In The 1880s, Black Farmers Organized For Economic Independence. Guess Who Wasn't Having It.
On December 11, 1886, the Colored Farmers Alliance was established in Lovelady in Houston County, Texas. This organization may have accomplished little in concrete gains, but it represented the brave attempt of Black farmers to avoid tenancy, sharecropping, and other forms of white-controlled labor. It also played an important role in the broader farmer movement to protect themselves from the rapacity of Gilded Age capitalism.
The Farmers Alliance itself, an organization formed to speak to the very real concerns of increasing poverty and economic marginalization of southern and midwestern farmers within the burgeoning industrial capitalist world, could not be a truly integrated organization. The reality of segregation and racism were too much for that. The Farmers Alliance is an interesting organization in its own right, a strategy created by southern economic radicals that would bridge away from the Democratic Party and toward a “third party of the industrial millions” through cooperative strategies.
As the white farmers knew, Black farmers were as interested in these ideas as they were. Beginning in December 1886, Black organizations began forming under the name the Colored Farmers Alliance to argue for Black rights within the larger Alliance movement. Interestingly, while 16 of the people at the Lovelady gathering (including the nominal president) were African-American, the 17th attendee was ex-Confederate officer R.M. Humphrey. It was on Humphrey’s farm where the meeting took place and Humphrey would serve as the national spokesman for the organization despite his race.
Humphrey was an interesting guy. He seems to have started the Colored Farmers Alliance as a way to propel himself into Congress. In a majority Black district where voter suppression hadn’t taken place yet, he used the organization in its first two years as his own political machine. But when he lost his bid in 1888, rather than give up, he committed himself to building it as a legitimate group to fight for Black farm labor rights. Organizers moved across the South, organizing African-Americans for higher crop prices, lower railroad rates, and other policies that would help the sharecroppers and small land owners who found themselves increasingly squeezed by monopoly capitalism.
While all small southern farmers had problems in the late 19th century, Black farmers had it worse. Both races had much in common: the crop lien, the inability to finance your own crop without going into debt, the desire to control your own labor and livelihood. White and Black farmers had similar goals – a flexible currency, higher commodity prices, railroad regulation, etc. But Black labor was also caught in the racial realities of the day. The sheer existence of independent Black labor was an affront to the southern society of the Gilded Age. Only 20 years after the end of the Civil War, much of the white supremacist violence used against African-Americans was about tying labor in place – powerless, cheap, and controllable. What African-Americans understood, as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn tells it, was that neither the capitalists nor the white Populists had any real capacity to question their own position in the racial caste system. African-Americans knew that an economic answer to the problems of independent farm labor was not enough for they also were stuck in a lower caste.
The response of elite whites to the Colored Farmers Alliance was disdain. Race baiting proved an effective method to undermine the burgeoning and always uncomfortable alliance between whites and Blacks. The Montgomery Advertiser wrote that “the white people don’t want any more Negro influence in their affairs than they already have, and they won’t have it.”
Given the hostility of powerful whites, Colored Farmers Alliance organizers worked quietly, without the fanfare and open political organizing of the white Alliances. Essentially, the Colored Alliance worked not unlike the beginnings of a labor union or the civil rights movement in the 1950s. They found local leaders and tried to cultivate that leadership into something more. Because they worked so secretively, even a historian of Goodwyn’s preeminence admits that he can’t find much about their day to day actions. We know that the organization did engage in public political activities at the Ocala Convention of 1890 and the founding of the People’s Party in 1892, but other than that, it’s hard to know. Still, by 1890, the organization at least claimed to have 1.2 million members. Part of this was absorbing other populist-related Black organizations such as the Black versions of the Agricultural Wheel, providing more evidence of the very real efforts of Black farmers to stand up for their economic and political rights. In 1891, it attempted to institute a strike to raise the price of cotton, but the CFA simply did not have the power to pull such an event off and it failed.
While some white Alliance leaders talked a good game of racial cooperation in the 1880s and early 1890s, the tolerance of any southern white for Black participation in the political process and economic discourse was limited. Tom Watson may have started his career touting racial cooperation, but he quickly moved to the worst kind of race-baiting white supremacist. The two Alliance organizations split over the issue of a bill introduced in Congress to provide federal supervision of southern elections. The Colored Alliance supported the protection of Black voting rights wholeheartedly while the white Alliance turned toward white supremacy and the rejection of policies they associated with Reconstruction. Moreover, white supremacy made the real sustenance of the Colored Alliances impossible to maintain because without public acts in the political process, no meaningful movement culture could develop. And public political acts often meant death for the African-American of the late 19th century.
In the end, the significance of the Colored Farmers Alliance from a labor perspective is that it served as an organization that tried to hold on to the fading independence of Black farm labor. For sharecroppers, who made up a significant percentage of the membership of both Alliances, the organization was the one possibility of fighting for policies that would help their lives. Being independent of white labor domination was at the core of rejecting slavery and its near-imitations that eventually reclaimed much of southern black labor.
WHY IT MATTERS TODAY
First, the experience of Black farmer activism is far too often erased from our stories about the Black freedom struggle. The imposition of Jim Crow did not happen overnight. It took decades. Throughout that time, people fought for their rights. Much of this struggle was economic in nature, which is also often forgotten about today in all historical Black movements. The March on Washington in 1963 was after all called The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and had serious economic demands such as a $2 an hour minimum wage. The Colored Farmers Alliance was another key moment in the struggle for Black freedom that combined both race and class, as poor people had to negotiate both capitalism and white supremacy at the same time. The sharecropping they faced was in the end something of a compromise between the white South that wanted to replicate pre-Civil War control over labor and the former slaves who refused to live and work like that. But sharecropping was still exploitative and terrible. The Colored Farmers Alliance was a key moment of activism to fix this and provide more economic and racial freedom for Black farmers.
Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America
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