In 2018, a friend of Carla Peacher-Ryan recommended a book. The friend had seen a reference to a sheriff’s deputy named Paul Peacher who was accused of enslaving Black men in the 1930s in eastern Arkansas. Since Peacher is not a very common name, the friend wondered if they were related.
At first, Peacher-Ryan winced. An enslaver in her family? She had known her ancestors to be poor folks who held racist ideas. But she had always thought they weren’t in a position to actively enslave people – especially in the 1930s. Slavery had been outlawed for seven decades by then. But her curiosity got the best of her and she went online.
After a few clicks on opens in a new windowAncestry.com where she had already begun building out her family tree, six words flashed across her screen: Paul Peacher is your great uncle.
“And I just couldn’t believe it, you know, but then I knew it was true,” said Peacher-Ryan, now a retired Memphis attorney.
Further research led her to a second connection.
She learned from family members that her step-grandmother had once been married to a man – a rural Arkansas judge – who had aided Paul Peacher in his enslavement scheme. The revelation hit her hard.
Her step-grandmother, Mary Mitchell, had once given her an engagement ring – a huge, sparkling four-carat diamond that Peacher-Ryan proudly wore on her finger for 26 years. But now, from what she was hearing, that ring had sealed her step-grandmother’s marriage to a man who had wrongfully sentenced Black men to work on Paul Peacher’s land without pay.
“I don’t know how other people are, but a lot of family stories I hear, I’m like, ‘Mmmmm. Really?’ ’’ Peacher-Ryan said with an uneasy, skeptical laugh. “(But) once I put all those together, I was like this ring and this story are connected. I don’t know how, but I feel like there’s a connection here.”
That connection and her deepening curiosity would take her back to Earle, a small farming community on the broad and fertile Delta of Eastern Arkansas, and introduce her to descendants of the men her ancestor Paul Peacher was accused of enslaving. It would teach her how forced labor, especially on farms, endured long after the U.S. outlawed slavery. And, as she would learn, what happened in Earle, Arkansas, in the late 1930s had put her ancestors at the center of national media attention that spotlighed the plight of abused farmworkers, a struggle for dignity and living wages that continues to this day.
Though the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery, it came with an exception. People convicted of crimes could be required to work. That loophole allowed large landowners and companies in the South to perpetuate slavery-like conditions well into the 1900s. At the same time, landowners could keep people in perpetual debt as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Echoes of these practices continue today in prison labor, wage theft in poorly regulated migrant farmworker programs, and court-ordered substance abuse treatment programs that require participants to work.
(For more on how forced labor and the stigma that upholds it continues today, listen to season 3, episode 2 of the Civil Wrongs podcast: “Treatment or punishment?”)
Often, law enforcement could arrest Black men on trumped up charges so companies — and sometimes even private citizens — could have access to their labor.
Since this was mostly legal, it came as something of a surprise in 1936 when federal prosecutors came to a small town about 30 miles northwest of Memphis to charge a sheriff’s deputy with holding eight men as slaves.
The Great Depression was in full swing. Cotton prices had dropped dramatically, creating an economic crisis that exacerbated already tense relationships between farmers and agricultural workers.
March of Time, a popular newsreel series at the time, described the crisis as “economic bondage.” To keep the entire industry from collapsing, the federal government paid farmers to reduce their cotton production. They hoped it would balance out the market and save a few jobs. But those payments rarely made it to farmworkers, according to bureaucrats at the time who contested the government program. Instead, landowners would keep all the money.
Many farms relied on two kinds of workers. At the bottom were sharecroppers. They had little more than their physical labor to offer. The average farmworker’s daily pay in eastern Arkansas was about 80 cents, or about $18 per day in today’s money.
Slightly better off were tenant farmers, who usually had some of their own farm equipment. But if the crops weren’t enough to cover rent and other expenses owed to the landowner – and they often weren’t – then they would end up in debt from year to year. This became known as debt peonage.
One former sharecropper, George Stith, spoke to PBS as part of a 1993 documentary series about the Great Depression.
“Sharecroppers had no voice,” he said. “The boss told you how much cotton you made, how much money you owed, and how much you got, if any.”
You didn’t figure with the boss, your pencil didn’t count. He did all the figuring, and when he got through, you’d say ‘Yessir. I’ll take it,’” he said.
These dismal working conditions sparked the idea of forming a union. And in the summer of 1934, a group of 11 white and seven Black farmworkers and supporters gathered at a schoolhouse near Tyronza, Arkansas.
They debated on whether to form one union or two: one for white people, one for Black people. A former Ku Klux Klan member said it was time to put aside differences and unite. But the Black men were mostly silent. Eventually, a Black man named Isaac Shaw spoke up. He said their plight was more alike than different and that they could only succeed if Black and white workers fought together.
He was persuasive. From that meeting, the group founded what became known as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Membership quickly rose to the thousands.
But Shaw also saw dangers ahead. He was a survivor of the Elaine Massacre of 1919, about 80 miles southeast. Hundreds of Black people were murdered for trying to start a similar organization. When white dissenters attempted to sabotage their meeting, Black guards shot and killed two of them. An enraged mob quickly formed and massacred any Black man, woman, or child in its path. Historians estimate hundreds were killed, making it one the deadliest acts of racial violence in American history.
As a result, the union decided not to bring guns to their meetings. While some wanted weapons for self-defense, they also knew it would only take one gunshot to incite a massive backlash. Clay East, a white gas station owner who became one of the union’s leaders, told PBS that nonviolence was necessary for their survival.
Just over a year after forming, the union held its first strike. They made some gains, but wanted more. Mass evictions that winter left families out in the cold in tents. So the union plotted a bigger strike during the busy season to put more pressure on landowners.
The union called a strike in the spring of 1936. Somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 workers left the fields demanding 10-hour work days and $1.50 per day, which is equal to about $34 today – still a long way from a living wage, but almost double what they had been getting paid.
That same day, landowners who employed sharecroppers and tenant farmers, generally known as “the planters,” gathered in Earle, Arkansas to figure out what to do. A man in his 40s, about 6-foot tall, slender and clean-shaven addressed the crowd.
This was Paul Peacher, the sheriff’s deputy already infamous for his treatment of Black people. John Twist, the grandson of a planter of the era, told PBS that Peacher was “a terror.”
“He just demanded immediate obedience. He demanded compliance with his orders or he would just come over with a black jack,” Twist said. “He was a terrible, terrible man.”
Peacher laid out his own plan to the planters. He was overheard saying, “If you stand by me, I’ll break up this strike.” So, with the law on his side, he left the meeting and promptly arrested more than a dozen Black men ranging in age from 22 to 61 for vagrancy, which is similar to loitering.
In order for someone to be charged with vagrancy, the law required that the person be able-bodied, homeless, with no money and no job. But all of the men Peacher arrested were either on their way to work or at their houses. Some even had money with them during their arrest. But that didn’t matter. And given Peacher’s violent reputation, the men complied.
Michael K. Honey, a labor and civil rights historian, said landowners knew they could use law enforcement to intimidate and keep their workforce in line – and in debt.
“And that’s where Paul Peacher and these other people came in. Like okay, here’s a very vulnerable group of people. Let’s throw them off the land. If they hold demonstrations and parades, which they did, and mass meetings, which they did, we’ll just go in and beat them up and arrest them and put them on the work farm and that’ll shut them up,” Honey said.
This practice was common. Once arrested, prisoners rarely could pay the steep fines. But landowners could. The men would then be forced to work off their debt, a policy known as convict leasing.
One of the men arrested was Winfield Anderson. He was 51 years old, married with two young kids. He’d been deemed “totally and permanently disabled” by a doctor after hurting his arm in a tree-cutting accident the year before and was making $10 a week in worker’s compensation.
Peacher found Anderson at home on his porch, the court records said. The sheriff’s deputy asked what he was doing. When he replied, ”Nothing,’’ Peacher ordered him into the car. Apparently aware of what could happen next, Anderson told Peacher about his injury. Still Peacher insisted.
Another man, 22-year-old John Curtis, was on his way to a job on a farm at 7 a.m. when Peacher stopped him, according to investigation records. When Curtis told him he was going to work, Peacher responded: “This time of day? Goddam you, get in this car. I am going to take you up to the county farm and put chains around your goddam legs.”
The next day, Peacher brought eight of the men to Judge T.S. Mitchell – the man who had once been married to Peacher-Ryan’s step-grandmother – who was also the mayor of Earle at the time. The Black men had no legal representation or chance to prove their innocence. Within minutes, the judge fined them each $25, or about $560 today, and sentenced them to 30 days’ labor.
They would be forced to clear timber on school district property leased by none other than the man who had arrested them: Paul Peacher.
This summer, the Institute for Public Service Reporting and the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change organized a trip back to Earle with Lekendrick Bunting and Marquette Smith, two descendants of the Black men enslaved on Peacher’s land, along with Peacher-Ryan.
Kat Robinson, then a graduate assistant for the Hooks Institute, tracked down Bunting and Smith through census records and other supporting evidence. Both men had already embarked on family history projects in recent years, helping the institutes verify their relationship to the enslaved men.
Bunting is 28 years old and lives in Memphis. He is the great-grandson of Anderson. “I was so happy about the news about my great-grandfather because I hadn’t got really far on my research on this side of my family because today it’s only about seven of us left from my grandmother down,” he said.
Smith is a financial relationship manager who lived in Memphis for many years. Curtis was his grandmother’s uncle. Smith spent time as a child in Earle, Arkansas, and his earliest memories involve picking peas in the summer at a relative’s house. When they weren’t working, they were told to sit still on the couch: no toys, no TV. The strict intolerance left a lasting impression.
He still passes through the area from time to time, crossing the Interstate-40 bridge over the Mississippi River from Memphis into Arkansas, and traveling over the flat Arkansas Delta. He feels no compulsion to stick around.
“Now as an adult, the only time I’m on this bridge or coming this way is going to Missouri or Chicago; but I do not stop in Arkansas,” he said with a laugh.
Two-lane state roads and gravel line the way to the field just north of Earle. Nine decades after Anderson and Curtis were sentenced to work the land, it’s still farmland as far as the eye can see. Earle’s population – just under 2,000 people — is about the same as it was then.
While standing in the same field their ancestors stood, Smith and Bunting imagined what it might have been like to be taken from their families into forced labor.
“I empathize with him. I just, I get the feeling that myself, like, man, just to feel hopeless and desperate,” Smith said.
“He just told him to get in the car. My family doesn’t even know where I’m going,” Bunting said. “So it’s like, wow, just to even think about that. I don’t know where I’m going. Don’t know how long I’m gonna be gone. They don’t know.”
Peacher had made his arrests and got his convictions. The school district had built three small structures to house Peacher’s prisoners. Each building had six iron bars over their three windows. The doors had thick hinges and locks.
For the men, clearing timber for 12 hours a day was labor they were used to. But now they were being held against their will for a crime they didn’t commit and weren’t getting paid. Their families needed income during the nation’s worst economic disaster. And for Winfield Anderson, his arm injury was getting worse.
Word soon got to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union about their situation. A preacher named Sherwood Eddy snuck onto the land to talk to the men. He immediately returned to Memphis and contacted a friend from college who also happened to be the Attorney General of the United States, Homer Cummings.
An investigation followed.
The arrival of government agents threatened the whole system. Planters responded with violence and political pressure. They had union members arrested, and got the governor to send in the National Guard to suppress the strike. But the federal representatives pushed back, and soon the governor freed the men from Peacher’s stockade before their sentence ran out.
But would anyone be held accountable?
For that to happen, it would require the Black men to take an enormous risk: testify against Peacher and the planters who backed him. Honey, the labor and civil rights historian, said convicting Peacher for enslavement would be a long shot.
Michael K. Honey
The threat of violence and even death almost certainly hung over the men’s decision to testify. Another Black man, Willie Hurst, had planned to testify against Peacher earlier that year for raiding a union meeting. Many had been beaten and injured. Before Hurst had his day in court, witnesses say two masked men resembling Peacher and another deputy, killed Hurst at a friend’s house.
The federal government indicted Peacher that September under a rarely used anti-slavery law. The town’s planters raised money for his defense. The eight Black men, including Anderson and Curtis, testified. Peacher told a reporter he was confident the all-white jury would find him innocent.
Robert Thompson, a Paragould, Arkansas attorney who wrote his college thesis on Peacher in the 1990s, said he had good reason not to worry.
“If you look at the history of civil rights legislation up into the ’50s and ’60s, it was just sort of taken as a given that white people will not convict anyone for violating the civil rights of black people,” Thompson said. “It was just assumed.”
The case made national headlines. And at first, the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.
Federal judge John Martineau scoffed at the jury in open court: “Every circumstance points to the guilt of this man. This is not a lone case in Arkansas. It ought to be stopped.”
On a second attempt, the jury found Peacher guilty, but recommended he not spend any time in jail. He was fined $3,500, or about $79,000 today, stripped of his title, and served two years of probation.
Looking out at the field where his relative labored, Smith said he’s not sure if he could have handled the situation as well as the enslaved men did.
“They were strong men to go through that, to speak up on it when the time came, because it was just as dangerous to speak about it after the fact as it was to even resist in the moment,” he said.
For Peacher-Ryan, her great-uncle’s punishment was not justice.
For her, the diamond ring she had so worn proudly for all those years – the one her grandmother had given her – had lost its shine. She sold it for $15,000 in 2022 and gave the proceeds to the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
“To me the ring had become a symbol of racial terror and social injustice,” she said.
Peacher’s conviction and the national attention that came with it brought a wave of embarrassment and shame across Arkansas in 1936, said Thompson, the Paragould attorney who wrote about Peacher in the 1990s.
“If you shine a light on something that nobody wants to see, you sort of force change. And that’s what happened in this case,” he said. “The Arkansas legislature pretty quickly began outlawing debt peonage.”
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union celebrated the verdict because it put the wide range of injustices against sharecroppers on a national stage. Though the strike itself was not as successful as they had hoped, it sent a message to the planters that debt peonage and convict leasing were on their way out.
The larger movement for workers’ rights would influence President Roosevelt’s New Deal laws that guaranteed a minimum wage, overtime pay, and protections for union organizers from retaliation.
The union’s impact also would be felt for decades, Honey said. The stories of their interracial organizing efforts were still around at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
They “remembered that there was a time even in the Ku Klux Klan districts where black and white people in agriculture areas got together and joined together to change things for the better,” Honey said. “So, that gave people hope that even in Mississippi or eastern Arkansas in the ‘60s, it might be possible to have a movement.”
Editor’s note: Lekendrick Bunting faces a second-degree murder charge in connection with a 2019 incident. Prosecutors say he shot and killed a 17-year-old girl while firing at a carjacking suspect. The girl was riding with other teens who allegedly had just attempted to steal Bunting’s car. Bunting contends that one of the teens shot at him first and says it is unconfirmed that his bullet was the one that killed the girl. The case is ongoing.