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Divided We Conquer: A White Plantation Owner Undermines the Knights of Labor

The issue of race divided the Southern Populist movement. In some ways, it can be seen as uniquely interracial for its time, yet in other respects it was critically limited by racial divisions. Even in the heyday of Populism, not all members of the Southern Farmers’ Alliance were equally committed to the interracial program that some leaders advocated. While white and Colored Farmers’ Alliances joined at times in cooperative purchasing and marketing arrangements, the tension between black and white agrarians remained strong. In the late 1880s, African Americans, who were suspicious of the white Alliance, joined the Knights of Labor. Many southern whites—including members of the Farmers’ Alliance—saw the growth of black locals of the Knights as a serious threat. This 1889 memorandum by white North Carolina plantation owner John Bryan Grimes recorded his efforts to infiltrate a Knights of Labor local that some of his black workers had joined. Although Grimes was himself a Populist, he viewed the Knights as a threat to his interests.

Friday Sept. 20 [1889] Geo. Freeman tells me that there is a K[nights] of L[abor] lodge at X[cross] roads in the church. meets every Sat[urday] night. [Grimes then lists several of the leaders—all African-Americans.]

Friday night. Asked Samuel Perry if Eli G. was not trying to get up an Order of some kind Gave [as] my reasons the slack way in which he was working & having seen him with papers &c. I incidentally mentioned K. of L. Sam said the negroes did not have sense enough to organize &c. &c.

Friday night. Gave Geo. F[reeman] $1.00 to be initiated and promised to pay fees &c. he is to keep me informed as to all moves made in the K. of L. &c.

Saturday, Sep. 21, '89. Sat. morning asked Proctor if such an organization as the K. of L. existed at G[reenville?]. said yes. since Oct

Monday, Sept 23, '89. Saw Geo. Freeman in the morning. Could not get in K. of L. [because the members] were afraid of him. Sam Perry made a speech against him. Rev. Grimes opposed him so did Lewis King, Elli Hardee and Jim Stephenson. Henry Allen and Warren Jayson endeavored to get him in. Gave 5¢ to get in and sent up his $1.00. Debated on him until 2 A.M.[, but he] was rejected

Source: Robert C. McMath, Jr., “Southern White Farmers and the Organization of Black Farm Workers: A North Carolina Document,” Labor History 18 (Winter 1977): 118–119.

See Also:United We Stand? Tom Watson on Interracial Southern Populism