Colored Farmers' Alliance
Colored Farmers' Alliance
United States 1886
Following the Civil War, some southern African Americans managed to acquire land and establish a degree of economic independence despite many obstacles. In response to Reconstruction Era economic crises, political disenfranchisement, and civil repression, African Americans organized distinctly black institutions including unions, towns, secret self-defense groups, mutual aid societies, businesses, and churches. The Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFA) was founded in Houston County, Texas, on 11 December 1886 to protect African American farmers in the South from falling commodity prices, rising farm costs, and high interest rates. The Southern Farmers' Alliance was founded for similar concerns but barred blacks from joining.
- 1866: The Winchester repeating rifle is introduced.
- 1871: Chicago fire causes 250 deaths and $196 million in damage.
- 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
- 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
- 1882: Agitation against English rule spreads throughout Ireland, culminating with the assassination of chief secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and permanent undersecretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. The leader of the nationalist movement is Charles Stewart Parnell, but the use of assassination and terrorism—which Parnell himself has disavowed—makes clear the fact that he does not control all nationalist groups.
- 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky-scraper.
- 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
- 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated.
- 1886: Apache chief Geronimo surrenders to U.S. forces.
- 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
- 1892: Bitter strikes in Australia lead to the closing of ports and mines.
- 1896: U.S. Supreme Court issues its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which establishes the "separate but equal" doctrine that will be used to justify segregation in the southern United States for the next half-century.
Event and Its Context
Because of a hostile environment created by white racial attitudes, the formation and development of the Colored Farmers' Alliance (CFA) remains somewhat cloaked in mystery despite its later large range of influence. Primary sources such as official records, correspondence, diaries, and newspaper articles regarding the membership, activities, and leadership of the CFA are scarce. Thus, information from diverse secondary sources provides much of the historical background of the CFA. Questions remain and have been debated by scholars as to whether the CFA operated as an independent organization or served as a useful political tool of its white leadership and appendage of the Southern Alliance (SA). In 1889 the CFA established the National Alliance, a weekly newspaper published in Houston, to educate its membership on basic farm-related issues.
To organize beyond the local level, the organization needed a conduit to white support for financial and political reasons. Richard Manning Humphrey, a white man, was elected general superintendent and served as official spokesman for the group. He served as liaison to the race-restricted SA. Less is known about J. J. Shuffer, who was elected president, and H. S. Spencer, who was elected secretary, except that both were black farmers who owned small tracts of land in east Texas.
Many African Americans who joined the CFA previously had been active in the Knights of Labor or the Grange or the Agricultural Wheel, which were all agricultural unions in the South. Membership of the CFA was set at over a million by Appleton's Annual Cyclopedia. The National Colored Alliance, a rival of the CFA led by Andrew J. Carouthers, was founded in Texas at about the same time. The two unions merged in 1890. In 1891 Humphrey estimated the membership at 1.2 million, including 300,000 females, 150,000 males under 21 years of age, and 750,000 adult males. Because of its large membership in every southern state, the CFA became the largest black organization in nineteenth-century America.
Goals of the CFA
Because black farmers suffered from crop liens and the whims of furnishing merchants as much as white farmers, they desired to finance their crops with fair loan terms, to obtain more flexible currency, to benefit from higher commodity prices, and to put an end to spiraling freight rates, among other populist goals. To reach these goals, the CFA created exchanges in the ports of Charleston, North Carolina; Houston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Norfolk, Virginia. Members used the exchanges to buy goods at reduced prices and to obtain loans with which to pay off their mortgages. In this way, the CFA steered black farmers toward a conservative philosophy that encouraged its membership to own their own homes and to pay off debt. Members were also urged to uplift themselves with hard work, sacrifice, and education, a philosophy shared by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the twentieth century. The CFA solicited funds to help sick and disabled members, to provide for longer public school terms, and to found a few academies. Representatives of the CFA convened in St. Louis, Missouri, in December 1889; in Ocala, Florida, in December 1890; and in Cincinnati, Ohio, in May 1891 to resolve internal policies and political issues.
Points of Agreement with the Southern Alliance
The CFA offered support to and received it in kind from the SA on several issues. This support developed more in the interest of political expediency on the part of whites and for survival on the part of African Americans. Both groups advocated the abolition of the Louisiana Lottery, fearing that it would lead farmers further into debt. In 1889 both groups opposed the Conger Lard Bill, which was supported by the Northern Alliance. This bill sought to impose high taxes and strict regulations on the production of vegetable oil over those imposed on the production of animal fats that favored by the Northern Alliance, whose members were mainly dairy farmers. The two Alliances created cooperative business ventures such as the stores and exchanges to foster economic ties between the two organizations. Both groups called for identical reforms including the abolition of national banks, the expansion of currency, and government ownership of railroads. In 1890 the CFA supported the SA's subtreasury plan in the hope that the plan would provide low interest loans for farmers and higher prices for agricultural produce.
Points of Disagreement with the Southern Alliance
Despite having many of the same political and economic interests, the fact remained that members of the SA were still part of the larger white society intent on oppression of all African Americans regardless of their individual economic and occupational status. On several occasions, the SA worked openly for policies that subjugated blacks so as to control their economic and political power.
In 1889 the Georgia chapter of the SA ordered that no land be leased to blacks. SA members preferred that African Americans work for white farmers. Henry Cabot Lodge sponsored the Election Bill, also known as the "Force Bill," which promised federal protection of the voting rights of blacks. The CFA backed the Election Bill in a resolution passed at its 1890 convention in Ocala, while the SA condemned the bill in its publication the National Economist and in the Progressive Farmer, a North Carolina newspaper. Humphrey, the white spokesperson for the CFA, also opposed the Election Bill. His opposition revealed a significant disconnect with the black members of the CFA.
The SA membership included mostly cotton farmers and landowners, whereas the CFA was composed mostly of cotton pickers and landless tenants. This difference came to the fore when the CFA attempted a cotton pickers' strike in 1891 to demand a minimum wage of $1 per 100 pounds of picked cotton. Conflict over the strike brewed within the CFA because of the fact that Humphrey promoted the strike without proper contingency plans while the black leaders of the organization—Andrew A. Carouthers of the Texas CFA and E. S. Richardson of the Georgia CFA—opposed the strike based on a clearer prediction of the outcome. The SA opposed the strike and denounced the strikers in the National Economist. Further, even though the strike was a half-hearted attempt that reflected the apathy and fear of black farm workers, it was suppressed by white violence and intimidation. Of 15 strikers in Arkansas who were killed, nine were lynched.
Impact on Politics
The SA comprised mostly members of the Democratic Party, which had a major platform of white supremacy at that time. Most African Americans were therefore members of the Republican Party. However, dissatisfaction with both major political parties created a desire for a third party by the membership in both Alliances. This desire was driven by the by the CFA membership's disillusionment with the concept of economic and self-help policies. For this reason, the members viewed politics as another avenue for reform. The CFA's call for a third party and its support of radical reform programs caused black Republicans to oppose the efforts of the CFA to organize blacks as a voting bloc. Black populists posed a threat to the political power of black Republicans by drawing black votes away to a populist agenda.
Despite the intraracial opposition, the CFA served as the primary network for the recruitment and development of black populists in the People's Party that was unofficially formed in 1891 and discussed at the Cincinnati convention in May of the same year. The official founding meeting of the People's Party took place in St. Louis in February 1892, where 97 seats were available for representatives of the CFA. The most successful third party in the 1890s, its membership was mostly industrial and included agrarian-based organizations including the Northern, Southern, and Colored Alliances, Knights of Labor, Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association, and the Union Labor Party. The People's Party won a number of state government seats in the South between 1892 and 1896.
Reasons for the Decline of the CFA
The decline of the CFA occurred for several reasons, among them the failure of members to pay dues. The majority of views fall along general themes of some internal conflict among leadership and much external conflict stemming from those who viewed the assertiveness of the CFA as aggression. As the CFA continued to assert itself and gain strength, the resistance and hostility of southern whites also became stronger. Despite the importance of cooperation between white and black farmers to promote progressive change, racism proved to be a consistently divisive and destructive issue. Although white Populists supported the use of the federal machinery to protect the general interests of agrarians, particularly members of the Southern Alliance, these same Populists were vehemently opposed to the use of the same federal machinery to protect the voting rights of black members of the CFA.
When the CFA attempted to change policies or to encourage economic self-determination among its membership, whites in the rural South responded with persistent, determined, and violent opposition and racism. The unsuccessful 1891 cotton pickers' strike marked the beginning of the decline of the CFA due to overwhelmingly violent opposition by white agrarians. By 1892, the CFA appeared finished and unable to recover from internal differences and external terrorism. A more conservative farm club, the Farmers' Improvement Society of Texas, founded in 1890, managed to survive through the first half of the twentieth century by sticking to the original goals of the CFA: adopting improved farming methods and acquiring ownership of their homes. The expansion of the platform of the CFA beyond the self-help philosophy to challenge the entrenched southern caste system contributed to its demise.
During the decline, disenfranchisement of blacks, the enactment of "Jim Crow" legislation, and massive violence and terrorism against blacks escalated. Ultimately, conflicts stemming from efforts by whites to keep blacks in economic and political subjugation contributed not only to the dissolution of the CFA, but to the dissolution of the Populist movement as well. The emphasis of the Populist platform was on land-owning farmers that were threatened by eastern capital. Little attention focused on the needs of landless black farm workers who were caught in the cycle of sharecropping. The tradition of black agrarian radicalism was revived somewhat in the 1930s with the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, as well as the National Sharecroppers Fund and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Humphrey, Richard Manning (1836-1906): Humphrey was a Confederate captain of Irish descent from Clarendon County, South Carolina, who later lived in Lovelady, Texas. He was a schoolteacher and Baptist minister. He sought government office as a member of the Union Labor Party and ran for Congress as a Republican. Humphrey was elected superintendent of the Colored Farmers' Alliance (CFA) and served as the organization's national spokesman.
Shuffer, J. J.: African American landowner in east Texas, in July 1888 Shuffer ordered the establishment of a network of cooperative exchanges in Houston; New Orleans; Mobile; Charleston; and Norfolk. Shuffer was elected president of the CFA.
Spencer, H. J.: African American landowner in east Texas, Spencer served as secretary of the CFA.
See also: People's Party.
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