MAKING FACTORIES WITHOUT WALLS
Industrialization of the world leads to the single crop, and the single crop to the industrialization of the farm. Build a factory community, and it will gradually make a factory of the farm as well—a factory without walls, but suffering many of the evils of factory life.1
One root of the process that led women into the tobacco and textile factories of Durham lay in the rural Carolina Piedmont (see Map 1). Farmers were becoming increasingly dominated by the expanding market for tobacco and cotton in the post–Civil War era. The resulting transformation in agriculture provided the tobacco and textile industries with both the raw materials and the human labor needed to run factories. The human consequences were considerable: the entanglement of a majority of rural inhabitants in the constricting net of tenancy and the movement of many people off the land. Of course, some women remained on the land, but, because tobacco culture was considered man’s work, women found fewer opportunities to stay. Durham, a city surrounded by tobacco fields, offered women a better chance to support themselves, especially if their country households lacked male labor. Although female members of tenant and farm laborers’ households were the most likely candidates for migration, entire families fled a cash-crop economy that threatened to submerge them in hopeless poverty. Some perceived the move as an opportunity. Black women, more likely to be farm laborers or sharecroppers than white women, saw migration to urban areas as a means to escape racial, gender, and economic subordination.
Farming families did not give up easily, however. Rising rates of tenancy and indebtedness led to popular insurgencies in the 1880s and 1890s against the concentration of wealth and power in the control of landlords, banks, and corporations. The industrial and landowning elites countered these protests with skillful appeals to white supremacist beliefs. After the failure of the movements to restore the security of the small farmer, forced migration from the land continued. As farm families became a landless rural proletariat, women became a part of the human flotsam flowing from field to factory.
Scholars have described this phenomenon, in its global form, as a process by which subsistence farming is “changed, by economic and political force, to plantation economies, mining areas, single-crop markets.”2 A new group of scholars has begun to examine the particular shape assumed by this transformation in the cotton economy. But similar developments occurred in the tobacco-growing areas of the Piedmont. There, too, the cash-crop economy expanded, and tenancy and sharecropping became the dominant forms of labor relations after the end of slavery. As in the cotton economy, this new biracial class of landless farmers heightened awareness of class divisions among white farmers, leading to the emergence of the populist movement as the voice of the yeoman class. But as white farmers faced declining expectations and as black farmers lost hope of owning land, competition for land, labor, and credit contributed to racial tensions. Ultimately, the appeals to racial solidarity in both the tobacco and cotton regions overwhelmed efforts to forge a class-based response to economic dislocation.
An analysis of developments in tobacco growing demonstrates how the agricultural crisis was linked to the expanding industrial economy. The effect on human lives is readily visible in the story of Durham, a New South city whose industrial growth depended on cheap cotton, cheap tobacco, and cheap labor—the products of an increasingly impoverished agricultural society. The examination of women’s participation in commercial agricultural and industrial growth in Durham reveals the significance of gender in molding economic relationships. The men and women who became a rural proletariat in the Durham hinterland (in a process similar to that of the Cotton South) entered new workplaces—but bore with them the heritage of the old.
▪ In the 1860s the northern counties of the Carolina Piedmont began to shift from a mixed economy of subsistence and market-oriented agriculture to an economy dominated by bright leaf tobacco, the variety best adapted to smoking. Farm tenancy became more common. The coming of the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) in 1854 to a spot designated as Durham’s Station, linking the area directly to tobacco markets in Virginia, gave impetus to this shift. Promoted by the largest local landowners, Duncan and Paul Carrington Cameron, the railroad eliminated the last major obstacle to the development of commercial agriculture.3 The widespread adoption of the flue-curing process, the discovery that light and relatively infertile sandy gray soils were suitable for growing bright tobacco, the dissemination of intricate techniques essential to bright tobacco culture, and now the construction of crude tobacco factories along the NCRR, all stimulated local farmers to produce the new crop.4 Other developments followed. In 1865–1866 the North Carolina legislature provided for a new system of farm credit; it passed a crop lien law that allowed a share of a future crop to be used as security for loans. Also, by marshalling their economic and political resources, the planters and landlords fashioned a legal framework for landlord-tenant relations that strengthened their control over a rural working class composed of former slaves and yeoman farmers.5 The rise of tobacco auctions and warehouses in Durham, sponsored by local manufacturers, enhanced the crop’s attraction to local farmers, who were eager to escape the area’s chronic poverty. Moreover, high prices paid for the cured leaf seemed to offer a way to pay for the labor of newly freed blacks.6 More and more farmers in the 1860s and 1870s believed that bright tobacco would become the agricultural equivalent of gold, a hope symbolized by the optimistic name coined for the region, the Golden Belt.
Less than two decades later, tobacco farmers, like cotton farmers in eastern North Carolina, discovered that their growing dependence on a market economy beyond their control had mortgaged their future. Surveys conducted by the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics from the late 1880s to the early 1900s revealed widespread disillusionment in the Golden Belt. According to a Chatham County farmer in 1887,
There is quite a depressed condition seen and felt on every hand among farmers on account of short crops and low prices. There is much unrest and dissatisfaction. I have been on a farm for more than fifty years and I have never seen so much desire for a change. Farmers are moving to towns, leaving very good farms to grow up untenanted.
A Granville farmer reported, “The notorious mortgage system so extensively practiced in other sections is beginning to infest this section. The farmers of this section (I am sorry to say) paid so much attention to the cultivation of bright tobacco for the past decades that education has been fearfully neglected.” Another farmer from Harnett County stated, “Labor is down, so is the farmer. The merchant is the prosperous man now. Half the farms are mortgaged to the commission merchants who charge 50 percent above cash prices.”7 A Person County farmer wrote in 1891,
Tobacco is our money crop, and since our products are priced before we plant, the future is quite gloomy. Before the American Tobacco Trust was organized [in 1890] we got much better prices, as we raise bright tobacco in this section; but now the price is just half. Farmers are gloomy and making no money. We hope to see the time when trusts and futures are to be no more.8
Other farmers shared his desperation and hope.
The same conditions that plagued tobacco farmers in the 1880s and early 1890s—tobacco prices hovering below ten cents a pound, heavy expenses for fertilizer and curing bright tobacco, and rates of interest ranging between 25 and 50 percent for purchased supplies—troubled farmers in the early twentieth century. Once-confident farmers discovered that prices like the 7.5 cents a pound paid for bright tobacco in 1904 translated into a loss of $2.50 per hundred pounds despite the four hundred hours of labor invested in each acre of tobacco. The rural population discovered that the chances of becoming landowners had diminished for farmers in their middle years, although older farmers had experienced some marginal improvements (see Table 1). The changing shape of the tenure ladder suggests that the cash-crop economy had fostered an upward shift from laborers to tenant farmers—while limiting any further upward mobility. Half the rural households, however, would never attain the greater prestige and independence associated with landholding status.9
Even owning land no longer guaranteed real security. Some landowners shared the feelings expressed by one Chatham County farmer in 1891: “When a man mortgages his property, he can’t help thinking about it, consequently, he can’t work like a free man.” Increasingly, tenants and owners alike feared that nearly all farmers were “mortgaged to a few merchants and capitalists,” that there were “too many middle men” pocketing the proceeds of their labor, and that the Yankees in charge of “the present financial system” were using their power to bleed Piedmont farmers dry.10 The rising levels of tenancy and indebtedness frustrated the expectations of white men who had hoped to assume an independent status as yeoman farmers. These farmers, who had optimistically begun planting bright leaf in the 1860s and 1870s, found themselves mired in an economy that mocked their hopes and snared their descendents.
Age and Tenure Status for Heads of Rural Households in Durham,* Person, and Granville Counties, 1880–1900
*Durham County was formed in 1881 from parts of Or ange and Wake County; sampled households for 1880 come from those parts of original counties later incorporated i nto Durham County.
SOURCES: 10th Census of the United States, 1880 (manuscript) Population and Agricultural Schedules; 12th Census of the United States, 1900 (manuscript) Population Schedules for the Counties Sampled, National Archives (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques).
For those who began the 1880s as farm laborers, incorporation into the tenant class was an improvement, offering relief from a life of unremitting toil and hopeless deprivation. Letters from North Carolina farm workers to the Journal of United Labor, the organ of the Knights of Labor, depicted the situation of most black farm laborers in the cotton-growing counties: “There are here common laborers who work steadily, yet the proceeds of their labor will not furnish bare necessities—luxuries are unknown.” A Knight from Orange County, which was a mixed cotton-, tobacco-, and corn-growing area, reported the prevailing wage rates: “Farm hands, $10 per month and from 40 to 50 cents per day; railroad section hands, 50 cents per day, and $13 per month; train hands, $20 to $30 per month; firemen, $20 to $30 per month; section master, $40 per month; cooks, $3 to $5; nurses, $1.50 to $3; house maids, $3 to $5 per month; carpenters, $1 to $1.50 per day; brick masons, $2 to $3 per day.”11 Because living expenses totalled about $220 a year for a family of five, only railway employees and construction workers (from the wage list just quoted) could hope to keep their families above the poverty line. Black Congressman George White’s testimony to the United States Industrial Commission in 1900 summed up the bleak conditions endured by his constituents in the cotton-growing counties of North Carolina’s Second District, which bordered on the Golden Belt:
A great many men are keeping families with a wife and four, five, six, or eight children, and they do not get over $10. But remember that the man is hired out, the wife is hired out, and every child is hired out, and the wife takes the babies along with her. A great many families live on less than $10 a month. The provision is very coarse but it is common food. It is usually corn, a little molasses and Western side meat. They live on the coarsest food, wear the coarsest-textured clothing. They can not do otherwise.12
The history of one generation in a white Wake County family illustrates the difficulties that faced even white farm laborers. Newly married in the 1870s, the young couple survived originally on the husband’s wages of $8 per month for farm labor and the wife’s occasional earnings of 25 cents per day for chopping or picking cotton. The wife took her young children into the fields so that she could continue to work. On Saturdays she took in washing to supplement the family income. Seven children reached working age, but the family never acquired tools, livestock, or land. After the children began to leave home, the ageing couple sank back into poverty.13 Whether black or white, farm laborers in the areas near Durham could afford only a life of grim privation that appeared to doom their children and destine the aged to nearly hopeless poverty.
The expansion of market-oriented agriculture in the tobacco-growing region was paradoxical; it simultaneously undermined the security of many landowners and enhanced the position of those able to rise from laboring to tenant status (see Table 2). Tobacco tenants gained greater control over their labor and its product than wage earners could attain. As in the Cotton Belt, tenancy was linked to the cash-crop economy. The rise of the predominantly black farm-laborer class into the tenant class represented a compromise between the intentions of agricultural employers and the desires of former slaves. The destruction in the 1870s of the protections offered small farmers and laborers under the 1868 constitution enacted by the Republican government placed blacks at a disadvantage in pursuing landownership. Potential employers, on the other hand, had to contend with the difficulties of paying laborers an attractive wage, of supervising reluctant workers, and of keeping labor available at the critical periods in the agricultural cycle. Tenancy seemed a way to avoid these problems. It saved employers the economic burden of paying wages, gave tenants a greater stake in production, and afforded the lucky tenant a chance to accumulate the capital needed to purchase land. An expanding group of black tenants joined a growing number of white tenants, and a few black households managed to acquire title to land.
Tenure Status by Race of Household Head in Rural Durham,* Person, and Granville Counties, 1880–1900
*Durham County was formed in 1881 from parts of Orange and Wake County; the sampled households come from those parts of the original counties later incorporated in Durham County.
SOURCES: 10th Census of the United States, 1880 (manuscript) Population and Agricultural Schedules; 12th Census of the United States, 1900 (manuscript) Population Schedules, for the Counties Sampled; National Archives (see Appendix for description of sampling techniques used).
Although some economic historians have argued the contrary, tenancy seems to have grown out of the imbalance of political, racial, and economic power between the poor and wealthy classes, not from a market-induced rationality. Indeed, by 1900, after the techniques of tobacco cultivation had been widely disseminated, farmowners and tenants seemed almost equal in productive efficiency (see Table 3). Certainly white tobacco farmers proved most efficient, even as their ranks were thinning and the number of tenants was rising. The comparisons among black farmers present a more ambiguous result, but the averages for output per acre do not suggest that economic efficiency was being rewarded. If black sharecroppers were more efficient farmers than black farmowners, why was the first group receiving the smallest share of its total product and the less efficient group the largest? While econometricians might insist that these comparisons disclose the superior ability of white managers and landowners in supervising black sharecroppers, a plausible explanation must also consider the quality of land available to white and black farmers; racial differentials in access to information, technology, and credit; and the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and human capital that contributed to the different levels of performance.14
While former laborers rejoiced at their rise to tenant status, residents of the tobacco regions who lost power complained. Agricultural employers resented losing an accustomed supply of cheap and dependent labor. As early as the 1870s, landowners began to grumble about the scarcity of farmhands and the weakening of controls that they had exercised over “the old slave negro.” By the late 1880s, the complaints were filling the pages of the surveys collected by the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black women’s confining their labor to the household or their own fields, a tendency discovered by other scholars of the post-emancipation South, appears to have contributed to the growing labor scarcity. This particular unwillingness of black women was noted by one Granville farmer in 1887: “Very few females engaged in farm work. They will not hire for regular work.” Twenty years later, another Granville farmer declared, “The negro as a laborer on our farms or as a servant in our homes is almost a thing of the past. In many localities it is difficult to get the washing done by the colored race.” Favoring immigration from Europe as a substitute for unavailable black labor, he explained, “We want a class of people we can control; then we are willing and want to pay them what is just and right for their service.” Unfortunately for disgruntled North Carolina employers, they could find no immigrant group to replace the black laborers who became tenants or abandoned the land.15
Tobacco Yields per Acre for Farmers by Race and Tenure Status, 1880–1900
*1880: Person, Durham, Granville Counties.
†1900: United States.
SOURCES: 10th Census of the United States, 1880 (manuscript) Population and Agricultural Schedules for Granville, Person, and Durham Counties (parts of Orange and Wake which became Durham in 1881); 1900 figures from Meyer Jacobstein, The Tobacco Industry in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1907), p. 67.
There is no need to exaggerate the gains of the tenant class. The conditions actually faced by many tenants explains the anger expressed by those unable to become yeoman farmers. Forced to borrow “furnishing” money at the beginning of the planting season, tenants paid exorbitant interest rates, purchased needed items at steep prices from the landlord and often sold their crop to their landlord at rates below the market price. Depending on the terms of their contracts, they received one-fourth, one-third, one-half, or three-fourths of the actual returns of their labor. When prices fell, their indebtedness rose. A correspondent from Rich Square in Northampton County described the situation faced by black tenant farmers in a letter published in the Journal of United Labor:
In spite of the good crops the tenant receives but a very small share of the results of his labor, frequently only $15 or $20, so that men with families, after working the entire year, are seldom free from debt. In other words, what the landlord does not get, the merchant under the mortgage system does, which leaves the man who toils from sunrise to sunset to raise the crops as poor as when he started.16
The story of the second generation in the Wake County family discussed above demonstrates the forces that controlled the tenant farmer, white or black. The children of the farm laborer began their adult lives in the 1890s, when the tenant system was displacing the wage-labor system in Wake County. One son, whose story was recorded, bargained for a one-horse crop—twenty acres of cotton and five acres of corn. Lacking draft animals and tools, he could do no better than farm “on thirds”; the landlord agreed to pay him one-third of the cotton and one-third of the corn. Because the entire farm was planted in cash crops, the family bought its food and clothing—meal, meat, flour, sugar, cloth, molasses, and shoes—on credit at the landlord’s store. Together the young couple made eighteen bales of cotton that year and received $206 for the six bales that comprised their share, plus twenty-five bushels of corn. After paying their debts, they kept $6. The next year the wife’s difficult first pregnancy kept her out of the fields, so their share amounted to less than their debts. When another landlord offered to assume the debt, they moved to a new farm. The family arranged to buy a mule on time so that it could take a bigger share of the crop, but the landlord insisted that all of the land be devoted to cotton. This required buying corn to feed the mule while paying off the debt, and in this fashion the family moved from farm to farm. The wife carried her babies into the fields so that she could work. When the oldest boy reached ten, old enough to plow, the father bought another mule on credit so that the family could cultivate thirty acres. After more children grew to working size, the father tried to buy land. When the crops failed one year, the family lost everything.17 Years of hard labor had brought this family to a precarious perch on the second rung of a tenure ladder that, for the vast majority of landless farmers, no longer led upward. Because the price of tobacco stayed higher than the price paid for cotton, conditions were marginally better for tobacco tenants than for cotton tenants, but all lived within severe constraints.
As in both generations of the Wake County family, women’s fates were tied to the well-being of the family economy. If their husbands enjoyed the opportunities bestowed by close kinship to landed families, patronage by merchants and bankers, a sufficient supply of sons to work in the fields, and favorable crop prices during their early years, women found their burdens eased. Women in landowning families could remove themselves from the fields because their children remained longer with their parents and thereby added to the family labor supply. When children were too young or the couple too old to farm, landowners could rent land to tenants, house other relatives to work in the fields, or hire laborers. Only a minority of families owned land, however. The painful ascent of the Wake County family from laboring to tenant status illustrates the unceasing labor of the women who carried their infants into the fields. Children in such families began their labors in early childhood, rapidly became full hands, and left their parents to establish their own tenant households. Early and frequent childbearing yielded the family’s major resource—labor power—but beleaguered tenant households could not retain their children past early adolescence. Gradually the parents lost their ability to rent and cultivate land as the family labor force shrank. Some families fragmented under the strains of tenant or laboring conditions; when that occurred, female households encountered even greater obstacles. Male labor was generally crucial for renting land and raising a profitable crop. Unless women belonged to the ranks of the landowning minority, widowhood or desertion forced them into dependency in a relative’s household, sent them into low-paying “public work,” or uprooted them from the land altogether.18
▪ Fearful and growing desperate in the 1880s, farmers responded to several organizations that offered hope for attaining more control over land and credit. Some farmers and farm laborers heeded the appeals of the Knights of Labor to join a biracial crusade pledged to end the exploitation of all members of the producing classes. The whites-only North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance recruited planters, yeomen, and tenants across the state. Later the Colored Farmers’ Alliance entered the state to help aspiring black landowners to advance their interests in association with their white counterparts. These organizations found the North Carolina Piedmont, where the expansion of the market was unsettling traditional social and economic relationships, a favorable environment for their recruiting efforts.19
While the organizations clearly attracted different (and sometimes antagonistic) class and racial constituencies, each offered its members rituals and goals that bound isolated rural folk to a common cause. A Tarboro Knight described a ceremonial march in which black members of the male Fidelity and female Rosebud Local Assemblies participated. Meeting at St. Stephan’s Colored Missionary Baptist Church, the Tarboro Knights heard an appeal to “be diligent in their duties, to be brotherly in their dealings with each other, to remember each other in the hour of need, and to discard forever the ways of traitors.” They were “encouraged to wait, watch, and work for the reward that is coming.” Like the Knights, the Farmers’ Alliances engaged the interest of their members through elaborate rituals called the “secret work,” but later submerged the fraternal elements in a public “movement culture” that included mass gatherings, camp meetings, and cooperative institutions. Gatherings like a Vance County picnic in October 1890 attracted 1,500 people from the area just north of Durham.20 The rhetoric in speeches and publications drew on the republican political heritage to criticize the millionaires, corporations, and trusts “in their insatiate greed” who had driven many laboring people and farmers into debt and wage slavery. Both movements argued that labor must evolve out of its “present condition in the wage-system into a co-operative system,” into “one great solidarity.” Each spoke for the “producing classes” who must strive collectively to create a “cooperative commonwealth.”21
The two organizations also strove to deal with the issues of gender and race. Race, the most immediate source of division among their potential supporters, elicited the most attention. Committed to the “abolition of distinctions maintained by creed and color,” Knights’ organizers tried to persuade their white North Carolina constituency to cooperate with black members. Believers in the “domestic moral order,” the Knights welcomed working women and the wives of members into the order, while endorsing the notion of a separate female sphere centered in the home. “Equal rights” in the Knights’ political vocabulary extended to women while still preserving their distinct roles as wives and mothers. The Farmers’ Alliance dealt less forthrightly with the racial issue. Like most whites, they wished to restrict blacks and whites “from anything but the most necessary and strictly controlled economic and social contact.” When the racist fears of white men called up visions of sexual contact between white women and black men, the combination became even more explosive. White women, however, could be welcomed into the segregated Alliance, where they were promised “equal privileges to the men.” The Alliance allowed women to join in discussion of the economic and political issues, taught them “all the secret words and signs,” encouraged them to find “constant, honorable, and remunerative employment,” and urged them to serve as the helpmates of their menfolk. Unlike the Knights, however, the Alliance evaded the more divisive issue of political rights for women. Perhaps its very commitment to the patriarchal family economy militated against woman suffrage. At one rally the Alliance lecturer refused to “invite” the women “to suffrage” although he acknowledged that some people were proposing that reform. At another gathering, the speaker warned women to “be contented in the sphere the Lord hath placed you in.”22 Yet the wholehearted endorsement of equal rights expressed by the Knights, and even the equivocal support offered by the Farmers’ Alliance, seemed radical threats to the conservative ideologies embraced by many southerners.
The Knights of Labor entered North Carolina committed to engaging all members of the producing classes. Only the idle and the corrupt were to be excluded. Beginning its campaign in 1885 in Raleigh and nearby Durham County, the Knights initially succeeded in attracting whites and blacks in rural and urban North Carolina. The order elected a master workman from Raleigh to the U.S. Congress in 1886, but the interracial alliance soon unraveled. A Knight in Oxford, just north of Durham, listed the tactics used by enemies to create “ill-feeling” against the order. “The disregard of the ‘color-line’ by the Richmond General Assembly and the partial success of the Republican party in our State last November was also used against us. They pointed at us with scorn, and kept crying ‘Nigger! Nigger!’ until the two words ‘Nigger’ and ‘Knights’ became synonymous terms.” Members reported to the Journal of United Labor that “the white people do not take to the Knighthood in these parts; but it is growing well among the colored folks.”23 As other correspondents made clear in the Journal and in letters to the Knights’ leadership, the Knights began drawing their members almost exclusively from a black rural constituency.24 Racist appeals, repeatedly invoked by white Democrats and other opponents of the Knights’ radical programs, discouraged white members.25 In the late 1880s, the Knights and the Alliance, ostensibly dedicated to a common defense of the producing classes, began to function as antagonists in the Piedmont despite efforts at cooperation on the national level.26
In May 1887 the National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union (the Southern Alliance) moved into Wake County. By August the Farmers’ Alliance organizer was marveling, “The farmers seem like unto ripe fruit—you can gather them by a gentle shake of the bush.”27 In October the Alliance held its first state-wide meeting, electing Leonidias L. Polk secretary. The Progressive Farmer, the journal edited by Polk, became the official newspaper. The new organization declared that it would admit all white farmers, farm laborers, mechanics, country teachers, physicians, ministers of the gospel and the female members of their families, but its early leadership primarily came from the ranks of large landowners like Polk or Elias Carr, the first state president.28
The Knights and the Alliance soon clashed. The local suballiances were concerned about defeating “the combines” that paid their members low prices for their tobacco, but did not want to pay higher wages to farm workers.29 The farm laborer, on the other hand, wanted “to better his condition.” Referring to the “big farmers” who opposed laborers’ demands, a Knight explained, “Our intention is to work gradually to at last conquer the great monster.” A Caswell County Knight informed the order, “it has slipped out here that the so-called Farmers’ Alliance proposes to see to it, and is instructing its members to pay no more money to wage-workers. They are to be paid in orders on stores . . . We fear that this so-called Farmers’ Alliance in our State means nothing more nor less than oppression and death to the laborer.” Other Knights insisted on the need to work secretly because of widespread opposition from Alliance members determined to maintain a cheap source of farm labor.30 The imbalance in political and financial resources between landowners and laborers, coupled with white willingness to use violence against black advances, crippled the efforts made by black Knights to defend their rights. Gradually, reluctantly, black farmers and farm laborers lost faith in the ability of the order to deliver justice and a better life in cooperation with enlightened whites.31
When the Colored Farmer’s National Alliance and Cooperative Union came to North Carolina in 1888 to organize farmers excluded from the whites-only Alliance, Elias Carr described the new body as “a separate and distinct group with which we have nothing to do.”32 Other Alliance members convinced Carr that, in the opinion of one farmer, it would be “adviceable to incourage their organization in our state” because cooperation would “stop the tide of emergration from the cotton countrys of our state.” In addition, the Alliance member argued, cooperation might prevent the radical Knights of Labor from enlisting black farmers and laborers, a coalition more threatening to white agricultural employers.33 By the end of 1888, the two Alliances had begun a hesitant partnership within the constraints imposed by racism among the whites and the sympathies of black farmers toward black farm laborers. When the black organization collapsed in 1891, following an unsuccessful strike of farm laborers in the cotton-growing regions of the Deep South, the white North Carolina Alliance saw no need to continue its controversial partnership. The issue of a political alliance with blacks surfaced again after the People’s Party was formed in the 1890s, but the recent destruction of a biracial movement weakened the already limited ability of class interests to transcend racial antagonisms.34
The populist movements’ interests were not limited to politics. The Alliance, and for a brief period, the Knights, set up cooperatives to sell food, implements, seed, fertilizer, and other necessities to their members. By establishing warehouses, the suballiances in the tobacco-growing region hoped to reduce the power of “the combined tobacco interest of the United States,” who were reaping “enormous profits, directly taken from the disorganized producers.” An Oxford warehouse saved members an estimated 20 percent of the total crop value formerly paid in marketing and storage charges. Alliance stores and warehouses enabled farmers to reduce their dependence on credit; in Durham County mortgage indebtedness fell by half in 1888. The Alliance followed the lead of the Knights in setting up tobacco factories in Durham, Granville, Vance, and Person counties to provide additional insurance that growers would receive a fair price for their leaf.35
By the 1890s, having grown discouraged by the difficulties in operating cooperatives in the face of merchant and banker opposition, the Alliance directed its efforts toward securing state regulation of the economic forces that impinged on farmers’ lives. Major targets included a bank-controlled credit system and a corporate-controlled transportation system that charged farmers high fees and rates of interest.36 Frustrated by the lack of response to its lobbying efforts and by the reluctance of the two major political parties to support reforms, the North Carolina Alliance joined with the national Alliances to form the People’s Party at St. Louis in 1892. In North Carolina the Populists rode to victory by fusion with the racially mixed Republican Party in 1894 and 1896. Arguing for state regulation of the railroads, the establishment of a legal maximum for interest rates, increased support for schools, and the return of home rule taken away from the predominantly black counties (to limit black officeholding), the fusionists elected state legislators, congressmen, and a U.S. senator, and captured the governorship in 1896. The Populists and the Republican Party had created a successful coalition of blacks and whites.
Even before its first victories, however, the coalition had begun to fray. The Populists were trying to appeal to blacks while defending their party against the charge that it advocated “social equality.” After the death of Leonidias Polk in 1892, the Progressive Farmer and the new leadership of the North Carolina People’s Party abandoned attempts to include blacks directly in their movement. Gradually the issue of free silver replaced the more radical schemes for economic reforms. By July 1893, the Progressive Farmer declared that the “white men” of the South and West, in contrast to “the politicians and the negroes,” would unite as populists to defeat “Wall Street slavery.” By 1894, the state Populist platform denounced the use of strikes as a weapon: “We sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, but we are opposed to all lawless combinations of men, whether representing capital or labor. We believe in peace and strict obedience to law.” Evidently reacting to the disorders associated with the 1894 Pullman strike, the platform recommended that workers vote rather than strike or riot. In 1895, Marion Butler, a U.S. senator and chairman of the North Carolina party, began organizing free silver clubs to attract Democrats to a racially and economically conservative Populist movement.37
After the 1896 victory, the fusion strategy collapsed. Daniel Russell, the new Republican governor, suspended the lease of the NCRR to the Southern Railway system controlled by the J. Pierpont Morgan interests. Probusiness Republicans broke away from the coalition. Populists, eager to strengthen their electoral chances, offered the Democrats another opportunity for an alliance in 1898, but party leaders refused because they feared that joining with economic radicals would split party ranks. Instead, the Democratic Party campaigned on a white supremacy ticket as the most potent method of uniting its members and attracting frustrated whites from the other parties. The election, marked by violence to intimidate Republicans and Populists, vigilante tactics, and a vicious propaganda campaign, succeeded in raising racial antagonisms to new heights. Shortly after the Democrats claimed victory in the legislature, a mob in Wilmington drove black officeholders from town and killed almost twenty black residents.
Once back in office, the Democrats dismantled the reforms, abolished the railroad commission, eliminated home rule, and, in direct violation of campaign pledges, moved to disfranchise black voters. In 1900 they cemented their victory over the populist coalition of poor whites and poor blacks by passing a constitutional amendment disfranchising all illiterate male citizens except those who could claim descent from voters eligible before 1867. After eight years had passed, the grandfather clause would no longer apply. Josephus Daniels, the editor of the Raleigh News and Observer and a leading propagandist for the white supremacy campaign, explained that the constitutional amendment would remove the curse of “negro rule,” prevent “demagogues” from gaining power, and would keep “dissatisfied whites” from uniting with the “immense ignorant negro vote.”38 Political participation by poor whites and poor blacks plummeted, and North Carolina joined the ranks of the Solid South. Although Democrats generally defended the measure on racial grounds, it served the class interests openly backed by Daniels. The victorious new governor, Charles Aycock, the first of a long line of “progressive” Democrats, proclaimed his intention to broaden education so that all men could meet the literacy requirement for suffrage by 1908. The state, however, never provided enough funding to educate its population, white or black. Education, like political participation, was a privilege and not a right in the one-party South.39
▪ Tobacco farmers had lost their ability to appeal to the state for protection. They appeared more defenseless than ever against the forces of the market. The prices paid for tobacco continued to hover below ten cents a pound, as did cotton.40 Tobacco farmers met in futile efforts in Raleigh, Danville, and Rocky Mount to denounce the American Tobacco Company for “putting the prices of tobacco below the cost of production.”41 A slight improvement in tobacco prices during the early 1900s enabled some tenants to enter the ranks of farmowners in Caswell, Durham, Granville, Orange, and Vance counties (all in the Golden Belt), but tenancy rates in the mixed cotton- and tobacco-growing areas of Edgecombe, Greene, Johnston, Nash, Wilson, and Wake continued to climb.42
Finally, in 1909 and 1910, tobacco prices exceeded ten cents a pound and kept above that mark for several consecutive years. Consequently, farmers channeled their energies toward tobacco and adopted more productive methods such as “priming,” or picking individual leaves. Tobacco culture expanded into cotton-growing areas. The rapid rise in tobacco and cotton prices during the war years spurred farmers’ efforts generally, but the spread of the boll weevil favored the substitution of bright tobacco for insect-ravaged cotton in Georgia and South Carolina. Delighted by their profits, farmers began to make long-needed improvements in their households and farms. Some purchased their first cars. North Carolina tobacco production doubled between 1916 and 1919 and, in the latter year, prices went above fifty cents a pound as farmers reveled in the wealth now flowing from the golden weed.43
Despite some premonitions that good fortune would not last, most farmers hoped for still better prices in 1920. Cotton growers as well as tobacco growers planted large crops. Prices climbed until mid-1920 and then suddenly slumped to less than half the previous year’s average. A few farmers resorted to burning warehouses and threatening bankers and buyers to prevent foreclosures. Tobacco growers tried to improve their market position under the leadership of the Tri-State Tobacco Growers Association. The attempt failed; the reluctance of many farmers to conform to voluntary production restrictions, the refusal by two of the big four cigarette companies to purchase from the association, and a scandal involving private profiteering by leaders of the group led to its demise in 1926.44 Small tobacco growers were forced to market their crops in order to pay their debts or satisfy their landlords. They appeared unable to organize against the large manufacturers who dictated price levels that earned the tobacco farmer less than half the average income of other farmers in the United States.45
The coming of “Hoover” times in the early 1930s pushed thousands of struggling farmers into destitution. Forced sales claimed 150,000 farms in 1930; 93 banks closed their doors in the same year. Farmers who had earned almost $600 in 1928 for their share of the tobacco crop pocketed less than $150 for the 1932 equivalent. Landowners, pressured by a credit squeeze, responded by eliminating 25 percent of their tenants in 1932; this action deprived 15,000 to 20,000 farmers of their livelihood.46 The combined impact of a sharp decline in foreign demand, manufacturers’ reluctance to buy tobacco in a time of economic uncertainty, and the upheaval in the financial system forced many of those who had survived the bleak 1920s to abandon farming. Rates of migration from rural to urban areas in North Carolina reached their highest levels for white men in 1930, for white women in 1933, and for black women in 1931; the rates for black men almost equaled the previous highs set in the late 1920s.47 “Hoover carts,” rather than automobiles, brought crops to markets that offered prices matching the lows recorded in the 1890s.
The arrival of the “poor man’s friend” in the White House and the surge of activity from the Roosevelt administration evoked hope among those still clinging to the land. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, passed in May 1933, promised to justify those hopes by including cotton and tobacco among the crops to be controlled by government action. Incomes rose after federal regulations limited tobacco acreage and placed a floor under prices. An allotment system set up in the late 1930s, after the original AAA had been declared unconstitutional, made the changes permanent. Yet the reforms, intended to restore rather than radically transform the agricultural economy, could not rebuild a way of life already shattered by the cash-crop economy. Small farms and family labor still produced much of the bright tobacco crop, but the social cleavage dividing the rural population remained fixed.48 As one disgruntled farmer remarked, landlords continued to skim the cream while tenants got the sweat. This unequal division of labor and rewards operated under the new, regulated economy as it had under the old.49
The human consequences of the “industrialization of the farm” appeared in the decline in farm ownership (see Table 4). Although farmers made some gains in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the favorable trend reversed in the 1920s. Whatever the percentages of owners and tenants, however, the size of the average farm dropped steadily throughout the period as land became subdivided into one- and two-horse tenant farms. A new system of class relations emerged in the tobacco-growing region paralleling the trends in the cotton economy. Landless farmers worked in “factories without walls,” where they produced the raw materials demanded by an industrial economy that developed in conjunction with commercial agriculture. Although black farmers benefited by their climb into the ranks of tenancy and, for a minority, landownership, most whites and blacks found themselves confined to a permanently landless class that toiled “from sunrise to sunset to raise the crops.” They were thwarted in their efforts to better themselves by bitter racial antagonisms and the ruthless tactics of those who exploited them. No longer so firmly attached to the land by ownership, or by expectations that they would one day become landowners, this rural proletariat felt “free” to move from one tenant farm to another or toward the center of the industrial economy. Women, whose labor was less valued, lost or abandoned their places on the land more readily. By the 1890s, Durham was attracting more women than men from the nearby countryside. To comprehend why this pattern of migration persisted into the 1930s, we must recreate the conditions of life and labor as women experienced them in the rural Piedmont.
Table 4. Percentage of Farmers Owning Their Farms and Average Farm Size for Durham, Person, and Granville Counties, 1880-1930
*Size in acres; All = all farmers, WF = white farmers, BF = black farmers.
†l880 figures for Durham County are those for Orange County, from which Durham was formed in 1881.
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th Censuses for Agriculture (see Appendix for publication information).