Colored Farmers Alliance and Populism

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Fri Nov 19 05:43:10 PST 1999

An interesting link on racism and agrarian populism of the late 19th century.

Preliminary research for writing a history of the Colored Farmers Alliance in the Populist movement: 1886-1896

By Omar Ali May 11, 1998 Department of History Columbia University

Some excerpts:

Founded as an agrarian association to assist the economic plight of Black farmers in Houston County, Texas, in 1886,1 the Colored Farmers Alliance became within five years the largest African-American organization of the 19th century -- comprising well over one million Black farmers with members in every Southern state.2 --- The Colored Farmers Alliance, while being segregated from the broader Southern and Northern Alliances, was integrally related to the farmer-led movement which came to be known as the Populist movement. African-American and white farmers had come to realize that independent political action was necessary to achieve their economic ends. As Black farmers grew increasingly disillusioned with the Colored Farmers Alliance program of self-help, the consideration of politics as a more viable solution developed amongst the rank and file of the organization and the African-American leadership of the Colored Farmers Alliance – expressed at both state and nationally held conventions.

Together with a number of industrial and agrarian-based organizations, including the Southern and Northern Alliances, the Colored Farmers Alliance formed the independent People's Party in 1891. The Party actually won a number of state governments in the South between 1892 and 1896. There were, however, precedents that helped create an awareness of such electoral political action as a potent reform force for Black and white farmers – notably the Agricultural Wheel, the Louisiana's Farmers Union, and the Greenback-Labor campaigns of the 1870's and 1880's. That is, the formation of an independent third party was not a sudden aberration but the culmination of a pattern of agrarian protest which had existed since the days of Reconstruction.3

In 1892, the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, polled twenty-two electoral votes and received more than 1,000,000 popular votes. By fusing with the Democratic Party in certain states, the People's Party elected several members to Congress, three governors, and hundreds of minor officials and legislators, nearly all in the northern Midwest. In the South, most farmers refused to endanger white supremacy by voting against the Democratic Party. Additional victories were also won in the 1894 midterm election.

----- It is important to note that socially as well as politically, race relations in the South had steadily deteriorated as farmers' movements rose to challenge conservative and racist regimes. Coupled with the rise of Southern populism was the increasingly defined place of African-Americans as that of a subordinate and entirely segregated grouping of people. Not only were legal sanctions (some almost identical to the "Black Codes") being imposed upon African-Americans, but informal, extralegal, and often brutal steps were also being taken to keep Black people in their "place." Violence, such as lynchings -- which between 1889 and 1899 averaged 187.5 per year in the South4 – was only one of the ways that the African-American community was systematically stopped from participating in the electoral system.

------ An issue which runs throughout much of the primary and secondary literature on the Colored Farmers Alliance is the extent to which African-Americans actually led the work and policies of their organization. That is, was this organization merely an appendage of the larger Southern and Northern Alliances, led by white farmers, ultimately for white farmers? Or, is it the case that the Colored Farmers Alliance, which, in fact, had white males in many of the key leadership positions including that of General Superintendent (the highest post in the organization), was truly a biracial coalition which sought to promote the economic betterment of all farmers?

----- The Colored Farmers Alliance was initially established as a farmer's association, and was explicitly not a political organization. It soon spread into every Southern state through a combination of word of mouth and diligent organizing, and by 1891 claimed a membership of approximately 1.2 million. R. M. Humphrey, a white Baptist minister of Irish decent who served in the Confederate Army, and who also served as the General Superintendent and the chief spokesman of the Colored Farmers Alliance, wrote in 1891 that "The total membership is nearly 1,200,000 of whom 300,000 are females, and 150,000 males under twenty-one years of age, leaving 750,000 adult males."6

------- The Colored Farmers Alliance established exchanges in the ports of Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans and Houston, through which members bought goods at reduced prices and obtained loans to pay off mortgages. In some areas the Colored Farmers Alliance raised funds to provide longer public school terms and in 1889 it began publishing its own weekly newspaper, The National Alliance, which reached "many thousand colored families."9 Finally, it is also known that the Colored Farmers Alliance solicited funds to help its sick and disabled members.10

---- Because, at least early on, the Colored Farmers Alliance espoused a conservative philosophy and worked for goals similar to that of other farm organizations, some historians have considered it a mere appendage of the Southern Alliance.11 The two alliances did, after all, agree on many issues: ----

Despite the mutual support of various goals of the Colored Farmers Alliance and the Southern Farmers Alliance, William F. Holmes (see below) warns that it would be a mistake to consider the Colored Farmers Alliance an adjunct of the Southern Alliance. Sometimes their positions differed sharply, as they revealed in a clash over the Lodge Election Bill, known by the Democratic and Republican Parties as the "Force Bill." This bill proposed federal protection to safeguard voting rights of African-Americans in the South. The Southern Alliance unanimously condemned the Lodge Bill, but the Colored Farmers Alliance strongly endorsed it, knowing full well that Federal intervention could only help, not hurt them.

The two Alliances sometimes took different positions on economic issues: in 1891 officials of the Colored Farmers Alliance called for a cotton pickers strike, which the Southern Alliance denounced. But it was on issues where whites used their power to keep Blacks in economic and political subjugation that a deep division appeared between the two alliances. Ultimately, conflicts stemming from such issues contributed not only to the demise of the Colored Farmers Alliance but, arguably, the entire Populist movement.

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