Founded in 1936 by several religious thinkers, educators, and organizers — including well-known missionary author Sherwood Eddy, who had $20,000 to spend from a follower — the enterprise avowed a commitment to economic equality among the races.
Over half of the first group of 31 farmers to settle at Delta were Black. All members worked together to grow cotton and cut and mill the land’s cypress timber. All of them shared in the first year’s profits: $327 per family.
The farm’s small houses had the same simple plan and amenities — “Screen windows and porches are uncommon in cotton cabins,” noted Lange — but they were segregated in two rows: one white, one African-American, separated by a road. And the children attended segregated schools.
All the families shared the produce of a 10-acre vegetable garden, however, which appears in the photos above to have engulfed the cabins.
And they all used the farm’s clinic, nursery, and library and attended the integrated cooperative meetings. There had to be at least two Black members on the five-person farm council.
At the start of World War II, the project lost members to wartime industry jobs and military enlistment, and, in 1942, the land was sold.
Four years before, in 1938, the Delta trustees had established a second inter-racial farm project in Mississippi — Providence Cooperative Farm in Holmes County. It operated until 1955, when its staff and residents fled after being threatened by the white citizens of nearby Tchula. The empty land was sold the following year.
You can read a more complete story of the two visionary cooperative farms here.
The government-sponsored agricultural community had just been established the year before — the brainchild of local cotton planter William Reynolds Dyess, who was also Director of the Arkanasas Emergency Relief Administration.
Dyess wanted to provide aid to displaced tenant farmers and sharecroppers. His idea was to put 800 families on 20 to 40-acre uncleared bottomland plots with new houses.
The project — scaled back to 500 families — was underwritten by the New Deal Federal Emergency Relief Administration. (It was absorbed by the Farm Security Administration in 1944 and made independent of the federal government in 1951. )
“The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. . ,” according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Each house had five rooms with an adjacent barn, privy, and chicken coop. . . , plus a front and back porch.”
Dyess was killed in a plane crash in 1936, and the colony was given his name.
Among the resettled farmers — all of whom were white — was the father of country singer Johnny Cash. Cash lived in house #266 from the age of three until his high school graduation in 1950.
Today, Arkansas State University has restored the Cash home (open to the public) and is working on an adjacent original colony home, as well as the administration building and theater.
The 1935 photo above by Ben Shahn was captioned, “Sharecropper’s house optioned. Dyess Colony, Arkansas.” I’m not sure what that means, but the picture gives an example of original local farm housing.
I like the small semi-circle of trees and the two chairs facing out on the left side.
*All photos but the last were by Rothstein, taken in August 1935. All are via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.