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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cotton in my Sack--The Delta Sharecropper




"Cotton in My Sack, written by Lois Lensky, is based on the actual experiences of sharecroppers in the late 1940s.  The setting of the book is in Mississippi County, Arkansas, in the Delta.  Most of the sharecroppers in the United States during this time were white, but black and Hispanic sharecroppers were scattered about cotton country.  In the narrative of the book, the culture of the sharecroppers is emphasized and the reality of the cotton and agricultural economy made evident.  The children in the book were prepared to accept whatever life might bring as a result of their endurance of hardship, sorrow, and meanness.  The book is an account of the experiences of sharecroppers, but in an economist’s interpretation, the book exemplifies the reality of scarcity, decision-making, work, money, spending, saving, supply, and demand."


"Early in the 1900s, lumber companies cleared forests in northeastern Arkansas and opened vast areas of rich farmland.  Cotton acreage in Arkansas grew from about 1,650,000 acres in 1899 to almost 3,450,000 acres in 1929.   Almost eighty percent of the population in Arkansas was rural in 1930 and cotton production continued to increase.  Over half of the total crop acreage of the state was in cotton in 1930, and cotton occupied seventy to eighty percent of the crop land in the southern and eastern lowlands.  The number of farms in Arkansas increased between 1900 and 1930, and farms became smaller in size.  On large farms, tractors and machinery began to appear, but the use of mules and human labor was still the rule.

Arkansas farmers enjoyed rising prices and better times until 1920.  During the 1920s, many independent farmers slipped into tenancy as a result of hard times.  By 1930, sixty-three percent of Arkansas farmers had slipped into tenancy. There were several kinds of farm tenancy.  Renters paid cash or produce for the use of the land.  Share tenants provided their own labor, work mules, and equipment and received at least half of the crop.  Sharecroppers exchanged their labor for a smaller share of the crop.  In 1930, almost a third of the farmers in Arkansas were sharecroppers. According to the 1940 census, the state had a population of 1,949,387 and nearly eighty percent of the population lived by agriculture.  About half, from seven hundred to seven hundred and fifty thousand, were sharecroppers. They neither owned land nor houses but managed to subsist on some portion of the money they obtained by cultivating and gathering the cotton crop for the plantation owners.  Most of the sharecroppers were in Eastern Arkansas along the Mississippi River, or in the lower reaches of the Arkansas River. 

In these days, a landowner might divide his land into 40 or 60 acre plots for sharecropping.  Each parcel of land had a house for the sharecropper families to live in while they worked the land.  The landowner furnished everything the sharecropper needed to make a crop including the mules, seed, and any equipment. The landowner provided a “furnish” for the sharecroppers.  This was credit for living expenses throughout the year.  The sharecropper and his family worked the land and divided the products of the farm with the landowner.  The sharecropper and his family worked and lived a hard life.  The days of sharecropping are gone, but the cultural influence remains in much of Arkansas.

Today, cotton production has changed from the days of the sharecropper. Machinery and technology have changed the production and harvesting methods from the labor intensive crop of early years.  Cotton remains a very important crop in our state, which is one of fourteen southern states that form a region known as the Cotton Belt.   Cotton requires a long, sunny growing period, and it grows best in rich soil with adequate water.  The Delta, close to the Mississippi River, produces most of the cotton in Arkansas because of its rich soil."

Taken from an online lesson plan by:

   Jeannette N. Bennett
       Osceola East Elementary School

Lois Lenski was a popular author/illustrator of children's books, writing her first book, Skipping Village, in 1927. Many books followed. In 1944 she won the Marth Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Medal for the first in her regional series for children, Bayou Suzette. In 1946, she received the 1946 Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl, another book in the series which earned her national recognition. For all her regional series, Miss Lenski gathered material first-hand at the localities of her stories. Children at Yarbro School (north of Blytheville) heard her read the book Strawberry Girl on the radio and promptly wrote Miss Lenski, inviting her to visit Mississippi County and write a book about the people of the Delta. Miss Lenski arrived for a short visit in the spring of 1947, only to return that fall, living in the Hotel Noble in Blytheville, Arkansas for 6-8 weeks while she traveled the countryside, gathering stories and information, and making sketches of the area. Look closely at the illustrations in the books Cotton In My Sack, and We Live By The River, and Houseboat Girl, locals will see many landmarks of the Blytheville, Yarbro, Dell area. The old Ritz Theater in Blytheville is illustrated in Cotton In My Sack, which was the first book written about the Delta. Published in 1949, it is dedicated "For my beloved Arkansas cotton children."

Lenski returned to Mississippi County in 1954.This time she was interested in life on the Mississippi River. We Live By The River resulted in this visit. It is the story of Lola Mae, a "river rat", who grew up on the river. We Live By The River was published in 1956. In 1957, Houseboat Girl was published. It's the story of Patsy, the young lady whose family makes a living on the Mississippi River, catching catfish and turtles.

Lenski's love for the children of the Delta and her fondness of the Delta is apparent in this Forward to Cotton In My Sack.

"It was Strawberry Girl who introduced me to my cotton children. They had heard the dramatization over the air and after they had read the book, they wrote to me. They invited me to come to Arkansas and write a book about cotton. I began a delightful correspondence with teachers and children. A convenient time came for me to go to Arkansas fo a preliminary visit in the spring of 1947. A longer visit was possible in the fall. I was unwilling to write a cotton book without experienceing in every detail all cotton-growing activities. I entered another world. I donned a sunbonnet, pulled a nine-foot sack and picked cotton with the children. I achieved a sunburned nose, a crick in my back and about half as much cotton as the average ten-year-old picker. Most of my time was not spent picking, however, but studying the actions of the pickers, young and old, making sketches, talking and listening. I observed objectively, yet shared in every happening. I learned so many things-the weith of a full sack and the weariness it brings; the desirability of a good row and the sarisfaction that comes when the bolls are large and the sak fills fast; the length of a day from sunrise-the sun is hot and bright before six in Arkansas-to sunset. I was as eager as anyone to watch the weighing up and see if the desired number of pounds had been accomplishied. I climbed on the waiting truck and rode with the town-pickers to their homes in town, while the setting sun flooded the great arch of the sky with red and gold. I cam to know the cotton children and through stories of personal experiences which they told me, to share their life. As I listened, my admiration and respect for childhood increased, for here at first hadn, I saw all its courage, stoicism and fortitude. These children knew what it meant to be alive. In their faces I saw a look of that wisdom and kindness which only children know, expressed with ease and certainty. They had seen sorrow and so they were compassionate. They had see meannessm and so they valued goodness. They had endured hardship, and so theirs was an attitude not of excape but acceptance. They were ready for whatever life might bring. And because sorrow, meanness and hardship were a part of their lives, they had a better understanding of the joy of living, which comes by a full sharing in human adventure. Through the children I came to know parents, neighbors and friends. I heard many conflicting points of view on cotton economy, but my primary concern was human character in action, as controlled by an environment. I visited in homes of sharecroppers, tencants and owners alike. I often stayed for meals and felt honored to share a place at the kitchen table. I remember how many questions I asked and how patient everybody was in answering. From my cotton children and their families I learned a great deal more than facts about cotton-growing. There are more white than Negro sharecroppers in the United States. My cotton family is imaginary, but the incidents used have been taken from real life. Many people, both children and adults, contributed voluntarily, out of their personal experience, to the story.On Saturdays in town, I sat in a large general store and witnessed a continual moving drama, with Mexicans, Negroes and white people trading, talking and visiting. One day in a thunder storm the electric lights went out and I heard a woman say: "We're all the same color when the lights are out."An elderly man at a fruit stand, watching it rain, said; "The rain is God's fertilizer. It falls on rich and poor alike."A colored preacher at a Negro service in a little frame church set in a cotton field said to his congregation: "If you want a friend, first show yourself friendly."I did not invent these expressions. They came from the people themselves.It was another and adifferent world, but I had no feeling of strangeness. I felt as if I had always lived in the cotton country. The cotton People were my people. I was warmed by their kinship and happy in the thought that I belonged.If this book has anything of their spirit in it, it is because they themselves put it there; and they have, as they well know, my gratitude."


In 1972, Lois Lenski wrote about her experience while visiting Mississippi Country. . . .

"Cotton In My Sack 1949  The children in Yarbro School, near Blytheville, Arkansas, invited me to come to write about them. This was the first of many such invitations. When I told the children that I knew nothing about cotton or how it was grown, they assured me they would help and help they did, for the book is more theirs than mine. I made two visits to Arkansas, one in the spring for the planting and a longer one in the fall for the picking. I interviewed more than twenty-five families, sharecroppers, tenants, and owners, to listen to their respective points of view. The housing for the sharecroppers was unspeakably bad and the conditions under which the children lived most depressing. But the children were alert and responsive, hungry for love and understanding, and I came to love them dearly. They shared all the sorrow and tragedy of their lives with me, as freely as the little joy and happiness. The story of my experiences in the cotton country is too long to be told here, but it was a rich and rewarding one."



In the Fall of 2011, over 100 Gosnell School students visited the Widner-Magers Farm Historic District north of Dell. They studied "Cotton In My Sack" for several weeks before their visit and arrived with lots of questions and much interest about the plight of the Delta sharecropper. They had fun--and learned many things about their heritage, too.



The day was filled with 1930s games, a tour of the 1930s farm headquarters, a chance to see an old general store and try Moon Pies, and an old fashioned picnic on the grounds.