Where the Green Corn Grows

Where the Green Corn Grows - June 21, 2015

By Representative David Perryman

In 1917, the dome-less state capitol building was called complete. For the past 20 years, the state had been the largest oil producing entity in the world and it would continue to out-produce any other U.S. State until surpassed by California in 1923.

Also in 1917 Phillips Petroleum Company was founded in Bartlesville. Fuel and farm products were in great demand. On paper Oklahoma’s economy was ginning right along. Unfortunately, 1917 was not providing all Oklahomans with abundance or comfort.

Oklahoma agriculture industry included many tenant farmers who were scratching out a subsistence life for them and their families. In fact 76% of Oklahoma’s farmers under age 24 rented their land, while 45% of the farmers between 25 and 33 were also tenants on the land that they farmed.

These dirt farmers were a combination of whites, African Americans and native Americans who found themselves in hopeless financial situations. They blamed their condition on usurious creditors and demanding landlords. That burden coupled with the fact that much of the soil was depleted in comparison to the rich lands of the lower Mississippi.

These young families thought that the burden could become no greater and then Congress voted to enter the war in Europe and in May of 1917 instituted the draft.

The farmers perceived that this was a rich man’s war that held no future for them. They had nothing and had little hope of accumulating anything. They saw no benefit in leaving their meager existence to fight to protect the wealth and comfort of their oppressors.

Growing economic discontent had spurred organization among the tenant farmers. Without regard to racial differences, as many as 35,000 to 50,000 white, African-American and Native American tenant farmers stood shoulder to shoulder. There were occasional incidents of hostility which conservative bankers, merchants and townspeople referred to as political terrorism.

On July 20, 2017, the U.S. Secretary of War drew numbers to induct young men pursuant to the Selective Draft Act and the discontent increased.

According to the accounts of historian Nigel Sellars, in “Treasonous Tenant Farmers” and the “Green Corn Rebellion,” on August 2, 1917, less than two weeks after the lottery, between 800 and 1000 tenant farmers of all races, who truly believed that the war was J. P. Morgan’s and not theirs, gathered on the banks of the South Canadian River with a plan to march east to Washington, living off the land, eating green corn and barbeque beef on their way to overthrow the President, repeal the draft act and end the war.

They did not get far. Facing townspeople and the law, gunfire ensued and three farmers died. The posse rounded up 450 marchers and more than 150 faced charges and jail sentences of 6 months to ten years.

Decades later, an elderly Native American told about her uncle being one of the incarcerated.  She was quoted, “The full moon of late July, early August it was, the Moon of the Green Corn. It was not easy to persuade our poor white and black brothers and sisters to rise up. We told them that rising up, standing up, whatever the consequences would inspire future generations…so that those who come after will rise up…and eventually prevail.”

Questions and comments are invited at 405-557-7401 or David.Perryman@okhouse.gov.