The Black Populist Movement Has Been Snuffed Out of the History Books

In the late 1800s, Southern black farmers built a mass movement to resist oppression. Though often forgotten today, the black populists and their acts of cross-racial solidarity terrified the planter class, who responded with violence and Jim Crow laws.

Tenant farmers picking cotton in Mississippi circa 1890. (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Archives and Records Services Division)

When a black man named Oliver Cromwell began organizing local chapters of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance throughout Leflore County, Mississippi, and the surrounding area in 1889, both white planters and black farmers took notice, although for different reasons.

Founded in Houston County, Texas, just three years earlier, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, or “Colored Alliance” as it was more commonly known, quickly blossomed to over one million members across the South and beyond. The group offered self-help programs for black farmers, ran home ownership campaigns, argued for fair pricing, provided education programs on modern farming practices, educated farmers on their cooperative purchasing power, lobbied legislatures, and even launched strikes and boycotts.

In Leflore County, where three-quarters of residents were black, and two-thirds of those worked as sharecroppers, many formerly enslaved, Cromwell and the Colored Alliance offered the hope of upending the ruling planter class in the precarious years between the end of Reconstruction and the advent of Jim Crow.

Cromwell, whose namesake was an African American Revolutionary War hero, had a long history of standing tall in the face of violent threats. He had served in the 5th United States Colored Heavy Artillery regiment in the Civil War, fighting in the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. And he had braved the 1875 Clinton Massacre, where nearly sixty people were slaughtered and another thirty injured, following a rally and picnic for Reconstruction-era black politicians in Mississippi.

Illustration of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, part of the Vicksburg Campaign of the American Civil War in which African American soldiers led the Union to victory. (Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863)

Now, with white elites inflamed at his sharecropper organizing, Cromwell again found himself in peril. Death threats, both verbal and printed, poured in. Backing up Cromwell, seventy-five armed representatives of the Colored Alliance delivered their own message: they would not be intimidated, had power in numbers, and were military trained.

The act of defiance and solidarity was not enough, however. Mobs of white men from throughout the region descended upon the town in search of black farmers, with little attention given to whether the people they were attacking were even members of the Colored Alliance. The governor called in the National Guard, but they quickly dispersed as the mob grew out of control. By the time the deadly attacks came to an end, over twenty black citizens had lost their lives, with some reports claiming the number was closer to two hundred.

Although short-lived and little-known today, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and similar groups in the late 1800s made up the largest black political movement in the South before the modern civil rights movement. Black populism not only helped pave the way for later resistance among black sharecroppers, farmers, and other agrarian workers, but tilled the soil for a sustained mass black politics and the dreams of an alternative to a racist, plutocratic system.

The Colored Alliance

The Colored Farmers’ Alliance was established in 1886 in Houston County, Texas, by sixteen black men on the farm of Richard M. Humphrey, a white Baptist minister and former Confederate soldier. Although membership was limited to African Americans, Humphrey was elected a superintendent and spokesperson of the Colored Alliance and was able to address the group’s concerns to white audiences without the same threat of retaliation. Black leaders joining Humphrey at the helm included J. J. Shuffer, president, and H. J. Spencer, secretary.

The Colored Alliance’s primary mission was to give black farmers the tools to fight not only falling commodity prices, high interest rates, and rising supply costs, but also discriminatory practices by white landowners and business owners. Across the New South, black organizing was being met with mob violence. To protect themselves, the group’s charter specified that they would operate as a secret organization with passwords, much as black fraternal organizations did. They also noted that they would operate separately from the National Farmers’ Alliance, which excluded African Americans from the membership rolls.

A short write up in the Clarion Ledger (MS) on May 2, 1889, notes new branches of the Colored Alliance opening in South Carolina. When the private group did make public announcements, they often specified that their goals were self help and not political, even if in reality the group had intentions of disrupting systems. (Clarion Ledger, May 2, 1889.)

The Colored Alliance trained members in economic and political governance, promoted character-building programs, supported mutual aid in their community, argued for more schools for African American children, agitated for more humane treatment of black convict farm laborers, and taught members about their civil rights. They flexed their collective buying power, operating exchanges in Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Norfolk, Virginia. The upstart group even started their own newspaper in 1889 to coordinate efforts and communicate across state lines.

Within a few short years — thanks to existing networks of black churches and fraternal organizations, aligned unions like the Colored Agricultural Wheel, and the tenacity of state organizers like Cromwell in Mississippi, Ben Patterson in Tennessee, and Rev. W. A. Pattillo in North Carolina — the Colored Alliance boasted more than one million members, although that figure was likely inflated. While no membership or institutional records remain, Humphrey claimed that Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all had between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand Colored Alliance members, with other southern states reporting sizable amounts just under that. In Texas alone, fifty-six counties had Colored Alliance charters, with reportedly thousands of subchapters.

While Colored Alliance members and National Farmers’ Alliance members had different and sometimes conflicting goals (many more in the white Farmers’ Alliance, particularly leaders, owned land and employed farmhands), the two at times worked together. White alliance leaders joined the annual convening of delegates of the Colored Alliance in St Louis in 1889 and again in Ocala, Florida, in 1890. North Carolina’s Pattillo noted that members of both alliances helped him clandestinely recruit black farmers to the Colored Alliance.

The Constitution of the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union of the United States. (Virginia Virtual Archive)

The groups also worked across racial and state lines to participate in a boycott of jute — which was used to wrap bales of cotton — beginning in 1888. A couple years later in Louisiana, white and black alliance members banded together against the state lottery program, which they saw as a mutual threat to poor farmers enticed by get-rich-quick schemes.

Still, National Farmers’ Alliance leaders refused to budge on their policy of racial exclusion, stating they were “in favor of equal and exact justice to all men, regardless of race, color or previous condition,” but that they wanted “all colored organizations to have their own State and national organizations, as well as their own schools and churches and separate hotels and railroad accommodations.”

Another Alliance

As the Colored Farmers’ Alliance gained converts in droves, another agrarian organization with a similar name, the National Colored Alliance, was also flourishing in the South, claiming 250,000 members of its own. The two groups were plagued by disagreements that “divided our churches . . . embittered our communities and created discord in our families.” Although there was brief talk in 1890 of merging the organizations, leadership disagreements about how and when to strike burned any bridge under construction.

In 1891, at the peak of its membership, the Colored Alliance attempted to organize a cotton pickers’ strike to earn better prices for their crops. If landowners could conspire together to keep prices low, sharecroppers reasoned that they, too, could band together and demand one dollar per one hundred pounds of cotton. Although the pending strike was widely publicized, and the union’s membership was reportedly large, when the planned date of September 12 came and went, only Texas saw any action.

By the end of the month, however, violence would erupt again one hundred miles north of Leflore in Lee County, Arkansas. There, in the heat of the Arkansas Delta, a man named Ben Patterson had been organizing black cotton pickers. He managed to organize dozens of men to press for 75 cents per pound. (It is unclear if Patterson had any direct affiliation with the Colored Alliance or the earlier planned strike.)

This newspaper headline notes the details of what is now called the Lee County Massacre. (Arkansas Gazette, October 2, 1891)

Again, those in power responded with violence. Angry white mobs attacked the strikers, with fifteen black lives lost in the attacks and another nine imprisoned. Of the fifteen, nine had been captured by the mob from police custody and lynched. An Arkansas Gazette, headline from October 2, 1891, read, “Nine Negroes Lynched: The Lee County Trouble Settled With Rope.” One white plantation superintendent also died.

The Colored Alliance never recovered.

Brief Hopes of Interracial Cooperation

Around the same time, a union for white farmers called the Agricultural Wheel again raised hope of interracial cooperation.

Organized near Des Arc, Arkansas, in 1882, the group’s mission resembled many other farmers’ aid organizations at the time, including the Colored Alliance. It supported cooperative buying and selling, breaking up monopolies, establishing a railroad commission, and the education of the masses.

Acceptance of black farmers into the Wheel’s ranks varied from location to location. Black Wheelers had success organizing in St Francis County, Arkansas, despite violent retaliation, and in Tennessee and elsewhere black farmers started an entirely independent offshoot of their own called the Colored Agricultural Wheel.

Elsewhere, bigotry prevailed over class politics: Wheelers from states like Arkansas and Kentucky fought vehemently against the removal of the word “white” from the Agricultural Wheel’s requirements and bylaws that same year. In 1887, the Wheel merged with an organization called Brothers of Freedom that barred black farmers from membership and announced plans for a consolidation meeting with the Southern Alliance, which limited membership to “white persons over sixteen years old engaged in agriculture and related pursuits.”

This preamble to the Constitution for the Grand Agricultural Wheel of the State of Alabama lays out the largely white organization’s mission and vision for a united laboring class. (Southern Tenant Farmers’ Museum)

While any hope of organizational cooperation dissipated, in Arkansas, white Agricultural Wheel members (mostly former Democrats) and Colored Agricultural Wheel leaders (all erstwhile Republican Party supporters) joined forces to attack the Democratic ruling class with the short-lived Arkansas Union Labor Party. Although they only participated in two election cycles, in 1888 and 1890, the labor party’s victories marked the only time the state’s Democratic-dominated system faced serious opposition at the polls. Baptist minister G. W. Lowe, president of the Arkansas State Colored Agricultural Wheel, served in the state legislature in 1891, as did many other African Americans at the local level.

Ruling-class Democrats had seen enough. They passed laws to disfranchise Arkansas’s poor black and white voters in 1891, and in 1892, a new state poll tax sealed the deal. Southern elites elsewhere used the same formula. They were terrified of the organizing progress that the masses had made, even if on slightly separate and somewhat segregated trajectories.

In a bid to decisively stamp out class politics and any whiff of cross-racial solidarity, those in power enacted Jim Crow laws to stifle any challenge to the plutocratic order. When laws were not enough, violence and intimidation at the polls and elsewhere helped keep poor workers divided and white supremacy strong.

Although violence against African Americans had been mounting in the years after Reconstruction, the 1890s saw new levels of racist terror and political oppression. Between 1890 and 1905, every single state in the South approved literacy and poll tax laws and officially segregated its public facilities. Lynchings became nightmarishly common. And organizing workers grew harder and harder.

Black Popular Struggles

Colored Alliance members were just one group of Southern black laborers who endured violence in those post-Reconstruction years. A group in South Carolina called the Co-operative Workers of America, which sought to eliminate the dependence of rural black workers on rural merchants and company stores, was hit with ferocious attacks in 1887. That same year, a strike organized by the Knights of Labor and black sugar plantation workers in Louisiana was met with deadly violence, with over sixty losing their lives in what would become known as the Thibodaux Massacre.

Women are shown cutting sugarcane in Louisiana around the same time period as the Thibodaux Massacre. (Library of Congress)

These violent acts were a brutal response to the economic, political, and social power that black citizens had managed to accumulate. Between Reconstruction and 1890, the total amount of land owned by African Americans tripled. Literacy and school enrollment expanded dramatically, and black Republicans won and held political seats across the South thanks in part to black voters.

Groups like the Colored Alliance and other black farmers’ collectives, while perhaps unsuccessful in their immediate goals, helped build opposition to plantation Democrats via third-party politics, chipped away at the oppressive agrarian economy, and served as a practice run for future moments of black and interracial farmer resistance, including the 1930s Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

Black populism may have been written out of the history books. But in its day, it was a mighty force.