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North Lilbourn and the Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project

Delmo SiteIn March 1999, a cultural resources study was conducted for proposed road improvements to Route D through the town of Lilbourn in New Madrid County. Based upon the initial survey, MoDOT Historic Preservation staff recommended that no historic properties would be affected by the project. In their response, the State Historic Preservation Office stated that while they concurred with the evaluation of archaeological and bridge resources, they believed that the project would affect a community potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district: the North Lilbourn Group of the Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project. In response, MoDOT conducted additional research, this time taking into account the community’s significant social history. The following is a summary of that research.

The 1939 Sharecropper’s Roadside Demonstration

In 1938, as part of the New Deal, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). Although the AAA was intended to alleviate the economic burden on America’s farmers caused by plummeting market prices, it created new problems for tenant farmers. The act provided for payments to sharecroppers and tenants, but not to hired hands and day laborers. Plantation owners quickly realized that by replacing their tenants with paid laborers, they could keep the entire subsidy. This resulted in a large number of tenant farmers being evicted from their homes during the winter of 1938/39.

During that winter, Owen Whitfield, a minister, former sharecropper and vice-president of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), helped organize a very visible roadside demonstration calculated to bring the plight of tenant farmers in southeastern Missouri to national attention. Whitfield convinced a large number of sharecroppers to move their families and belongings onto the roadsides of Highway 60 and 61 in New Madrid County. Whitfield’s demonstration crossed racial boundaries, and included both African-American and white farm workers that had been left homeless in the aftermath of the AAA. On the morning of January 10, 1939, hundreds of homeless families began to set up temporary camps. Before the end of the day, 251 families (1161 individuals) had become squatters, scattered along a 70-mile section of Highway 61 and a 38-mile section of Highway 60. Part of Whitfield’s plan for the demonstration was to attract public attention and sympathy. The demonstrators were readily visible to passing motorists and quickly caught the attention of the news media.

Delmo SiteOn January 13, the state health commissioner inspected the camps and declared them a serious public-health hazard. Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark immediately ordered state highway officials to forcible remove the demonstrators. County sheriffs, highway patrolmen, and specially deputized citizens were called in to evacuate the sharecroppers, sometimes by force or intimidation. The sharecroppers’ possessions were searched before being loaded into highway department trucks and hauled away. Some of the demonstrators took refuge at the nearby Sweet Home Baptist Church and others in an abandoned dance hall; however, most were moved to camps located between the Mississippi River and the New Madrid levee, effectively hiding them from public view.

The living conditions in these camps were no improvement over the temporary shelters set up along the highways. The largest camp, dubbed “Homeless Junction”, was home to approximately 500 sharecroppers. On January 19, 1939, the FSA announced that tents were being sent to the camp; state police immediately loaded all the demonstrators onto trucks and scattered them across five counties. The demonstration was now reduced to 134 people staying at the Sweet Home Baptist Church. In April, the sharecroppers were forced to move out of the church by the landlord.

Eventually, aid for the sharecroppers began to be organized by private organizations and individuals. With the assistance of the St. Louis committee for the Rehabilitation of the Sharecroppers, money was raised to purchase 93 acres of land at the town of Harviell in Butler County to establish a community, later called Cropperville. The purchase was completed on the same day as the sharecroppers were forced to leave the Sweet Home Baptist Church; the sharecroppers were able to move directly into a camp on their new land. The camp was opened to all homeless sharecroppers, and on June 17, 1939, an additional 80 African-American and 15 white families moved into the camp. The sharecroppers soon received loans from the FSA to built houses and assistance from the American Friends Service Committee, a charitable organization.

The STFU managed to gain the attention of the FSA and the two groups entered into discussions with the governor on how best to resolve the housing dilemma. An agreement was reached between the various parties to create ten villages in seven counties to house the displaced tenant farmers; collectively, these communities were called the Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project. As a result, 595 prefabricated homes were erected between 1940 and 1941.

The Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project and the Delmo Housing Corporation

The FSA laid out ten communities or groups collectively known as the Delmo Farm Labor Homes in five counties in southeast Missouri: the Kennett Group in Dunklin County; the East Prairie and North Wyatt Groups in Mississippi County; the Morehouse, North Lilbourn, and South Lilbourn Groups in New Madrid County; the Gobler, North Wardell, and South Wardell Groups in Pemiscot County; and the Grayridge Group in Stoddard County. The project involved the construction of 595 prefabricated homes as well as community buildings, wells, and utilities.

Delmo SiteFour of the groups, North Wyatt, North Lilbourn, Gobler, and South Wardell were designated as African-American communities. Each Delmo Group was designed around a central open space containing community buildings, including laundry facilities, showers, and offices. The majority of houses were oriented toward this open area.

On March 6, 1945, Congress ordered the FSA to sell all of its Farm Labor Home Projects, including Delmo. The FSA’s original intention was to sell each community to a single buyer rather than selling individual lots. What this meant for the inhabitants of the Delmo communities was that they were once again in danger of being evicted from their homes, this time by the Federal Government. A group of interested citizens from St. Louis formed a committee to raise funds to purchase the communities; however, before funding could be arranged, the first community was sold in September 1945.

After some negotiations, the St. Louis committee eventually agreed to pay $285,000 for the remaining communities. On December 18, 1945, the St. Louis committee was chartered as the Delmo Housing Corporation. Approximately $80,000 was collected from private individuals and organizations to serve as a down payment. In addition, some of the Delmo families were able to make down payments of $100 or more. Five hundred and forty-nine homes were purchased in December 1945; monthly payments of $10.20 were started in January 1946. The tenth Delmo community was later purchased by the Delmo Housing Corporation in 1954.

Most of the Delmo communities are still readily recognizable from aerial photographs and maps. Several of the communities are based on the same design as North Lilbourn (i.e. South Lilbourn, North Wyatt, and North Wardell). Others are based on a variation of that pattern (i.e. East Prairie, Morehouse). The remaining two communities are unique in design. The Grayridge Group was shaped into a flattened oval, and can be considered a further alteration of the Morehouse Group’s “narrow-rectangle” shape. Consequently, its name was changed to Circle City. The South Wardell Group is the largest and certainly the most unique of all the Delmo communities, and bears no resemblance to any of the others. This community was built in the shape of a baseball diamond, even including what appears to be an infield, outfield, and “on deck” circles.

The communities have also undergone various name changes. The Kennett Group was briefly called Independence Village before being annexed by the City of Kennett sometime before 1947. The North Wyatt Group has been named Wyatt Junction and more recently Wilson City. The South Wardell Group is now called Homestown, and the Grayridge Group was renamed Circle City, for obvious reasons.

Additional information concerning the history of North Lilbourn and the Delmo Farm Labor Homes can be found in the report An Evaluation of the North Lilbourn Group, Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project, on Route D in New Madrid County, Missouri (Meyer 2001). The report is available for interlibrary loan through the Missouri State Library.

Suggested Reading

Cadle, J. D.       
1993 “Cropperville” from Refuge to Community: A Study of Missouri Sharecropers Who Found an Alternate to the Sharecropper System. Master’s Thesis on file. University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Cantor, L.
1969 A Prologue to the Protest Movement: The Missouri Sharecropper Roadside Demonstration of 1939. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

Clifford, Amber R.
1993 To the Disinherited Belongs the Future. In Missouri Historical Review 88(1):22-28.

Kester, Howard
1969 Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. Arno Press, New York.

Meyer, Michael J.
2001 An Evaluation of the North Lilbourn Group, Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project, on Route D in New Madrid County, Missouri. Missouri Department of Transportation, Jefferson City.

Mitchell, Steve
1993 “Homeless, homeless are we…” Preservation Issues:3(1). Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Program.

Stelzer, C. D.
1999 Farm Team: Oh Freedom After While documents the integrated protest movement of Missouri’s sharecroppers. St. Louis Riverfront Times Online. Accessed April 14, 1999.

Towle, W. W.
1982 Delmo Saga. Delmo Labor Corporation, Lilbourn, Missouri.

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