Sunday, April 7, 2013


"Before examining the history of Mississippi’s white tenant farmers and sharecroppers, some definition of the terms might be helpful. Both tenant farmers and sharecroppers were farmers without farms. A tenant farmer typically paid a landowner for the right to grow crops on a certain piece of property. Tenant farmers, in addition to having some cash to pay rent, also generally owned some livestock and tools needed for successful farming.
Sharecroppers, on the other hand, were even more impoverished than tenant farmers. With few resources and little or no cash, sharecroppers agreed to farm a certain plot of land in exchange for a share of the crops they raised. The exact amount of crops the sharecropper gave over to the landowner depended on the agreement with the landowner."
From:  "Mississippi History Now," an on-line publication of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Next, a page from: 

Almost from the time I first started reading about the Presley's circumstances, I have had a problem resolving what Tupelo residents called "farmed for shares." It seemed like a different arrangement from other tenant farming/sharecropping systems around the south. When I finally read James Agee's and Walker Evans' classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and read of the difference between "half-croppers" and other tenants, I was bewildered. What was it that Vernon and Gladys actually DID in Tupelo for Bean, and how did Vernon's "employer" come also to be his landlord? And if he was his employer, then Vernon couldn't have been a sharecropper! Not according the standard definitions, which are delineated here.

Or so it seemed.

The problem here is that Vernon Presley paid the same man for the land upon which he lived (rent), did jobs for that same man, and "farmed for shares" for that man (either he did it, or Gladys did so, depending on Bean's needs for Vernon to drive the truck for the dairy farm). So into what category described in Lowery's book, and the state site, does he fit?

Was he a tenant or a sharecropper? And, if he fit into one of the categories, which category? A tenant, a half-cropper, a third-cropper?  All - and yet, none, exactly. Although he paid rent for the little frame house he had built, he was not paid a flat wage, but "farmed for shares." This work was alongside driving Bean's milk delivery truck. Gladys turned more to the cotton work after Elvis's birth. Vernon had some autonomy to own tools and even a little livestock (a hog), but in sharecropping, Vernon and the other workers (including his own father, and wife) were entirely beholden to this same man on whose land they lived to survive there.

Bean had fashioned his own plantation system in East Tupelo,  creating just the exploitative conditions he personally needed.


These are some photographs of the Tupelo house that Vernon built, with his father's assistance. They are all from the archives of For Elvis CD Collectors, FECC Forum. These photos were posted by user "KHoots." Thanks also to "ColinB."

Thanks to FECC for their wonderful archive. These photographs are not to be reproduced ANYWHERE! It needs to be mentioned that they are on this "Elvis Express Radio" page: Elvis' Tupelo Birthplace: Elvis Express Radio. The original copyrights belong to whomever TOOK the photographs, which is not presently determined in either location. They were first published in the October,  1964 issue of Elvis Monthly. Vernon himself showed them around.

These photographs seem to be from the 1950s, or perhaps earlier, when the house was in some sort of use. As you can see, there was no charming Porch Swing, and Vernon had the idea to attach the privy to the back of the house. I will post more information about the Tupelo house here in a few days.
This next photo is one I took, in 1981. It is my father sitting on the porch of the Tupelo house after it had become a tourist attraction in the wake of Elvis Presley's death on August 16, 1977.

Photo, Copyright ©1981, Robin Markowitz. All Rights Reserved.

I will be adding more original photos, that I took, of the boards of the house, in close-up, in the next few days. Photos of the farmland in Tupelo, though, are difficult to come by.

According to Elaine Dundy's research, Gladys farmed soon after the baby's birth by putting Elvis in the tow sack with the the cotton she picked. This was his first amusement "ride." Here is Evans' photo of 10-year-old Lucille Burroughs, picking cotton in Hale County, Alabama, in 1936. It's not far over the Mississippi border, and not very far from Tupelo.

This is what Gladys Presley did during harvesting season, with baby Elvis plopped in the cotton sack that she dragged along the rows.

Next. is a filmed view of life in the south in the 1930s; this is newsreel footage of the cotton harvesting process, and I apologize for the offensive, absurd remarks about the workers by the narrator, but here you see what Vernon and Gladys did in the fields:
Next time, we'll look in more depth at the two men who would soon be headed on a collision course: Vernon Presley and Orville Bean.
General References: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (October 3, 1994) Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy Macmillan Pub Co; 1St Edition edition (June 1985)
©Robin Markowitz, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Born Strange: Introduction

Elvis Presley's First Photo
1938, Mississippi St. Penitentiary
At Parchman Farm
When Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, he was born a stranger. A stranger in what most Americans, even in "The Great Depression," called "no man's land." He lived across the tracks and the levee, in East Tupelo, a separate town, then. Only for the poor whites, but perhaps not the absolute poorest whites of all. That status was to come a little later for Elvis, his father and mother.

As most people know, he wasn't born an only child, but he became one instantly. His brother, born first, could not get his breath, and he died at birth. Whether he was "stillborn" or actually gasped is something no one can really know. What is known is that his father Vernon Elvis Presley, buried Jesse Garon Presley, in what had been an unmarked grave in the Priceville Cemetery. A reliable child-friend insists that Elvis knew where the grave was, though it can never be entirely clear, as the baby was buried in a shoe-box, initially without a grave marker. 

Tupelo historian Roy Turner interviewed a former child-friend of Elvis, James Ausborn, about the grave, and Ausborn says he and Elvis knew where it was.

Jesse Garon
©Anthony Stuchbury. All Rights Reserved.
A photo was taken of a small, uninscribed stone, next to Elvis's Uncle Noah's grave, in the cemetery. This is the photo: ©Anthony Stuchbury. All Rights Reserved.

The doctor who came, in an emergency, filled out info on both baby boys. He and his sick mother stayed in the hospital for two weeks, paid for "by the welfare." His mother worked while pregnant, her legs swelling, and becoming increasingly ill. She had to.

While it's hard to imagine deeper poverty, there was deeper poverty to come. We'll learn how the state of Mississippi was essentially run by its agricultural landlords: they called the shots, and the politicians answered. Vernon would deal with that state of affairs shortly. He ended up in Parchman Farm, a chain gang, in a dispute over the price of a hog. With the landlord. The man who owned the land upon which he lived, and who also employed him. Orville Bean owned almost all the land "'cross the tracks" for both blacks and whites who were the poorest, and employed most of the poor people. 

In 1936, a fearful storm thrashed Tupelo to shreds, killing over 200 people, most of them blacks who lived in what was called "Tin Town" then.

And then it got worse.

You just don't cross your landlord.

©Robin Markowitz, 2013. All Rights Reserved.