African Americans and Populism

People of African descent participated in the populist rebellion that erupted in the Virginia Colony in 1676. Africans, along with people of mixed race, marched with Nathaniel Bacon against the royal governor. These protestors exhibited a range of conditions of servitude from free to slave, evidence of the fluid nature of colonial law, which already linked status to race. They may have believed that they shared grievances with those with whom they marched, given their relatively isolated life on the periphery of the settlement, but they lost more as a consequence of their participation in Bacon's Rebellion than did the gentry. Reactions to this populist rebellion led to stricter regulations for indentured servants and free blacks and harsher punishment for slaves.

Slave revolts during the 1700s and early 1800s conveyed black frustration with ill treatment, often resulted from communication between white laborers (free and unfree) and black slaves, and could represent the radical populist fringe. More often, African Americans, slave and free alike, engaged in less risky collective action. By the American Revolution and throughout the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement, blacks used petitions to convey populist sentiment to elected representatives. Some formed independent black organizations such as the National Negro Convention, which convened in Philadelphia for the first time in 1830. Others, however, resorted to violent resistance or protest, and those incidents, more than petitioning or politicized organizing, captured the public's attention and generated the most backlash.

Diverse antislavery tactics indicated a lack of consensus among black abolitionists over the best activities to pursue. Some resisted the growing interest in political involvement because they believed that politicians reached solutions through compromise rather than problem solving and because securing the vote and campaigning for candidates would distract abolitionists from the moral dilemma at the heart of slavery. Independent political activity slowly gained advocates, however, because, as Omar H. Ali argues, “the balance-of-power voting strategy—that is, supporting individual candidates with antislavery sentiments to sway elections” could effect political change (Ali, In the Balance of Power, 32 ). Yet many remained disenchanted because they believed politics limited, rather than liberated, blacks. They remained committed to independent collective action under the auspices of social and benevolent societies, church organizations, and self-help initiatives.

The Republican Party transitioned rapidly from an independent movement involving enfranchised African Americans to the largest party in the nation and the party in which freedmen placed their trust after the war. Freedmen registered to vote and cast ballots for white and black Republican candidates after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. Just as rapidly, however, the Republican Party lost its leverage and will as Democrats regained control of state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, and Republicans became complicit in restricting liberty and denying equality on the basis of race. Thus, African Americans quickly had reason to become disillusioned with the party that had helped them secure their freedom and had involved them in democratic reform.

The failure of Reconstruction prompted many to reinvest in populist action. Conditions for blacks worsened as white southerners refused to extend the agrarian ideal of landownership to the mass of freedmen and banished most freedmen to neoslavery under the crop lien system. Moreover, many Americans experienced financial hardships as the Panic of 1873 deepened into an economic depression. Laissez-faire economic policy allowed corporations to operate with few regulations, and labor unions faced serious restrictions on their right to bargain and protect the interests of their members. Employee or labor relations worsened as a consequence. White and black Populists synchronously mobilized in response to the consolidation of wealth and power that restricted workers, including agricultural laborers’ rights and the personal liberty of small-scale landowners.

White Alliances published newspapers, too, and most extant evidence of black Alliance activity comes from these sources. Milton George, proponent of the Northern Alliance and editor of the Chicago-based Western Rural, took direct action by organizing a black Alliance in Prairie County, Arkansas, in 1882, even before the Sons of the Agricultural Star formed in neighboring Monroe County. About this time, white farmers in the county organized the Agricultural Wheel, and the Knights of Labor began organizing in the area later. Such appeals from the less overtly racist Northern Alliance could have diverted blacks from membership in the more radical Knights of Labor assemblies.

Nearly a decade later in 1891, the Southern Alliance newspaper, the National Economist, sounded self-serving and paternalistic when it called for white farmers to look out for the economic interest of black farmers and protect them from exploitation, an indication of the hardening of racial tension during the Populist movement. White opinion, however, did not reflect black thought or deed. Unjust white landlords exploited black agricultural laborers. African American activism indicated that blacks understood this situation and could make their own decisions about which organizations to join. Further, black political views ranged as broadly as did those held by whites, so conservative blacks sought nonpartisanship, moral suasion, and economic self-help, while others sought radical approaches associated with direct action and party politics.

The frantic pace of Populist organizing by African Americans in Texas indicated the interest in maintaining separate and independent organizations. The black Alliances emerged in the aftermath of the white alliance state convention in Cleburne, Texas, in August 1886. The Alliance took a controversial political stance at the convention in defiance of Democrats. A committee issued 17 demands known as the Cleburne Demands. Several conservative Alliance men, in defiance, created the Grand State [Farmers’] Alliance in the name of nonpartisanship and civic education. The Texas Alliance mediated the crisis and experienced unprecedented growth as a consequence, claiming 200,000 members in 3,000 suballiances by January 1887.

Any direct correlation between the white momentum and black formation has yet to be documented, but nonetheless, black Alliances formed in the midst of an actively Populist state. One, organized during October 1886 in Caldwell County, Texas, perhaps through the efforts of farm owners in the black settlement of St. John's Colony, carried the moniker Grand State Colored Alliance. Members reputedly invited white Farmers’ Alliance members to speak to their group. Another, the Consolidated Alliance, began in Lee County, Texas, during the fall of 1886, likely among freedmen previously enslaved by the family of Andrew J. Carothers, a farmer and son of a Confederate veteran. This Alliance expanded institutionally as the National Colored Alliance, and geographically into all other southern states by 1889. It claimed to have a membership of 250,000. A third Alliance began in December 1886 with the support of farm owners in the freedman community of Vistula in rural Houston County, 150 miles north of the city of Houston in east Texas. Members selected a white farmer, Richard M. Humphrey, a former Confederate with prior political experience in the Union Labor Party in Texas, as superintendent. Milton George's encouragement may have affected formation of this alliance, originally named the Alliance of Colored Farmers of Texas, but the members had experience with community formation and self-help independent of his influence.

One hundred forty miles separated the counties, but lecturers from both the Lee and Houston county alliances obviously competed for members far beyond the state. Thousands of suballiances, assemblies, and unions with tens of thousands of members existed across the South, partially because of the competitive expansion of the two Texas colored Alliances. By the time they merged into the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union of the United States (Colored Farmers’ Alliance) in early 1890, the pressure had exacerbated community tensions in the Texas counties, divided schools and churches, and exhausted members. How much of this reflected differences of opinion about political activism versus business reform remains to be explored. The Alliance membership based in Houston County had emphasized nonpartisanship, but the political stance of the Lee County Alliance has not been documented, nor has the economic philosophy of either Alliance been scrutinized, given the paucity of evidence.

Yet racial tensions marred Populist experiences despite Humphrey's positive reporting. Terse words captured the animus that existed between white and black Alliance members. “If white organizations shall positively prohibit the [admission] of colored men to its membership, colored organizations shall prohibit the admission of white men to membership”—so reported the Southern Alliance's National Economist on March 14, 1889 (Postel 42 ). As J. W. Carter, a black from Georgia who worked as a legislative spokesman for the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, argued, “You white people attend to your business and let us alone. . . . The politicians and lawyers say you must keep us Negroes down. But that is not right” (Gaither 63 ). During the fall of 1887 the Southern Alliance merged with the Agricultural Wheel and reimposed its “whites only” membership policy. The Colored State Agricultural Wheel in Arkansas then merged with the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in 1888, but as evidence of local determination, Colored Wheels in Tennessee remained independent.

Lack of trust existed among Colored Farmers’ Alliance members. Black members of the Georgia Colored Farmers’ Alliance considered Humphrey's manipulation of black intent relative to third-party formation at the Ocala meeting in late 1890 demeaning and a violation of the black members’ trust. Others grew frustrated with Humphrey's purportedly reprehensible tactics. His major white competitor among black Populists, Andrew Carothers of Texas, along with E. A. Richardson, the black superintendent of the Georgia Colored Alliance, questioned Humphrey's more radical methods, such as calling for a cotton strike, because Carothers and Richardson believed these tactics would create more racial conflict. Richardson went so far as to wonder “why [Humphrey] did not belong to the white people's Alliance instead of the colored Alliance” (Postel 180 ). Humphrey lost credibility after the 1891 cotton pickers’ strike failed.

Scholars have used the term “Black Populists” to identify these African Americans who participated in “democratic and decentralized opposition to the planter and business elite affiliated with the Democratic Party,” and one could add that the term also recognizes the willingness of African Americans to risk their security for citizens abandoned by their government and at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, landlords, and even elite members of their own race (Ali, In the Balance of Power, 74

Scholars have described Black Populists as independent decision makers, pawns of white agrarian organizers, and tokens of interracial cooperation. Without question, independent members made the Colored Farmers’ Alliance a formidable organization, but they could not withstand the backlash they endured because of controversial boycotts, labor strikes—specifically a national cotton-pickers strike in 1891—and disfranchisement. Some argue that Black Populists expressed a more communitarian view of landownership, advocating less for private ownership and more for access. Yet black landowners facilitated community development as their financial investment in land theoretically freed them from white oversight. Black tenants controlled more productive resources than sharecroppers, including draft stock, equipment, and family labor, and this gave them some economic leverage in negotiating contracts. Sharecroppers represented the epitome of powerlessness, dependent on landlords and more likely to incur their wrath if caught organizing. Despite the research done to date, some questions remain unanswered. Which class constituted the majority in the ranks of Black Populists—which defined the platform? Did the Colored Alliance's platform address the needs of the propertyless more than the property-owning class? Rural Black Populists who pursued wealth redistribution apparently wanted to break white landowners’ monopoly on tillable acreage rather than impose public ownership of land to benefit the propertyless. More research will explicate nuances of class conflict and their effect on Populist goals within the Colored Farmers’ Alliance specifically and among Black Populists generally.

Certainly the lessons learned by generations of African Americans sustained Populists through disfranchisement. Without independent decentralized resistance to the elite, often under the auspices of existing church groups and benevolent and fraternal societies, activists could never have sustained the civil rights movement. Individual action took the form of personal resistance, court cases that challenged the constitutionality of discriminatory legislation, and formation of organizations such as the Congress on Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council, and other more localized, less visible boycotts and sit-ins. What Steven Hahn has described as slaves’ politics mutated into Black Populist politics and then has sustained community organizers and civil rights activists to the present day.

Debra Ann Reid

See also: Agricultural Wheel ; Bacon's Rebellion ; Cleburne Platform (1886) ; Colored Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) ; George, Milton (1833–unknown) ; Granger Movement ; Pattillo, Walter Alexander (1850–1908) ; The Press and Populism ; Rayner, John (1850–1918) ; Texas, Populism in


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Sitton, Thad, and James H. Conrad. Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

U.S. Agriculture Census, 1880. . See especially the categories of tenure, farm size, production, value of land, stock numbers, and products.

U.S. Population Census, 1880. . See especially the categories of race, occupation, family structure, and literacy. Subscription is required, but manuscript versions are available in many libraries.