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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Relationship between the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and schools for labor organization

Kester briefly discusses the relationship between the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and schools oriented towards labor organization, such as the Southern Summer School for Women Workers and the Commonwealth College, during the late 1930s. According to Kester, the Southern Summer School was somewhat reluctant to accept agricultural workers because it saw their struggle as different from that of industrial workers. Kester, however, believed that all workers were united by a common cause. His comments here, and elsewhere in the interview, are illustrative of his beliefs regarding the nature of social justice movements during this era.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, August 25, 1974. Interview B-0007-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
In 1937 and 1938, students came from the STFU to the school. Do you remember what their reaction to the school was?
HOWARD KESTER:
No, Mitchell could tell you, but I don't know because I was so involved in other things.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You were involved in an awful lot of other things. I'm sorry to have to ask you about some of these things you weren't very involved in, but did you become involved in the discussion about inclusion of agricultural workers as you did in discussion about inclusion of Negro workers?
HOWARD KESTER:
Sure.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was there a reluctance to accept agricultural workers?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, by and large, I think there was, for this reason, that they didn't think that the tenants or sharecroppers or day laborers could make a significant contribution because they were so oppressed and generally inarticulate.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So they were worried about the contribution that the student would be able to make to the school?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, maybe so . . . maybe that is fair, I can't be sure.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was the concern perhaps what agriculture workers would get out of it? I mean do you think it was possible to have a school that would serve both agricultural and industrial workers?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, I think so.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Did you see their needs during this time as basically the same?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes. A worker is a worker regardless of whether he's in a high steeple church or grubbing around for a living.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Certainly during this period so many of them were moving to industrial centers. The transition was going on from the farm to the mills. So many . . . we were really talking about many of the same people. You wrote in Revolt among the Sharecroppers about the craving of education on the part of a lot of sharecroppers and tenant farmers and their just complete lack of opportunity to receive any kind of education. I read that while agricultural workers sometimes were sent to various camps and schools, and I think STFU members were sent to Commonwealth College to study labor conditions.
HOWARD KESTER:
That's right, except they went on their own. The Union per se never sent them.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
It was reported as an unhappy experience for many of them.
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, Commonwealth, at that time, was way over on the left politically.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
I see.
HOWARD KESTER:
Until it finally became completely under the domination of the Communists, and we didn't send them. If they wanted to go, it was there, they had a right to go.