Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Standing Guard at the Door of Liberty: Black Populism in South Carolina, 1886-1895

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Standing Guard at the Door of Liberty: Black Populism in South Carolina, 1886-1895

Article excerpt

BLACK POPULISM-THE MOVEMENT OF AFRICAN AMERICAN farmers, sharecroppers, and agrarian workers that paralleled the white Populist movement in the late nineteenth century-took initial form in South Carolina in 1886 with the creation of the Cooperative Workers of America (CWA).1 The spread of the CWA, followed by the establishment of the Colored Farmers Alliance (CFA) and the subsequent election of George Washington Murray, an insurgent CFA black leader to Congress via the Republican party, provides a glimpse into the development of the movement in the two decades following the collapse of Reconstruction and before the consolidation of legal disfranchisement and segregation of African Americans under Jim Crow.

Within the larger continuity of black organizing in the nineteenth century, the CWA may be viewed as one in a series of sequential and overlapping civic and religious organizations created by African Americans. Following the Civil War, these organizations included black Baptist and Methodist churches, Union Leagues, black fraternal orders, and mutual benefit societies. Independent institution-building continued in the years following Reconstruction with the formation of the Colored Agricultural Wheels, the Knights of Labor, the CWA, and the CFA. These organizations, in addition to the vital role of black families and their immediate communities, served multiple functions. Most importantly, they provided African Americans the necessary vehicles and social space to more freely communicate, pool economic resources, and train new leadership.

The organizing process linking the southern branch of the Knights of Labor-which by 1886 had become de facto a black organization as it spread into the South-and the CFA, through the work of the CWA, may be traced through the actions of its local leaders in South Carolina: Sherman McCrary, Lee Minor, Hiram F. Hover, and C. J. Holloway.2 Within one year, the mantle of the CWA was taken up by the CFA, whose state lecturer, George Washington Murray, was elected to Congress as a Republican in 1892, propelling a dynamic black leader of the burgeoning independent movement into national office. Murray, who served as the last African American Congressman in the state until the modern civil rights era, would lead the fight against the Democratic party and black disfranchisement. By 1895 that fight was all but lost, as a constitutional convention was organized in South Carolina that rewrote the state's constitution to effectively eliminate African American access to the ballot. Over a decade before, however, black workers had begun to presciently organize themselves into locals which, among other things, called for reforms regarding the electoral process.


The CWA was born out of a northern union-organizing model grounded in the particular experiences of African Americans in the South. In 1885 Hiram Hover, a white labor organizer who had been speaking on behalf of the Knights of Labor in North Carolina's piedmont, broke from the national labor order. That year he moved to South Carolina to form the CWA, when his views had become too radical for the union's national and state leadership.3 The new organization focused primarily on the concerns of rural African Americans, specifically, issues of land reform, education, and the elimination of the poll tax. In 1886 the CWA, along with several other organizations in the South, helped give expression to Black Populism, which had begun to coalesce as an independent movement of black farmers, sharecroppers, and agrarian workers. Theirs would be a movement distinct from the white Populist movement, with its own separate leaders, tactics, and organizations.

As CWA historian Bruce Baker describes: "Around the 10th of February, Hover appeared in downtown Spartanburg, a growing cotton mill center, and spoke for two and a half hours to a crowd of [approximately] four hundred men, about three-quarters of whom were black. …

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