During the 1870s and 1880s American farmers created numerous national, state, and regional organizations to promote agricultural prosperity. Some organizations were self-help associations like the Grange (or Patrons of Husbandry), and some like the Greenback Party were openly political and advocated currency inflation to raise agricultural prices. The white and black farmers’ alliances were both. The political objectives of the alliances included currency inflation through resumption of the coinage of silver, regulation or even public ownership of railroads, regulation or abolition of national banks, direct election of United States senators, a graduated federal income tax, and political reforms to reduce what members of the alliances often characterized as corrupt close relationships between politicians, bankers, railroads, and big businesses such as fertilizer manufacturers and tobacco companies. They also promoted a subtreasury plan to have the federal government establish small banks throughout the country to lend money to farmers who put up their land or crops as collateral.
The Colored Farmers’ Alliance grew rapidly in the cotton-raising regions of the South. In the tobacco-growing region of Virginia, where the alliance apparently recruited most of its members, both African American and white farmers perceived the growth of large tobacco manufacturing firms like the American Tobacco Company as serious threats to their economic independence. The large firms attempted to control the prices they paid farmers for leaf tobacco and left farmers who refused to accept the low prices without any market. The farmers’ alliances established exchanges where farmers could purchase seed, fertilizer, and equipment at wholesale prices and try to form joint marketing agreements to deal with cotton buyers and tobacco manufacturing firms. One of the exchanges was in Norfolk, where a white alliance official, Joseph J. Rogers, managed it. Membership dues were $2.00 a year.
Leaders of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance tried to encourage farmers of both races to develop a class consciousness for united action. Richard M. Humphreys, a white clergyman from Texas and president of the national Colored Alliance, hired men or persuaded volunteers to act as organizers and lecturers to inform farm owners and agricultural laborers about the alliance and to recruit members. Organizational records of the national and state alliances do not survive to document the work of the organizers or to provide verification of membership claims. By the spring of 1890 Humphreys had secured the services of William H. Warwick to serve as state organizer and lecturer in Virginia. An African American about twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, Warwick lived in Boydton, in Mecklenburg County. By that October, according to one account, about 10,000 Virginia farmers had joined the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, and Rogers reported that Virginia had alliances in twenty-five counties.
Representatives from alliances in Nelson, Madison, Louisa, Isle of Wight, Fluvanna, Dinwiddie, Cumberland, Charlotte, Appomattox, Amherst, and Albemarle counties met with Warwick, Humphreys, and Rogers in the Henrico County courthouse on August 21 and 22, 1890, and founded the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union of Virginia. The Richmond Planet, the local African American newspaper, printed a full report on the alliance’s organizational meeting. “The object of the organization,” according to a different newspaper’saccount of the meeting, “is to create a market for what the farmers produce and to obtain at cheaper rates what they purchase. They expect to accomplish this by uniting together and establishing exchanges throughout the State at which they can buy and sell at wholesale prices.”
The delegates elected Rogers superintendent, or president, of the state alliance and director of the exchange in Norfolk. They appointed a state board of directors and elected Warwick organizer and lecturer for the states of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. Alliances included women as well as men, and on the second day of its organizational meeting the Virginia alliance proposed that the national constitution of the Colored Farmers’ Alliance be amended to require that women pay a twenty-five-cent initiation fee and ten cents quarterly dues. The Virginia meeting also named Warwick and two other men as the alliance’s representatives to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance annual meeting that December in Ocala, Florida, where the all-white Southern Farmers’ Alliance was also scheduled to meet.
The Southern Farmers’ Alliance had recently scored significant victories in several state elections in which Democrats endorsed the farmers’ proposals. Some of those Democrats also promoted racial segregation and discrimination and endorsed plans to disfranchise African American voters. Some very influential white Virginia Democrats also embraced some alliance proposals, but in the aftermath of the Readjuster movement they were openly hostile toward African American participation in politics. Leaders of the white Virginia Farmers’ Alliance were for the most part Democrats engaged in large-scale commercial agriculture, and they had little interest in poor African American farmers who for the most part owned or worked on small farms. White alliance men from Virginia did not even attend the convention of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance in Ocala. At the time of the two conferences, Humphreys denounced a bill then before Congress to protect African American voting rights. African American alliance members, including the men from Virginia, disillusioned with an indifferent Republican Party and opposed to cooperation with hostile Democrats, endorsed a radical proposal to create a third national political party to unite all advocates of agrarian reform.
1891 Convention and Demise
The Colored Farmers’ Alliance in Virginia apparently flourished during 1891, but few records survive to document the work of its leaders or the number of its members. By one unverified account it had enrolled 20,000 members in forty-two counties. The alliance held its second state convention in Richmond in August of that year. Rogers did not attend, and rumors circulated that he had absconded with the resources of the exchange and had failed to deliver goods alliance members had paid for. The delegates unanimously elected Warwick state superintendent in his place, giving the Virginia alliance for the first time exclusively African American management. The delegates also appointed a committee to investigate the exchange. The convention named two delegates and two alternates to the next national convention of the Colored Alliance, and Warwick announced that the weekly Boydton Midland Express would be the alliance’s official newspaper. No copies of the newspaper survive from the time to document the alliance’s work.
The convention also invited George Williams to address the delegates. He was president of the Virginia Industrial, Mercantile, and Building Association, an African American financial services company. The alliance and association agreed to cooperate for their mutual benefit. Before adjourning, the delegates adopted a resolution in effect declaring independence from the racially exclusive Virginia Farmers’ Alliance and the Democratic Party. Members of the Colored Alliance, it stated, “are beginning to realize that our salvation rests in neither of the old political parties and are no longer slaves to either, but are organizing to protect ourselves and thus free the toiling masses of our race from the deadly fangs of monopoly, and rings, and trust companies.”
Soon after the convention adjourned Humphrey and Rogers publicly attacked Warwick for taking over the presidency of the state alliance from Rogers. They demanded that alliance members send dues to them rather than to the new state officers. In effect, they withdrew support from the Virginia alliance, which ushered in the demise of the organization. Warwick had no access to the alliance’s membership list and could not collect dues. The exchange ceased functioning, and without support of the national organization the state alliance had to struggle along on its own. The Virginia Farmers’ Alliance offered no help other than printing an occasional news item about the Colored Alliance in its newspaper, the Richmond Virginia Sun.
Warwick published a long letter in the Virginia Sun in June 1892 to defend his actions and explained why the state convention unseated Rogers. He also announced that if necessary the Colored Alliance would pursue its own agenda. Black and white farmers shared the same economic problems, he explained, and “we are willing to act together with our white brethren and the people all over this country to bring about these reforms. We are one common people with a common interest in the same country, and we are here to stay. And no people better realize the need of unity of purpose and action to suppress the outrages perpetrated upon white and colored alike by class legislation, ballot-box stuffing, lynch law mobs, than the colored people. And we feel safe to say we voice the honest sentiment of every good and thinking colored man in this country when we say they stand ready to act with any party that will go to work to remedy these evils.”
Plans for a national third political party drew Warwick and some other state leaders away from state alliance business. Warwick attended and was elected assistant secretary of the conference in Saint Louis in February 1892 that founded the People’s, or Populist, Party. He also attended the national convention of the People’s Party in Omaha that summer when it nominated candidates for president and vice president. At that time Warwick criticized the Republican Party for taking votes of African Americans for granted and indicated his willingness to cooperate with any party that worked for the benefit of African American farmers.
African Americans did not participate meaningfully in the 1892 Virginia campaign of the People’s Party, not even Warwick. The party’s white leaders in Virginia did not welcome African Americans, and by the 1890s the General Assembly had made it increasingly difficult for African Americans to vote or to have their votes accurately recorded. So strong had been the backlash among opponents of the bi-racial Readjuster Party that political cooperation between the races, as occurred in neighboring North Carolina in the 1890s, was no longer possible in Virginia. By the end of 1892 the Colored Farmers’ Alliance had completely collapsed nationwide following violence in southern cotton fields. The Virginia alliance ceased to function, and Warwick moved across the state line to teach at Reedy Creek Institute in Littleton, North Carolina. He made an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for a seat in the North Carolina Senate later in the 1890s but then, like many other African Americans, gave up on politics and taught school in North Carolina for about forty years. During that decade white supremacists succeeded in driving African Americans almost entirely out of politics in Virginia.