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

This paper begins to explore some of the key secondary literature, and some of the primary literature, on the Colored Farmers Alliance and its role in the Populist movement. Included in my review are brief descriptions of articles and essays from academic journals, monographs, newspapers, master's theses, and doctoral dissertations which either focus on the Colored Farmers Alliance or contain significant portions in which key players and activities of this organization are discussed.

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

Despite the enormous membership of the Colored Farmers Alliance, its existence, let alone history, continues to be relatively unknown among historians and students of history. Herbert Aptheker, the great historian of the African-American experience, suggested to Race and Reason in 1994 that a revisionist treatment of the Populist movement from the perspective of the Colored Farmers Alliance was one of two key areas in African-American history which needed further exploration (the other being a multi-volume study of racism and the U.S. Presidency). Charles B. Dew in his "Critical Essay on Recent Works" in the 1995 edition of C. Vann Woodward's classic Origins of the New South 1877-1913, states that the Colored Farmers Alliance has been "almost totally neglected" (p.542). To date, there are only a handful of studies which discuss this organization.

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.

However, in 1896 the People's Party began to lose momentum as a result of having made a decision to place all of their political support behind the Democratic Party presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. Overriding the voices of key African-American leadership who emerged out of the Colored Farmers Alliance, the national leadership of the People's Party, all of whom were white males, abandoned their movement's greatest asset: political independence.

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.

For instance, beginning in 1890, when Mississippi held a new constitutional convention, and continuing through 1908, when Georgia amended its constitution, every state of the former Confederacy moved to disfranchise African-Americans. Because the U.S. Constitution forbade outright racial discrimination, the Southern states excluded Black men by requiring that potential voters be able to read or to interpret any section of the Constitution -- a requirement that local registrars waived for whites but insisted upon when African-Americans wanted to vote. Louisiana added the "grandfather clause" to its constitution, which exempted from this literacy test all of those who had been entitled to vote on January 1, 1867 -- i.e., before Congress imposed Black suffrage upon the South -- together with their sons and grandsons. Other states imposed stringent property qualifications for voting or enacted complex poll taxes.

Therefore, the capitulation of the leadership of the People's Party to the Democratic Party in the 1896 presidential election in the midst of such widespread disenfranchisement of Black men definitively brought about the collapse of Populism by the close of the 19th century.5

Issues and Problems in the Historiography

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 literature falls into two camps in response to these questions. The first, and dominant view (see for example Gaither 1972 below), holds that the Colored Farmers Alliance was merely a practical offshoot of, and a pragmatic tool for the Southern Alliance, and that Black and white indpendent coalitions could never work while African-Americans were denied full political participation in the movement. That is, while Blacks were needed by the Populist Movement for their votes, they were excluded from holding significant offices within the movement and were regularly denied from siting on juries to running for offices.

The second view (see for example Goodwyn 1976 below) tells a different story. While not disagreeing with the first camp in terms of the limits of a political movement based on the unequal treatment of a significant portion of its members, this second camp more positively points to examples where African-Americans provided independent leadership to their organization and worked successfully in coalitions with whites to further their collective ends.

So, why has this, the largest organization of African-Americans in the 19th century, not been given greater attention in the historiography of the American South? Could it simply be the case that the dearth of primary literature (i.e. correspondence, diaries, newspaper articles, and official records) has dissuaded researchers from studying this area of history? Could the general failure of the Populist movement -- unlike other mass movements in African-American history, such as the earlier Abolitionist movement or, later, the Civil Rights movement -- have driven scholars away from exploring the role of African-Americans in that movement? How have the earliest studies on the Populist movement (like Hicks, Hofstader, et al.) shaped the intellectual dialogue on local studies in that movement, and therefore lesser known sides of the movement such as the Colored Farmers Alliance? What other issues, not yet mentioned, have left the history of the Colored Farmers Alliance relatively under-investigated?

The Colored Farmers Alliance -- Structure, Activities, and Leadership

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

In 1890, Humphrey made the following claims of State membership in an interview:


Like other farm clubs of the late nineteenth century, the Colored Farmers Alliance was in many respects a conservative organization which urged its members simply to practice better farming methods, to acquire their homes, and to improve their level of education. In 1886 the Texas Colored Farmers Alliance declared in their statement of principles that their aim was:

"(a) To promote agriculture and horticulture; (b) To educate the agricultural classes in the science of economic government, in a strictly non-partisan spirit, and to bring about a more perfect union of said classes; (c) To develop a better state mentally, morally, socially, and financially; (d) To create a better understanding for sustaining our civil officers in maintaining law and order; (e) To constantly strive to secure entire harmony and good will to all mankind, and brother lover among ourselves; (f) To suppress personal, local sectional, and national prejudices, and all unhealthful rivalry and selfish ambition; (g) To aid its members to become more skillful and efficient workers, promote their general intelligence, elevate their character, protect their individual rights; the raising of funds for the benefit of sick or disabled members, or their distressed families; the forming a closer union among all colored people who may be eligible to membership in this association."

Similarly, the "Declaration of Purposes of the Colored Farmer's National Alliance and Cooperative Union of the United States" states "the object of this corporation shall be to elevate the colored people of the United States ... to labor more earnestly for the education of themselves and their children, especially in agricultural pursuits ... to be more obedient to the civil law, and withdraw their attention from political [my emphasis] partisanship."7

Certainly there doesn't appear to have been anything in those goals that should have disturbed white farmers, for like many Black organizations of that era the Colored Farmers Alliance urged its members to "uplift" themselves by hard work and sacrifice. It essentially illustrated the philosophy that Booker T. Washington would soon make famous.8

Little detail is known about individual members of the Colored Farmers Alliance, including its leadership. We do know that a J.J. Shuffer was elected president and H.J. Spencer, Secretary, and that there were significant numbers of whites in other leadership positions of the organization.

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

The primary vehicle through which the Colored Farmers Alliance recruited and organized its members were through traveling speakers who went from plantation to plantation.

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:

For instance, both advocated the abolition of the Louisiana Lottery, fearing it might lead some farmers further into debt. By 1889 they also joined forces against the Northern Farmers' Alliance by opposing the Conger Lard Bill, a measure that attempted to impose high taxes and strict regulations on the production of vegetable oil. Northern Alliance members, many of whom were dairy farmers, supported the Conger Bill, but Southerners, both Black and white, wanted to buy vegetable oil at the lowest possible price. Finally, in 1890 the Colored Farmers Alliance supported the Southern Alliance's subtreasury plan in hopes that it would provide low interest loans for farmers as well as higher prices for agricultural produce.

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.

The Populist

Who were the Populists? Simply stated: Populists were Black and white farmers from the South and Midwest, both owners and tenants, who began by organizing into farmers' associations and ended up forming an independent third party, the People's Party, to advance their economic status. Their families had grown steadily into further debt throughout the latter part of the 19th century while Northeastern bankers, railroad owners, and industrialists steadily reaped enormous profits. This 'Gilded Age,' a term we now use to describe the era, was obviously far from golden for the American farmer.

What were their problems? Their problems read like a litany of grievances. Farmers had tied themselves to the production of single crops, such as cotton in the South and wheat in the Midwest, which was good if the price was high but led to many bankruptcies when the price was too low. There was a lack of currency. The growth of Big Business in the Northeast led to a scramble for available currency. With a short money supply, interest rates as high as 40% were being charged by Eastern loan companies causing as many as one-quarter of the farms in the Midwest to be run by tenants rather than owners. Moreover overvalued land resulted in over-assessed local and state taxes -- which had to be paid in the form of currency.

While Northeastern industry benefitted by the high tariffs of the era this ultimately burdened farmers. Low-priced produce, such as corn or wheat, was sold in a competitive world marketplace while high-priced manufactured goods, such as machinery and building materials, were protected in the home markets. Again, farmers lost out.

Farmers had to pay for the storage of their produce which reduced their profits. At times, railroads charged more in shipping fees than the produce was worth, sometimes making it cheaper to burn the grain as fuel than ship it to market.

Then there were natural disasters: Insect infestation destroyed millions of acres of crops -- grasshoppers in the Midwest, boll weevils in the South; flooding and soil erosion followed by cycles of drought plagued the trans-Mississippi West after 1886 and Western Kansas in 1887. In fact, at least half of Western Kansas migrated back to the East by 1891. Farmers in Kansas returning to the East had a saying: "In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted!12

Finally, while almost half of the population in the United States was engaged in farming by 1890, farmers remained poorly organized -- socially and culturally individualistic and independent.

What did the Populists want? On the most basic level, they wanted to earn a living on land of their own. Their explicit demands however included: an increase in the circulation of currency (to be achieved by the unlimited coinage of silver); a graduated income tax; government ownership of the railroads; a tariff for revenue only; the direct election of U.S. senators; and other measures designed to strengthen political democracy and give farmers economic parity with Northeastern businessmen and industry.

Under the dreaded crop-lien system, where creditors took over farms, farmers not only lost their property but as tenants they were often unable to make ends meet. Sharecropping, the other dominant (and oppressive) farming system, further helped to maintain a seemingly permanent Black and white peasantry in the South. Moreover, these two farming systems were marked by the convict lease system. Reminiscent of the days of slavery, scores of Black men were again chained in the fields, however now as leased labor from individual state prisons by plantation owners.13

Racism and its Consequences

While Black and white farmers shared many of the same economic burdens, systemic racism, and its consequences, however, distinguished the experience of all Black farmers from all white farmers.

With upwards of ninety percent of the African-American population at the end of the 19th century living in the South, Black men, now with suffrage guaranteed under the 14th and 15th Amendments, were sought out for their vote. The Republican Party had come to expect African-American votes, given the Democratic Party's openly racist appeals to the white community. Being part of a minor party, white Populists, seeing an opportunity to enhance their votes, naturally embraced the African-American vote.

However, the segregated nature of the Colored Farmers Alliance from the Southern and Northern Alliance may have helped to exacerbate the already fundamental racial divisions within that Southern society -- which explains, in part, how former white sympathizers (from Tom Watson on down) turned against the African-American community. Those pre-existing divisions were, moreover, further deepened through the legal disenfranchisement of African-American men. Thus, it can be easily argued that the Populist movement's inability to transcend their own racism may have been one of the fundamental reasons why it did not succeed.

Move to a Third Party

At the conclusion of the Ocala meetings of the Alliances in December, 1890, a call was issued for a convention to be held in Cincinnati on February 20, 1891, to discuss the issue of a third party. The convention date was later shifted to May 19, 1891. The organizations invited included the Northern Alliance, Southern Alliance, Colored Farmer's Alliance, Knights of Labor, Farmers' Mutual Benefit Association, and the Union Labor Party. 1,400 delegates listened to various speakers. It is reported that when some of the Southern white delegates sought to segregate Colored Farmers Alliance members, the convention defeated their motion by an overwhelming vote.14

The convention came out in support of a national third party. This decision was backed by all the Black delegates except E. A. Richardson of the Georgia Colored Farmers Alliance.15 The hesitancy of the Georgia delegation may have stemmed from the opposition (and intimidation) of the Southern Alliance of that state to any third party. On the whole, the interest of the Colored Farmers Alliance delegates in the independent political action is not surprising in view of the result in McIntosh County, Georgia, where voters sent a Black Republican and Alliance member, Lectured Crawford, to the State Assembly in 1890 and re-elected him in 1892.16

The activities of African-Americans in this formative period of the Populist movement is further indicated in the St. Louis convention of February, 1892. This convention had been called following a conference of the Alliance and sympathetic groups in Washington, D.C., in January, 1891. The call to the convention allotted 97 delegates for the Colored Farmers Alliance but seems that only a fraction of this number actually attended the meeting. Though few in number, the delegation included some of the most active members according to the press. Notably J.L. Moore of Florida, W.A. Patillo of North Carolina, E.A. Richardson of Georgia, H.D. Cassdall of Missouri, L.D. Larned of Louisiana, W. H. Warwick of Virginia, E.C. Cabel of Kansas and Virginia, and L.D. Laurent of Louisiana.17

Some of these men were known to have an active career of participation in politics and Alliance work. For instance, Patillo had been a Republican candidate for Register of Deeds in Oxford County, North Carolina, in 1886.18

Percentage of vote cast for Populist or Fusion Tickets19

1892 1894
Alabama 36.60 47.64 Florida 16.06 20.68 Georgia 19.17 44.46 Louisiana 5.30 43.68 (1896) Arkansas 8.07 19.31 Kentucky 6.92 4.73 (1895) Mississippi 19.42 26.99 (1895) Missouri 7.59 8.45 North Carolina 15.94 53.78 South Carolina 3.42 30.43 Tennessee 8.92 9.93 Texas 23.64 36.13 Virginia -- 28.60

African-American delegates lobbied and openly expressed their sentiments for the establishment of the People's Party. A white delegate, Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that "The most eloquent speeches were those of whites and blacks explaining to the convention what the rule of Democrats meant in the South. A delegate from Georgia, a coal black Negro, told how the People's Party alone gave full fellowship to his race ... The delegate, it is believed, may have been S. D. Walton who seconded Tom Watson's nomination for Vice President.20


It has been my aim to begin the process of writing a history of the Colored Farmers Alliance and their role in the Populist movement. There are, though, methodological questions which get raised in doing so -- the main one being how to write a history which gives expression to those about whom you are writing, a century and a culture removed, with little to no primary documentation from which to draw upon? The role of the historian turns into that of the archeologist.

In fact, how far have we come in writing a history of the American South in the final decades of the 19th century which illuminates the sentiments and describes the actions of those who actually made that history? Surely, we've come a ways in better understanding the significance of Black and white farmers in the events which have come to be known as the Populist movement through numerous pieces of scholarship -- such as the articles, monographs, and dissertations described in the preceding pages. But how have earlier attitudes and writings on African-Americans continued to shape our ways of seeing (or not seeing) the role of African-American farmers in the Populist movement? Closer to home, what role has the scholarship out of Columbia University played in shaping our understandings of Black people of the era being either capable or incapable of providing political leadership?

W.E.B. Du Bois exposed some of the scholarship at the turn of the century which openly argued racist views. One of the most glaring example of such scholarship was that of Columbia Professor of History, William A. Dunning. Du Bois writes that Dunning was deeply influenced by a growing group of young Southern students and began re-writing the history of the nation during Reconstruction in a more or less conscious opposition to the classic interpretations of New England. Dunning stated: "The claim that there is nothing in the color of the skin from the point of view of political ethics is a great sophism. A black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.21

Serious efforts have also been made to write histories of the late 19th century which focus upon the leadership role played by African-Americans. Among others, Jack Abromowitz and August Meir, whose invaluable works I've discussed and both of whom were trained as historians at Columbia, have written histories of the American South from the vantage point of the Black male farmer in the Colored Farmers Alliance. But what about the role of women -- a subject within the Colored Farmers Alliance which has almost been completely overlooked by all historians since the rise and fall of late 19th century Populism? What do we gain and what do we lose in the process of viewing history only through an organization's spokesmen -- official and otherwise -- which inevitably turn out to be men? What of the non-elected office holders in the Colored Farmers Alliance, the non-delegates to conventions, the non-committee chairmen? In other words, how did African-American women shape the organization?22 Can we reconstruct a multi-faceted history when what little we do have to work with is documentation on primarily the men of the Colored Farmers Alliance?23

Building on the above review of some of the key literature on the subject, the work in reconstructing a more multi-faceted history of the Colored Farmers Alliance, I believe, requires several levels of research: a thorough review of the available literature on the subject of the period, which means going through all of the pertinent secondary materials (including biographies, state studies, and other monographs and periodical articles), primary literature (including manuscript collections, government records, election returns, personal correspondence, and other newspaper articles), and perhaps even delving into the realm of music, poetry, and visual arts of the period as a way to extrapolate the roles that both men and women played in helping to shape the organization and Populism on the whole.24

Finally, a word on the significance of the Colored Farmers Alliance and its role in Populism. Eric Foner, in a recent lecture on the Civil War and Reconstruction quipped that American historians, such as himself, often believe (whether or not it's true) that the period they lecture on is the critical moment in U.S. history.

In the case of the Colored Farmers Alliance and Populists as a whole -- however righteous their cause -- boasting of the critical nature of their work on impacting upon the social, political, or economic policy of the nation in the late 19th century would be an act of self-delusion. Theirs was, after all, a failed movement.

At the time, Frederick Douglas, who was not unaware of the work of the Populists, did not deem this movement important enough to support politically. Shortly before passing away in 1895 he wrote: "We have a chance of getting a better man from the Republicans than from the Democrats or Populists.25 On the other hand, a young W.E.B. Du Bois, while initially not impressed by the Populists stated in 1896, I began now to believe (populism) ... was a third party movement of deep significance.26

What does seem of significance in the fact that African-Americans en masse created the Colored Farmers Alliance and then helped found the People's Party is how this history reveals yet another instance - contrary to Dunning's beliefs - where Black men and women created institutional vehicles to leverage greater political power in the midst of overwhelming forces against them - including the most horrific forms of physical violence, intimidation, and fraud increasingly sanctioned throughout the 1890's by individual state governments and communities in the South.

At the end of the day, not unlike the archeologist who seeks to unearth the artifacts of an ancient people and reconstruct their history through them, I see the task ahead of me as that of helping to give further expression to the history of a not-so-ancient, albeit not-so-known, people -- this one being the complex and fragmented story of the Colored Farmers Alliance in the Populist movement.