Colored Farmers' Alliance and Laborers' Union, Tennessee

This grassroots agrarian cooperative movement was founded in 1886 by sixteen African American farmers in Houston County, Texas, and spread rapidly across the South. Similar to the white Farmers' Alliance, the Colored Alliance advocated a program of uplift that promoted black education and agitated for better prices and market conditions.

C. D. Vaughan of Tipton County organized the first Colored Alliance in Tennessee in the spring of 1888. By June he had commissioned seventeen organizers in the county and more than forty statewide, even as he competed for members with the other grassroots farmer organization in the state, the Colored Wheel. W. A. Lewis, a black minister from Munford, served as the county business agent. Throughout the summer, as the organizing effort intensified, Vaughan advertised for one thousand organizers, either white or black. By December the Colored Alliance and the Colored Wheel counted a combined 421 lodges across West and Middle Tennessee. Whites recognized the need to include African American farmers in the demands for agrarian reform, and they encouraged the separate organization by granting column space in the state newspaper, The Weekly Toiler. In addition, the white organization extended to black farmers the right to make purchases through the state business agency, though they clearly expected the Colored Alliance to establish a separate business agency as soon as possible.

In June 1889 delegates from Shelby, Lincoln, Tipton, and Giles Counties met in Memphis to create a state Colored Alliance. National General Superintendent R. M. Humphrey, a white Baptist minister, was the featured speaker. The delegates elected J. W. Brown of Giles County as Tennessee general superintendent to replace Vaughan. They extended their appreciation to the Toiler for printing organizational news and pledged to support the business agency. When the state organization met again in Pulaski in August 1891, delegates reaffirmed their solidarity with white farmers.

Political and economic events of the early 1890s acted in conjunction to bring about the demise of the Colored Alliance in Tennessee. As the Farmers' Alliance became more active politically, the Democratic Party used associations between African American voters and the Republican Party to discredit the movement and generate hostility within the organization. In addition to the political tensions, in 1891, the Colored Alliance in the South organized a cotton pickers boycott to protest the collusion of planters and merchants to control wages and prices. Organization of the strike proceeded without the knowledge of white Alliance members, and without adequate coordination, the strike collapsed as black pickers struck in a piecemeal fashion over several days. Tennessee pickers did not strike, but planters, fearing the worst and concerned about losing the crop, raised wages for the season. In the long run, however, the proposed strike reinforced the political distrust and contributed to the demise of the Colored Alliance.

No further references to the Colored Alliance can be found in Tennessee after 1891. What many viewed as an opportunity to overcome racial tension and create a new political and economic future for white and black farmers ended with the reemergence of white paternalism and self-interest.

Suggested Reading

Gerald H. Gaither, Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the “New South” (1977) and “The Negro Alliance Movement in Tennessee, 1888-1891,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 27 (1973): 50-62

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  • Article Title Colored Farmers' Alliance and Laborers' Union, Tennessee
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018