Precursors to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) were forming as early as 1886, many of them based on older secret agrarian societies. Known originally as Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and the Cooperative Union, the CFA grew out of black and white radical reaction to the exclusion of black farmers in the Southern Alliance.
In Lovelady, Texas, more than a dozen black farmers met on the farm of the white minister, farmer, and ex-Confederate officer R. M. Humphrey. They established the CFA on December 11, 1886, and elected J. J. Shuffer, a black farmer, president, though Humphrey was made general superintendent for the organization and remained its national spokesperson for the next two years. In short, the CFA, along with black churches, schools, and fraternal organizations, was at the very center of late-nineteenth-century self-help ideology and reform in the black community.
After the Civil War, African Americans set out to gain the economic independence and political rights that had been denied them under slavery. The questions surrounding freedwomen's and freedmen's access to property and their control over their own labor remained contentious and unresolved during the first generation of freedom.
For a few independent African American farmers in the South, economic and political organizing faced challenges from the growing inflexibility of segregation. Disfranchisement of southern African Americans, orchestrated through measures including literacy tests and grandfather clauses, chipped away at black voting power over the next decade. In addition, southern Democrats stripped black and some white voters of their rights to forestall collaboration between the People's and Republican parties. The formation of Alliances of farmers and farm workers put into motion a series of strategies designed to resist plummeting agricultural prices, higher railroad rates, and inaccessible credit. Black farmers’ and workers’ organizations developed alongside other key community institutions to protect civil and economic rights during the late nineteenth century. Despite dwindling support for black farmers, African American elected officials were still overwhelmingly drawn from black farming more than any other occupation. Ultimately, African Americans were abandoned in their efforts but not before they had created an impressive network of grassroots organizations.
Within in a short period of time the CFA had spread from Texas to nearly every other state in the South. Drawing on the energies of more than 1 million members, both women and men, the CFA took on the outlines of something even more transformative than an agrarian collective. Actual membership numbers are difficult to ascertain because black Alliance lecturers circulated in the South covertly, not wanting to draw unwelcome attention to black and interracial agrarian organizing. Several prominent African American Alliance leaders emerged in several states: in Alabama, Frank Davis, J. S. Jackson, and J. F. Washington; in Georgia, J. W. Carter and E. S. Richardson; in Florida, J. L. Moore; in North Carolina, W. A. Patillo; in Virginia, William Warwick; in Texas, H. J. Spenser; in Mississippi, Joseph H. Powell; and in Louisiana, L. D. Laurent.
Black voting power in the South was effectively eliminated by the 1880s; however, white voters began to divide along class lines as the rise of the New South further depressed the economic conditions for poor farmers, black and white. The People's Party attempted to protect black voters in the South in an ill-fated coalition of black and white farmers. In retaliation the Democratic Party allied temporarily with the People's Party, attempting to push African Americans out of the southern Populist movement or to force them to vote the Democratic ticket. Occasionally the interracial efforts of black and white farmers bore political fruit, but they were always met with a violent backlash.
Against the backdrop of regional change for African Americans, violence and other forms of oppression continued to curtail the progress of black farmers. In 1892, a record 226 lynchings in the South and Southwest claimed mostly African American lives. The period that would become known as the nadir in African American history was marked by lynchings, disfranchisement, and economic displacement of poor blacks.
The year 1892 was also the year the Democratic Party in the South mobilized to corner the black vote by any means at its disposal. Alarmed by the growth of the CFA, white southern Democrats used various forms of persuasion, promises, and violence to gain votes among African Americans. Jim Crow legislation negated the citizenship rights of African Americans as well as their ability to cooperate and organize with other poor farmers and workers. However, the People's Party, with the leadership of John B. Rayner and other black Populists, persuaded many black farmers that a third political party offered the best hope for farmers’ aspirations. In the end the ballot was withheld from the majority of black citizenry, while the CFA continued to provide some means of political organizing, however cloaked in self-protective secrecy.
Notwithstanding the considerable external pressures, internal divisions were equally to blame for the CFA's demise. Conflicts of interest arose as it became apparent that landowning blacks and landless blacks disagreed on the most pertinent issues facing black farming life. Saddled with debt and no property left black sharecroppers at odds with black landowners. As cotton pickers’ strikes rippled through the Belt in the 1880s and 1890s, struggles over wages and working conditions dominated the lives of black sharecroppers living at subsistence levels. By 1892, the CFA was sufficiently weakened by numerous internal and external factors to the point that white contingents in the Alliance and both major political parties had effectively silenced the organization.
Robin Dearmon Muhammad
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Democratic Party ; Pattillo, Walter Alexander (1850–1908) ; People's Party ; Railroads ; Rayner, John (1850–1918) ; Wells, Ida B. (1862–1931)
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