The Ancestors Of George & Hazel Mullins

by Philip Mullins

Chapter 13 - The Decline of the Cotton Farmer


Summary: The Union victory in the Civil War made the agricultural economy of the South subservient to bankers and merchants. The farmer's standard of living steadily declined. Most of the population of Pike County continued to live on farms but cotton farmers were increasingly marginalized and impoverished by the lien system and falling prices. The Farmer's Alliance and the Populist Party were unable to unite farmers and workers and to effect real reform. Between 1873 and 1930 many farmers worked seasonally in saw mills but more and more farmers lost their land and became tenant farmers or sharecroppers.


An unwelcome change in the economy

Despite the fact that any threat of "Negro ascendancy" had been defeated by 1890 and government by whites was assured, the farmers of Mississippi found that they could not bring back the prosperity of the years before the Civil War. Other changes besides the emancipation of the slaves proved to be of even greater importance.

When the returning Confederate veterans began to rebuild after the Civil War, they realized that great changes had occurred in economic conditions. It was apparent that the political and economic dominance of the rich planters had been broken. What was less apparent was that merchandising and banking and, somewhat later, industrialization had become more profitable than farming. In the post-war period greater profits were to be made in merchandising and, later, in lumber, than ever could be made by farming. This caused a change that was not at first understood by the farmers. However they knew that they were beginning to lose their influence with their governments and to lose their leverage with the bankers and merchants. They also knew that they were beginning to slip deeper and deeper into debt.

The abolition of slavery

Some of the white farmers blamed their problems on the freedmen. Almost from the day that the war ended, some of the Confederate veterans identified the blacks and their Republican allies as their greatest and most immediate threat. In their anger and bitterness, the small farmers of Mississippi failed to recognize that all of those who tilled the soil, whether black or white, had common needs and aspirations that were not shared by the politicians, the merchants, the bankers and the industrialists. The clumsy way in which the US government ended slavery had lasting and unintended results. When the British abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834, several years were allowed for everyone, black and white alike, to make the transition. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 after a period of preparation spanning 17 years. Today Brazil and the former British colonies that dot the Caribbean suffer little of the bitterness and animosity that characterize race relations in the United States. In contrast in the United States slavery was abolished as punishment for the South's attempt to secede from the Union. Abolition was an act of war and was an effort to ruin the South. The slaves were not only freed but given political control of the state governments. The freedmen's ascendancy was instigated and enforced by an occupying army.

It is no surprise that the ex-Confederate soldiers rallied to defeat the ascendancy of the blacks and then to create Jim Crow institutions, such as the poll tax, to ensure that the blacks could never again assume control in the South. Nevertheless the Confederate veterans made a mistake when they identified the freedmen as their greatest threat. What ruined the farmers of Mississippi was a shift from an economy dominated by agriculture to an economy dominated by industry and retailing. This shift was reflected in the state government. The Democratic politicians who controlled the South after 1876 did not represent the interests of the farmers any more than did the Whigs and the Republicans represent the interests of the freedmen. The new Democratic leaders were closely aligned with the railroads, the mercantile companies and the lumber companies. While agriculture entered a sustained depression, the merchants and industrialists thrived and the politicians could or would not do anything to halt the decline. Even if the politicians had tried, the task may have been impossible.

After the plantation system disappeared with the loss of the slaves, the cotton "factors" in New Orleans, who had previously advanced credit to the planters, were replaced by small-time country merchants. These local men were better able to assess the risks involved in advancing credit to the numerous small farmers who had replaced the larger and better financed planters. The white farmers, most of whom operated on credit, were joined by thousands of freedmen who preferred to become renters or sharecroppers rather than hire themselves out to labor gangs. These poor blacks all needed credit to get through the farming season. Some of the richer white farmers benefited from the sharecropping system. They rented unused acreage to black farmers or entered into a sharecropping agreement in which the white farmer provided seed and credit to the sharecropper in return for a share of the crop. However the country merchant was more likely to be successful at this than was the rich farmer. By the 1870s the merchants had assumed a central role in cotton production. This was because only the local merchant could supply his sharecroppers with the equipment, seeds and foodstuffs needed to made the sharecropping arrangement profitable.

The lien system

To protect the merchants who provided credit to the farmers, the legislature passed very strict lien laws. In Mississippi the lien law gave the lender a mortgage on the farmer's land, his tools, his buildings and even the crop in the field. By the 1890s, 80% to 90% of the cotton growers, whether black or white, whether owner or tenant, were in debt to the lien merchant. The lien system was conducive to fraud and abuse because it gave all the power to the lender and none to the borrower. In reality few farmers could opt out of the credit system because before the 1900s there was so little currency in circulation that every transaction had to be done on credit. But the problem was far worse than a shortage of currency.

The lien system converted the Southern economy into "a vast pawn shop". The profit from this year's crop was spent before the cotton was harvested. Next year's crop was spoken for before it was planted. Until the farmer paid the last dollar of his debt, he was dependent upon his creditor merchant for every purchase. The merchant actually dictated the amount and quality of each purchase. A creditor merchant usually forced his debtors to purchase supplies only from him at non-negotiable prices. Sharecroppers were allowed to draw a certain quantity of food and supplies on a weekly basis and no more. Naturally the merchant wanted his payment as soon as possible after the crop was harvested. This forced the farmer to sell when the market was glutted. The very nature of the system ensured that the farmer paid the highest price for his supplies and then sold his crop at the lowest seasonal price.

Most farmers never completely paid off their debts. In a good year the farmers made a profit. They paid off their account and spent the remainder on desperately needed tools and equipment for the farm or personal items for the family. Neither the landlord nor the tenant ever saw cash money. Everything was on account. In a bad year, such as 1891-1892, perhaps 1% of the farmers would pay their accounts in full and another one-third would pay perhaps 50% of the outstanding bill. The rest would pay even less. In a really bad year, such as 1892, many farms would be foreclosed by the lien merchant and sold by the sheriff for debt. Tenants who had failed to produce enough cotton to provide some profit for the landlord would be turned out and told to find somewhere else to live. In 1892 the roads were said to be full of Negroes begging homes.

Because of the high risk involved in farming and because the sharecropper and, often, the renter, had no other choice, the merchants were able to set interest rates as high as 60 to 75%. In addition, credit prices were commonly 25% to 50% higher than cash prices. The merchant dictated to the sharecropper what crops were to be planted. A tenant was required to plant even the garden area in cotton if the merchant thought that necessary to make a profit on the crop. By insisting that the tenants and sharecroppers plant cotton instead of corn and vegetables, the merchants drove the farmers deeper and deeper into debt. As the price of cotton declined following emancipation, both the land owning whites and tenants of both races fell into a trap of "unrelenting and unavoidable interest rates".

The decline in the price of cotton

Until 1890 the farmers of Pike County were generally able to pay their bills. By 1878 the production of cotton had returned to the pre-Civil War levels and by 1890 it was double that of 1860. That meant increasing revenues as long as the price of cotton stayed steady. Up until 1890, the price remained at around 11 cents a pound. However the 1880s were recession years in the USA. The recession worsened after 1890 and by 1892 the price of cotton had dropped to 7 and one-half cents. By 1898 it had dropped to 4.9 cents per pound. Seven cents was considered to be below the cost of production. As the agricultural situation worsened, the population of Pike County increased rapidly. The population almost doubled between 1870 and 1890. By 1890, there were 10,672 blacks and 10,531 whites in Pike County. Fully one-third of the land area of the county was under cultivation.

At first all sharecroppers and most tenants were blacks. As a rule the blacks were tenants working for wages or on shares. In 1880, in 17 Mississippi counties, only 1% of the blacks owned land. In 12 other counties, less than 5% owned land. In the rest of the state, probably no more than 2% of the blacks owned land, not even the houses they lived in. The situation did not improve. By 1900 75% of the Negroes were still either sharecroppers or tenants.

The logging of the Piney Woods

For some small farmers living in the piney woods, alternatives to growing cotton were found. After 1881 logging of the piney woods began in earnest. As early as 1873 J. J. White moved his lumber mill to a site on the Pearl River some 75 miles from Osyka. Later the Enochs Lumber Company built a mill at Fernwood, near McComb, in Pike County. These were large operations and huge investments were made in land and machinery. The mill owners were northerners whose mills had already exhausted the forests of Maine and Wisconsin. Now they formed partnerships with local Democratic politicians and purchased large tracts of forest land in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The mills hired both black and white workers, housing them separately but otherwise treating and paying them equally. The J. J. White mills in Columbia operated until 1930.

The mill owners built short railroads, called "dummy lines", to haul the timber to the mills and to haul the finished products to the Illinois Central RR and hence to market. The Liberty-White Railroad was an example of a dummy line. Other dummy lines were built around Osyka and Chatawa and to Tylertown in the eastern part of the county. The cutting of the virgin longleaf yellow pine was a large industry and employed many local men as millwrights and semiskilled workers. The wages were very attractive. Between 1880 and 1920, the southern part of Mississippi was the most industrialized part of the state. Men were drawn off the farm and many followed the mills as they moved west to Louisiana and Texas. Others remained as farmers after the mills moved out of the area. The sawmills had opened up an opportunity for many men to work for decent wages at something other than farming. It was no accident that the Populists and, later on, Vardaman and Bilbo drew their support from southern Missisippi.

As the virgin timber disappeared in the 1920s the large sawmills moved to Texas or Louisiana. Much of the cut-over timber land was cleared for farming and dairy farming. In the late 1930s the process of removing the huge yellow pine stumps was still continuing. The stumps of virgin yellow pine stay in the ground indefinitely without rotting. They have to be removed by blasting them from the ground. The stumps were then sold to naval stores plants such as those at Columbia and Pensacola. There the stumps were used to make "naval stores" such as turpentine, pine oil rosin and disinfectants. In southeastern Mississippi, in the heart of the piney woods region, removing these stumps was an ongoing business until the 1960s.

By 1930 most of the large lumber mills were gone. Some of the mill-wrights and boiler-makers followed the mills west, shuttling back and forth between Texas and Mississippi. Strikes and recessions threw them out of work and drove them "back home" to Pike County. The poverty and lack of suitable employment there drove them back to Texas as soon as the strike or recession was over. Many of the men would have returned to full-time farming in Pike County if they could. However a tradition of industrial labor had begun that eventually drew more and more families off the farms. They left for Texas and Louisiana if they were white and for Chicago and Detroit if they were black. Beginning in 1876 and increasingly after the arrival of the boll weevil in 1909, some Pike County farmers switched from cotton to vegetables. By the early 1900s strawberries were being grown south and west of Osyka and shipped by rail to markets in New Orleans and Chicago. Later butter became an important source of cash for some farmers.

The Farmer's Alliance and the Populist Party

As early as the late 1880s many farmers had already recognized that the combination of low cotton prices, high taxes, high railroads tariffs, a poor educational system, high interest rates and an inadequate supply of currency were making it impossible for them to purchase the new manufactured goods that they were being offered and still be able to pay their debts. They saw their standard of living declining when compared to that of urban dwellers. Their annual earnings varied from year to year depending upon many factors. In 1880, a good year for cotton in Mississippi, monthly wages for a man's work "from sun to sun", six days a week, was from $8.00 to $12.00. In addition a man hired by the month would receive 12 pounds of bacon and 5 pecks of cornmeal per month. These supplies were worth about $2.00. Monthly wages were common because a large proportion of the landlords actually preferred the wage system. They recognized that the sharecroppers and tenant farmers had no incentive to care for the land and the buildings on the farm. The sharecropper system also resulted in less production per acre than an owner-operated farm using hired labor.

If a man who owned no land wanted to work on shares, he could do so as a tenant or as a sharecropper. If the man could not supply the mules to pull the plow then he was properly called a tenant. He would receive 50% of the value of the crop if the landlord furnished the tools, animals, land and feed. If the landlord supplied only the land, then the man was a sharecropper. He kept as his share 75% of the cotton and two-thirds of the corn grown on the farm. One man working alone could grow from three to six bales of cotton a year. In 1880 three bales would have sold for $150. In 1892 the same three bales would bring just over $100. This was the annual income of the average cotton farmer. If he were a tenant, he paid one-half to the landlord and, if a sharecropper, no less than 25% went to the landlord. Out of the rest came his supplies, his mules and all of his family's needs.

Industrial employment didn't always offer a man much more. Wages in the new cotton-mill villages (which employed whites only) were about the same as that of field hands in 1890. Cotton-mill workers earned about 40 to 50 cents per day for adults and 10 to 12 cents per day for children. The work week for men, women and children averaged about 70 hours a week. This worked out to 4 cents per hour. Laborers in other industries earned more. Specialists such as cigar makers, compositors in the printing trades and carpenters earned 26 cents an hour. Unskilled construction workers earned from 8 to 12 cents an hour in the 1890s. In short, an unskilled urban laborer earned as much as a competent and lucky cotton farmer in 1890 and easily twice as much as the average cotton farmer would make. The 1920s were the most prosperous period in history for many American workers. However farm families nationwide earned only one-third as much as did the average urban family. In the 1920s the cotton farmers of the South earned one-sixth as much as the average American urban family. Another and more disturbing measure of the economic decline of southern agriculture was the number of tenant farmers, those owning no land at all. In 1880 one-third of the farms in the South were tenant operated. By 1920 that figure had increased to 60%.

As early as the 1880s farmers expressed their discontent politically. They became a part of a vast reform movement that swept the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. The reform movement originated in the suffering and insecurity caused by the change from an agrarian to an industrial society. The movement involved industrial and agricultural workers in both the North and the South. Among industrial workers the movement became the union movement. Among agricultural workers it became the Farmer's Alliance and then the Populist Party.

Industrial workers organized hundreds of unions and worker's association in the 1880s. The Knights of Labor dispatched organizers to the South and by 1888 over 500 local unions in the South were affiliated with the Knights. The Knights stressed interracial solidarity and the political struggle. In 1888 their candidate was elected major of Vicksburg. In New Orleans, the Knights of Labor organized separate white and black locals. Before the American Federation of Labor began an organizing drive in 1892, New Orleans had 65 unions. The A.F.L. organized 30 more. Some of the unions were segregated by race, usually forming pairs of closely allied unions. Others were racially integrated. In late 1892 the A.F.L. unions in New Orleans were strong enough to call a general strike that involved an estimated 50% of the city's population, over 20,000 union members and 42 separate union locals. The strikers shut the city down for three days until the employers agreed to a settlement. People in America's small towns were even more likely to support strikers than those in large cities and the farmers of Pike County followed the events in New Orleans with considerable interest.

Closer to home a new farmer's organization made its appearance. The Farmer's Alliance burst on the scene about 1877. It was organized as independent lodges. Bank cashiers, railroad officials, real estate agents, practicing lawyers and cotton buyers and dealers and anyone "who buys or sells for gain" were excluded from membership. The lodges were purposely organized in rural areas and were never located in the larger towns. The Farmer's Alliance had come into existence spontaneously in different places. It had no central organization even though, by 1890, it had 3,000,000 white members in the South. This did not include over 1,000,000 blacks belonging to a separate Colored Farmer's Alliance. Having been subjected to the shock of Reconstruction (which, according to one author, was really a "Yankee euphemism for capitalist expansion"), the southern farmers of both races responded passionately and in force to the appeal of the Alliance. The Alliance men, like the Knights of Labor, welcomed the participation of the black farmers.

In 1889 the Southern Alliance and the Knights of Labor agreed upon a common platform that called for the abolition of the national banks, prevention of speculation in agricultural futures, unlimited coinage of silver and government ownership of the means of transportation and communication (i.e. the railroads). Both the Alliance and the Knights organized cooperatives. In 1888 the Alliance also ran candidates for state and local office in Mississippi. The men ran as Democrats. The Alliancemen were accepted as loyal Democrats and had considerable influence on the rest of the Party. However their political program was not acceptable to the Democratic leadership. The Democratic Party was controlled by the big corporations and the Alliance's political ideas were rebuffed.

By 1891 it was obvious that a split would occur between the Farmer's Alliance and the Democratic Party. Many southern Alliancemen were reluctant to leave "the Democracy",as the party was called, because they felt that if the white vote was split between two parties, the Republicans would gain control again. The fear of a repeat of the Reconstruction years was a fear that gripped most Southern whites. It was a fear that the Democratic leaders exploited mercilessly and endlessly. The Negro Question made the struggle of the Southern Populists different from that of their northern companions. Nevertheless by 1892 the leaders of the farmers in Mississippi had broken with the Democratic Party altogether and formed the People's Party, more widely known as the Populist Party. The populist leaders understood that the state had been reorganized to accommodate the new capitalism. They endeavored to unite agricultural and industrial workers in Mississippi, both black and white, into a political party that could protect them all as much as possible from the changes that were taking place. Never before or since have the two races living in the South come together as they did during the Populist struggles. The fact that the Populists were allied with the black farmers, coupled with their uncompromising opposition to the capitalist system, helps explain the ferocity of the attacks upon them.

By and large the southern Populists were tenant farmers, small landowners, some large landowners and industrial workers. The Colored Farmer's Alliance consisted mostly of sharecroppers and tenants. After the Southern Alliance and the Knights of Labor agreement of 1889 mechanics were also invited to join the Alliance lodges. However there were few industrial workers in the state so the reforms suggested by the Populist Party were mainly to benefit the farmers. They called for low-interest farm loans, an increase in the currency in circulation, free coinage of silver, lower railroad tariffs, a graduated income tax, a reduction of government expenditures and, among other things, direct election of US senators. On this platform the Populist Party contested the congressional elections of 1892 and 1894. They polled more than a third of the votes cast but lost both elections. In 1895 they failed to elect their candidate for governor.

In each election they lost to the Democratic rallying cry of "white supremacy". The Democrats engaged in every kind of electoral fraud to defeat the Populists. This included murder, repeat voting, bribery, ballot-box stuffing, voting by minors and intimidation. Landlords had the power to deny sharecroppers rations as punishment for disobedience and they used this threat effectively to prevent their Populist tenants from voting. Merchants refused credit to known Populists. Some preachers and most Democratic politicians pronounced that the Populists stood for "Negro supremacy, mongolism, and destruction of the womanhood of our wives and daughters." The Populists were "atheists", "anarchists"" and "communists". The Alliancemen answered back with over 1,500 Populist newspapers and millions of members in thousands of lodges from Texas to Georgia. Between 1892 and 1894 the nationwide Populist vote increased 42%. In the South the Democrats devised ever more ingenious ways to win elections. Populist Negroes were barred from voting altogether while other Negroes sold their votes to the Democrats for 10 cents a piece. In their haste to commit electoral fraud, in some places the Democratic candidates received more votes than there were registered voters.

1894 was the depths of the depression. The poll tax weighed heavily on the impoverished tenants and sharecroppers. Even those who could vote faced relentless pressure and inducements to maintain a solid white voting bloc. The national Democrats courted the delegates to the People's Party convention of 1896 in St. Louis, Missouri just as ardently as they opposed the Populists at the polls. In 1896 the People's Party nominated the Democratic candidate for President to be their candidate as well. They nominated one of their own leaders, Tom Watson of Georgia, for Vice-President. The Democrats had managed to get the Populists to support their candidate by adopting one of the major Populist ideas as their own. The Democrat candidate, William Jennings Bryant, ran and lost the election on the issue of increased coinage of silver by the Federal mint.

The national Populist Party, having been outmaneuvered by racist Democrats and betrayed by its leaders, declined rapidly. By 1900 the Populist Party in Mississippi had likewise declined into insignificance. By 1896 the interracial phase of the Populist rebellion had been "stoned, shot and niggered" to death. The Populist Party was the last attempt to unite the farmers of both races behind a common reform platform. When the revolt of the farmers surfaced again in 1903 it was led by James K. Vardaman, an avowed racist.

Francis S. Strickland (1910)

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