Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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Founded in September 1909 by tenant farmers Sam and Luke Spencer of McClain County, Oklahoma, with the aid of socialist Oscar Ameringer, the Oklahoma Renters' Union acted as an "economic" auxiliary to the Socialist Party and operated between elections. Working mostly in southeastern Oklahoma, the union drew much of its inspiration from religious sources. This is reflected in its motto, modified from Lev. 25:23: "This land shall not be sold forever, for this land is mine: and ye are sojourners with me."

The Oklahoma Renters' Union sought to end land competition between tenants, which kept rents high, to abolish landlordism, and to create a base of electoral support that would help the Socialist Party capture the state government. The union's short-term goals included obtaining tenant houses with two to three fourteen-square-foot rooms, glass windows, plastered walls, and wooden floors. The union also wanted the landlords to provide three horses, a chicken coop, and a stable and to agree to pay tenants for any improvements made on the property should the tenant vacate or be evicted.

As part of its long-range goals, the Renters' Union hoped to obtain two-room schools and six-month school terms for their communities and to create agricultural arbitration courts to fix rental rates and order compensation if a renter's crop was damaged or destroyed by weather. The union also demanded the legal recognition of farmers' and renters' associations and the establishment of a state department of agriculture. A final goal involved a "Farmers' Program" under which the state would rent out state-owned land at one-fourth the crop value to tenants who would pay rent until they had covered the actual cost of the land. After that, tenants would live rent free on the land as long as they produced crops. The program proved popular with many tenants, and the Renters' Union soon had active locals in Calvin, Oklahoma City, Ada, and other Oklahoma towns.

However, the membership level was hardly stable, and the union faced numerous problems. First, landlords in several counties evicted or refused to renew leases of any tenants who belonged to the Renters' Union. Second, the union itself refused to recruit African American tenants and American Indians. The actions of landlords toward the socialist tenants is understandable in simple economic terms and meant that the Renters' Union had a smaller base with which to work. But the rejection of African American tenants was less understandable economically and stemmed largely from the southern cultural prejudices of the white tenants. On the other hand, the bias against American Indians probably had as much to do with the fact that many of the most powerful landlords were either mixed-bloods or whites who had married into the Indian nations.

Despite the efforts of Ameringer and other Socialist Party members to convince the Renters' Union to recruit black and Indian members, union leaders and membership grew more frustrated and turned to such actions as night-riding to achieve their goals. In fact, the Spencers themselves were among five men in McClain County charged and tried for night-riding in 1910, but socialist attorney Patrick S. Nagle obtained their acquittal.

By 1913 the Renters' Union was largely ineffective. It merged with the Texas-based Land League and essentially ceased to exist. It was eventually replaced by other groups, especially the larger and more effective Working Class Union.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Oscar Ameringer, If You Don't Weaken: The Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer (New York: Henry Holt, 1940). James Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Response in Oklahoma, 1889-1923 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

Nigel Anthony Sellars

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