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Matthew F. Simmons

Department of History
2017-2018 Rothman Doctoral Fellow

Matthew Simmons received a Rothman Doctoral Fellowship for his project entitled “Revolt in the Fields: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the New Deal.” He traveled to the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Western Historical Collections at the University of Oklahoma to access histories of underprivileged American Southerners in order to research the dynamics of social inequality during the Great Depression.

(Photo Credit: Timothy Sofranko)

In the 1930s a movement of poor farmers erupted in rebellion in the Arkansas Delta and the surrounding region in response to New Deal agricultural policy which privileged large landowners over tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Simmons argues that this revolt was part of a long tradition of agrarian insurgency in the Old Southwest. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) drew on the insights, tactics, and membership of earlier movements like the socialist movement and unions such as the Progressive Farmers’ and Household Union to challenge the class- and race-based social hierarchy in the rural South.

Simmons’ project will take previous studies of grassroots organizing in the rural South a step further by exploring the ways in which nonviolent, class-based, biracial cooperation was able to thrive for a time in one of the most economically depressed and racially oppressive regions of the United States. His work provides a more comprehensive understanding of the STFU revolt, especially in regards to the role played by African American women. He illustrates the unique and vital role that black women played in the development of the STFU and the way in which their previous experiences with oppression prepared them for this activism. Simmons argues that the women within the STFU formed an important link in a chain of resistance to white supremacy from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Era and beyond.