev. Whitfield had hoped, dramatic photos, newspaper stories, and newsreels brought their plight to the nation. An embarrassed state government sent troopers to haul the protesters away to sites far from public view. 'Concentration camps,' the protesters called them. But students from historically black Lincoln University and activists from St. Louis Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers were attracted to the cause. With their assistance, some sharecroppers, still led by Owen Whitfield, established a cooperative farming community called Cropperville. And the Farm Security Administration was pressured to create ten other communities for sharecroppers in the Missouri Bootheel. Government officials and even planters began to discuss ways to help the sharecroppers.

After the changes wrought by WWII and mechanization, residents began moving away from Cropperville the other communities, many joining the migration North. But their protest demonstrated that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Despite the odds they organized themselves, shut down a highway, attracted national attention, and changed government policies. In the words of the song they sang, many sharecroppers finally did find 'Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom After While.'

Access Copy Note: No interview release forms are in this collection.

Digital Status: No

Extent: 1 box of approx. copies of photographs and 40 transcripts; approx. 25 audio cassettes; approx. 116 video tapes (beta and VHS format)

Language: English

Related Archival Items: Steven Ross also directed "At the River I Stand" about the Memphis sanitation strike. See the Steve Ross collection for information about the raw footage of this film and one he did on the Negro Leagues. This collection is also at the University of Memphis.

Rights (CRHP): Contact the repository which holds the collection for information on rights


African American farmers
African Americans--Employment
African Americans--Missouri
Civil rights demonstrations
Depressions--1929--United States
Labor movement--Missouri
Missouri--Race relations
Sharecroppers--Southern States
Southern Tenant Farmers' Union
Whitfield, Owen H., 1892-


Sound recordings


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   May 15, 2015
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