William H. Cobb
July / 6 x 9 / 320 pages / 43 illustrations
ISBN 0-8143-2773-7 cloth: $34.95s
Southern History / Labor Studies
An examination of Commonwealth College, a labor school in Polk County, Arkansas.
Commonwealth College was the longest-lived and most notorious of the resident labor colleges that operated during the 1920s and 1930s. Founded in 1923 at NewLlano Cooperative Colony in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, the school was modeled on the self-maintenance characteristics of Florida's abortive prewar experiment in social education: Ruskin College. Disputes over priorities with NewLlano Colony forced the College to relocate to rural Polk County, Arkansas, in 1924 where it took up permanent residence in the dense "piney woods" at the foot of Rich Mountain. Commonwealth's early leaders were dedicated Debsian Socialists who were convinced that a different type of education for the new industrial class would result in a series of massive social changes that would transform American capitalism into the utopian cooperative commonwealth of their dreams.
The regional and national publicity that resulted from the allegations that the College was a Moscow-driven "red cell" became a self-fulfilling prophecy from the mid- to late 1930s. Commonwealth endured spectacular attacks the American Legion in 1926, from a Communist "student strike" in 1933, from investigations by the Arkansas General Assembly in 1935 and 1937, and through its association with the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union. By 1938 the school had exhausted the patience of the people it had been founded to educate-the industrial workers. Finally, without any friends in the non-Communist left, Commonwealth attempted to become the southern campus of the New Theatre League, but strident local opposition brought a court action that forced the College to close in September 1940.
William H. Cobb illuminates the history of the extraordinary group of
students and staff of Commonwealth College and the rich intellectual life
produced on the self-sustaining communal farm in the Arkansas forest. Although
Cobb did not have access to Commonwealth College papers, which disappeared
impounded by the county court, he reconstructs the history of the school through a rich assortment of primary documents from various university and state archives. Scholars and students interested in union, labor, and southern history will welcome this book.
William H. Cobb is a professor of history at East Carolina University.
"Well organized and well written. The whole story of Commonwealth
will be a revelation to most readers in an age so changed from the 1920s
-Lowell K. Dryson, Agricultural History Society
Send general questions to Alison Reeves at Wayne State University Press, The Leonard N. Simons Building, 4809 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201-1309.