Black Patch War
Black Patch War
The Black Patch War began in 1904 in the western regions of Kentucky and Tennessee. This area was known as the Black Patch because it produced so much dark-fired tobacco, which was used primarily in the production of snuff and chewing tobacco. Confronted by the dual specter of prices below the cost of production and the monopolistic American Tobacco Company (ATC), growers in the region organized into the Planters' Protective Association (PPA), led by the attorney John Foster, the wealthy grower Felix Ewing, and Joel and Charles Fort. The PPA's goal, taking its cues from the earlier Farmers' Alliance efforts, was to organize growers into marketing cooperatives, enabling growers to sell their crops in bulk and affording them greater leverage when confronting the ATC. Beginning in 1904, PPA recruiters attempted to enlist area growers and found their task formidable.
The PPA was successful in enlisting nearly one-third of the area growers in their cooperative, but the ATC responded by offering higher prices to those who refused to join. Frustrated and desperate farmers took matters in their own hands and began a vigilante campaign against the company and those growers who refused to join the PPA. From 1905 to 1909, armed bands of so-called night riders plagued the region, burning tobacco barns and warehouses and shooting into the homes of noncompliant farmers and African Americans in an attempt to scare them away, a tactic known as whitecapping. Company buyers and warehousemen also were targets in an effort to persuade them to purchase from the cooperative. Livelihoods and lives were destroyed in the process.
In 1907 one of the most dramatic moments of the conflict occurred when armed riders invaded Hopkinsville, Kentucky, setting fire to major tobacco warehouses. The governor of Kentucky and even President Theodore Roosevelt became involved. State militia brought to the region to restore order could do little to stop what amounted to guerilla warfare by local growers who felt they were defending their way of life against corporate encroachment.
Leaders of the PPA, meanwhile, disavowed the growing violence, but knew that their cause actually benefited from the actions of the night riders. Yet PPA members soon grew angry with Ewing and the PPA itself, which they regarded as too authoritarian. When growers learned that Ewing broke a PPA charter and paid himself a lucrative salary from the pool's proceeds, the PPA ceased being a democratic alternative to the designs of the ATC, and its popularity faded. The night riders, too, faded from view after 1909. By this time, dark tobacco had become primarily an export crop. Yet when World War I commenced and major foreign shipping lanes suddenly closed, the growers of the Black Patch had no markets left to which to ship their goods. Consequently, the PPA soon collapsed.
Besides burned barns and warehouses, broken tools, and some deaths, the remnants of the Black Patch War were felt for generations. Rifts between neighbors on opposite sides of the conflict remained. Perhaps more significantly, the position of farmers in 1904 had only worsened a decade later, and farmers saw their cooperative efforts fail. For succeeding generations, poverty and despair came to mark the life of the growers in the Black Patch. The war from 1904 to 1909 had been only a temporary interlude.
▌ TRACY CAMPBELL
Campbell, Tracy. The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Warren, Robert Penn. Night Rider. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939.
Wright, George. "Racial Violence in Kentucky." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
snuff a form of powdered tobacco, usually flavored, either sniffed into the nose or "dipped," packed between cheek and gum. Snuff was popular in the eighteenth century but had faded to obscurity by the twentieth century.
monopoly a marketing environment in which one vendor has exclusive control of a product. Monopolies suppress competition and fix prices.
cooperative a member-owned organization for buying or selling as a group rather than as individuals. In the early twentieth century, tobacco growers in several states attempted to form cooperatives to raise prices of leaf tobacco.
guerilla warfare usually small groups of volunteer soldiers, often operating behind enemy lines, who carry out small-scale raids and surprise attacks.
authoritarian demanding unconditional obedience; dictatorial.