Southeast Faculty Member Publishes Book of Regional Importance


‘Thad Snow’ offers look into the life of early Southeast Missouri activist


Nov. 21, 2003 – A book written by Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff, Southeast Missouri State University professor of history, will be published next week. Stepenoff’s book is entitled Thad Snow: A Life of Social Reform in the Missouri Bootheel.

The book, published by the University of Missouri Press, explores the life of Thad Snow (1881-1955), an agricultural entrepreneur, social critic and activist. Snow was best known for his involvement in Missouri’s 1939 Sharecropper Protest – a mass highway demonstration in which approximately 1,100 demonstrators marched to two federal highways to illustrate the plight of the cotton laborers. Snow struggled to make sense of the changing world, and his answers to questions regarding race, social justice, the environment and international war placed him at odds with many. In Thad Snow, Stepenoff explores the world of Snow, providing a full portrait of him.

Stepenoff said she feels Snow’s focus on some of the very issues we deal with today put him ahead of his time.

“Thad Snow was a very important, eccentric man from the Bootheel,” said Stepenoff. “His importance stemmed from the fact that although he loved the Bootheel and he loved Missouri, he was thinking about global issues, like war and peace, the environment and racism, that we’re still trying to deal with today. We may not totally agree with all his conclusions, but at least he thought about the big issues,” she emphasized.

Snow settled in the Missouri Bootheel in 1910 – “Swampeast Missouri,” as he called it – when it was still largely an undeveloped region of hardwood and cypress swamps. He cleared and drained 1,000 acres and became a prominent landowner, highway booster and promoter of economic development, though he later questioned the wisdom of developing wild land.

In the early 1920s, “cotton fever” came to the region, and Snow started producing cotton in the rich Southeast Missouri soil. Although he employed sharecroppers, he became a bitter critic of the system that exploited labor and fostered racism. In the 1930s, when a massive flood and the Great Depression heaped misery on the farm workers, he rallied to their cause.

Defying the conventions of his class, he invited the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) to organize workers on his land. He became a friend and colleague of Owen Whitfield, an African American minister, who led the Sharecroppers’ Roadside Strike of 1939. The successes of this great demonstration convinced Snow that mankind could fight injustice by peaceful means. While America mobilized for World War II, he denounced all war as evil, remaining a committed pacifist until his death in 1955. Shortly before he died, Snow published an autobiographical memoir, From Missouri, in which he affirmed his optimistic belief that people could peacefully change the world.

The biography places Snow in the context of his place and time, revealing a unique individual who agonized over racial and economic oppression and environmental degradation.

Snow lived, worked and pondered the connections among these issues in a small rural corner of Missouri, but he thought in global terms. In a new millennium, with the civil rights movement and a series of wars serving as reminders, these issues still demand attention today. Well-crafted and highly readable, Thad Snow provides an astounding assessment of an agricultural entrepreneur transformed into a social critic and activist.

Stepenoff has also authored Their Fathers’ Daughters: Silk Mill Workers in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1880-1960 and a National Park Service report on Missouri’s Big Spring Historic District.

Thad Snow will be available Nov. 24 at Barnes and Noble Booksellers in Cape Girardeau and at the Southeast Bookstore, or directly from the University of Missouri Press by calling 1-800-828-1894.