C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South

This is the classic which has inspired much of the historiography of the American South. It is an extremely rich book which begins with the tail end of Reconstruction and gives an inspiring, albeit tragic, account of the Populist movement with insights into the complex relationship between the Colored Farmers Alliance and the Southern Alliance.

Herbert Aptheker, 'Populism and Strikes'
A Documentary History of the Negro People in the U.S. (Vol. 2)

This is a two-volume series of lesser-known documents of African-American history. The section ‘Populism and Strikes,’ provides extracts of articles, speeches, and organization records. The first is a brief extract from a speech by H.J. Spencer at a meeting of the Texas State Colored Alliance, held in Palestine in October, 1890. The second document [The National Alliance (Washington) March 7, 1891] comes from Rev. J.L. Moore of Crescent City, Florida, superintendent of the Putnam County Colored Farmer’s Alliance. It is descriptive of the proceedings at Ocala, Florida, in December, 1890, when the three Farmers’ organizations formed a united force anticipating the launching tow summers later of the People’s Populist Party. The third document [The National Economist (Washington) April 11, 1891] consists of a letter written in 1891 by Joseph H. Powell, state agent of the Mississippi Colored Alliance, placing his organization on record as opposing endorsement of the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator, the incumbent, J.Z. George, because of his anti-Black record - a position subsequently adopted by the Mississippi Alliance as a whole. Document four [Cleveland Gazette, September 26, 1891] is the fullest account seen of the demands made by the cotton-pickers strikers in 1891.

William F. Holmes, 'The Lefore County Massacre,' Phylon

Holmes gives a chilling account of how racial prejudice gave rise to violent oppression by white farmers against black farmers of the Colored Farmers Alliance in Leflore County, Mississippi. Holmes discusses how in early September, 1889 major American newspapers reported that hundreds of black farmers were massing against white farmers in Leflore County and that a race war might ensue. Within a few days, however, they reported that all was quiet: National Guardsmen had restored order, in the process killing five blacks. Many Mississippi newspapers denied that the troops killed anyone. At least two-dozens African-American farmers, it turns out, were probably killed. The troubles in Leflore County sprang largely from the attempts by African-Americans to improve themselves economically. In the summer of 1889, a Black farmer, Oliver Cromwell, began organizing chapters of the Colored Farmers Alliance, traveling from plantation to plantation. He urged Black farmers to join the Alliance and to stop trading with the local merchants and to do business with the Farmers’ Alliance co-operative store in Durant, a town thirty miles south of Leflore County located along the Illinois Central Railroad lines. Cromwell’s work alarmed Leflore County merchants, because it caused them to lose business and threatened their control over blacks, many of whom depended upon merchants for advances in credit and supplies.

Holmes concludes that so long as the Colored Farmers Alliance supported the programs of the Southern Alliance, many white farmers tolerated its existence. But when it tried to solve problems that contributed directly with the plight of Southern African-American farmers, it conflicted with the economic and racial policies of the white South. This was never more clearly illustrated than in Leflore County in 1889 when African-Americans pursued policies aimed at bettering their economic conditions and lessening their dependence upon whites. When that happened, white farmers within the Southern Alliance suppressed members of the Colored Farmers Alliance, and in that instance, by mass violence.

William Chaffe, 'The Negro and Populism: A Kansas Case Study,' Journal of Southern History

Historians studying Southern agrarianism in the late nineteenth century have taken issue with Woodward’s view that in the 1890's a form of biracial class consciousness infused Southern populism. Chafe’s study of black Populists in Kansas, shows for instance how blacks and whites in the Kansas Populist party differed in economic interests as well as in ideology. Note that both Robert Saunders and Charles Crowe have also confronted Woodward more directly in their respective studies of Southern populism in Georgia Populist leader Thomas E. Watson. For both Saunders and Crowe, the commitment of white Populists to the economic and racial interests of black farmers was tangential at best.

Lawrence C. Goodwyn, (Chapter 10), Democratic Promise

This is one of the most thoroughly documented account of the Populist movement that has been written to date. Chapter 10 gives an excellent sketch of the Colored Farmers Alliance. Goodwyn’s take is also probably the most optimistic account of the Populist movement and of biracial cooperation. The most striking example of such political cooperation at the local level is the story of Populism in Grimes County, Texas, which was the culmination of a Black-white coalition, based on intricate family alliances dating back to Reconstruction. The relationship between whites and blacks within Populism is symbolized by the fact that in Grimes County the Populist sheriff was black and one of his deputies was white, rather than vice versa. Successful in the county elections of 1896 and 1898, the biracial Populist coalition was brutally later repressed by the White Man’s Union using physical intimidation, terrorism, and murder to gain a landslide victory for white supremacy in 1900.

Herbert Shapiro, 'The Populist and the Negro: A Reconsideration,' The Making of Black America

He argues that Black men were not completely disfranchised in the southern states as a result of the restoration of white supremacy in the 1870's, and even African-American office holding survived in parts of the South until the opening of the twentieth century. Black political activity increased markedly during the early 1890's as a byproduct of the party strife between the Populists and the Democrats. Both sides, in bidding for political power, sought the votes of Black citizens. He discusses how African-Americans actively participated both in the agrarian movement of the 1880's and in the Populist Party that grew out of it. He cautions that there has been a tendency on the part of some recent scholars to view this participation as indicative of a genuine expression of feelings of inter-racial solidarity on the part of the white Populists. He is inclined to view the white Populists’s interest in the Black vote as rooted mainly in political expediency.

Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History

This is a controversial book which is accused of taking diverse and unrelated political figures and movements, from the 19th century Populists, to the American Federation of Labor, the prohibitionists, Father Coughlin, the C.I.O., postwar anti-communism, the New Left, George Wallace, and the New Right, and labels them all as “Populists.” The book is a linguistic taxonomy of terms and tones which the author consider “Populist.” Whether or not the overall thesis of the book can be supported, the early chapters which discuss the Populist Movement in the 1880's and 1890's contains a helpful synopses of some of the literature on the Colored Farmers Alliance.


National Economist (Washington, D.C.) 1890-1893
This is the official organ of the Southern Alliance. It was a weekly paper which quoted extensively from various grassroots Populist papers in a “reform press” section thereby providing a good insight into the diversity and racial attitudes within the region. Essentially anything that is taken from the Colored Farmers Alliance paper, the National Alliance ( of which there are no single copies which exist), comes from this weekly.

The Progressive Farmer (Raleigh, North Carolina) 1890-1895
Founded by L.L. Polk, president of the Southern Alliance, this weekly is of particular interest for its evaluation of of the South’s contributions to the agrarian movement. It also has valuable information by virtue of the fact that it expresses its opinions on African-American farmers in the South.

John Hicks, The Populist Revolt

Hick's description of the movement has been taken as a general guide to what happened, his pioneering work has influenced all subsequent interpretations irrespective of point of view. Unfortunately, since the Alliance cooperative movement was not seen by Hicks as the core experience of the agrarian revolt, his lengthy work on the shadow movement of free silver has had a crippling influence on subsequent scholarship.

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform

The idea of the shadow movement as the crux of the agrarian revolt governs both the most influential attack on Populism, and its most ardent defense, Norman Pollack’s The Populist Response to Industrial America. Of the two, Hofstadter’s study has been far more pervasive in its impact. Correctly finding the free silver argument of William Jennings Bryan and “Coin” Harvey to be superficial, Hofstadter persuasively indicts what he takes, on Hicksian terms, to be “Populism.” He strengthens his analysis through the creation of an elaborately crafted cultural category, which he styled “The Agrarian Myth”p.334.

William Gnatz, 'The Negro and the Populist Movement in the South,' M.A., University of Chicago

This is a case study of the Colored Farmers Alliance in Georgia. It is an excellent source for a detailed study of the events that preceded the Colored Farmers Alliance and the dynamics of the organization in that particular state. Much of the research he conducts is based on meticulous archival work.

V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics

He argues convincingly that the Southern delegation to Congress, and presumably other successful southern politicians as well, were more conservative than the general Southern public because lower income groups were relatively inactive in politics. The one party system, and the personal factionalism it bred, contributed to the lack of responsiveness of elected officials to the needs of their poorest constituents. Key’s major theme with regard to southern politics was that race, even after disenfranchisement, was the strongest factor affecting political behavior and, more significantly, that racial issues were raised and manipulated in order to mute class antagonisms that lay smoldering beneath the surface.

Gerald Gaither, Blacks and the Populist Revolt

His portrait is consistent with that of C. Vann Woodward in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Written in 1955, Woodward asserted that, “it is altogether probable that during the brief Populist upheaval of the nineties Negroes and native whites achieved a greater comity of mind and harmony of political purpose than ever before or sing in the South.” No scholar has claimed that the Populist were advocates of social equality between the races. Gaither is careful to point out that one of the major stumbling blocks to racial cooperation in the Populist movement was the differences in class interests between landless blacks and small land-holding whites. Theirs was a very pragmatic, or perhaps purely expedient, appeal for political cooperation based on the idea that poor whites and poor blacks had the same economic problems. “This was an equalitarianism of want and poverty,” Woodward writes, “the kinship of a common grievance and a common oppressor. As a Texas Populist expressed the new equalitarianism, ‘they are in the ditch just like we are.’”

Theodore Saloutos, Farmers Movements in the South

He argues that in 1882, the prevailing spirit of racial distrust, along with hostile barrage of propaganda, were probably the motivating factors that caused the (white) Alliance to restrict officially its membership to whites and to discourage strongly its membership from becoming involved in or endorsing any “distinct party” (p.72)

Jack Abromowitz, 'Accommodation and Militancy in Negro Life,' Ph.D., Columbia University

The files of the African-American press revealed to him that the agrarian and Populist movements were of far greater importance to the Southern regions than to the Midwest. Further research tended to strengthen this belief in terms of the numerical support coming from the South and the effect these movements had upon the social and political structure of the region. An electoral victory for Populist candidates in Kansas was a serious matter for the conservative forces, but a Populist-Republican coalition winning a victory in North Carolina was a veritable earthquake which threatened to topple the delicate structure of the not so 'Solid South.'

R. M. Humphrey, 'History of the Colored Farmer's National Alliance and Cooperative Union' The Farmer's Alliance History and Agricultural Digest (The Alliance Publishing Co., 1891)

This is the official history of the Colored Farmers Alliance which was written in 1891, perhaps at the zenith of the organization as a farming organization for African-Americans before its Black leadership rallied for the organization to support an independent third political party. This document is invaluable in that it is a primary document written by the organizations chief spokesperson and General Superintendent, R.M. Humphrey.