Labour / Le Travail
Issue 83 (2019)

Matthew Hild, Arkansas’s Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest (Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2018)

Among the poorest states in the United States, with a sparse population, Arkansas saw the passage of the first US “right to work” law during World War II. The anti-labour stance of president Bill Clinton in the 1990s can be traced back to his time as state governor a decade earlier. Thousands of poor Arkansans have lost Medicaid coverage under the current governor, Asa Hutchinson. Union rights are a dead letter among homegrown liberals.

In Arkansas’s Gilded Age, Matthew Hild shows how a vibrant working-class movement reached its height there during the last third of the 19th century. He argues that activists from agricultural, transport, and extractive labour sectors embraced the ideology of “producerism” and mounted a “third-party challenge” against the Arkansas Democratic Party. (4) An often-tenuous coalition of farmers and skilled workers influenced later homegrown working-class movements.

In the 1870s, Democratic redeemers offered less to working-class Arkansans than did the reconstructionist regime established during the Civil War. Although claiming they wanted to cut spending, redeemers increased the state debt. The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry found support in 1872 for opposing the system of “anaconda mortgages” for small landowners; this version of the crop-lien system became prevalent when the Republicans dominated state politics in the 1860s. The state Grange admitted white women yet also championed white supremacy. While Blacks played a “significant role” in the Greenback movement, many Greenbackers nevertheless supported Democrats’ debt repudiation scheme. (14)

Discontented with Grange conservativism, the Agricultural Wheel and the Brothers of Freedom emerged in 1882. There was a generally racist membership of about 10,000 by 1885. The union acquired segregated locals in Texas, Alabama, Missouri, and the Indian Territory. The Agricultural Wheel merged into the Southern Farmers Alliance in 1885. With chapters operating cooperative stores, the Brothers of Freedom totaled 30,000 to 40,000 members.

The Knights of Labor had at least 202 assemblies in Arkansas between 1882 and 1899. Reflecting the national union’s “rather egalitarian” commitments (and unlike the Agricultural Wheel and Brothers of Freedom), the Knights’ local assembly in Hot Springs accepted women. (30) An all-female local assembly around Little Rock, the state capital, was composed of domestic workers, seamstresses, bookbinders, and retail service workers. All three unions were initially organized as secret societies and fielded third-party candidates at the state, county, and municipal levels in the election of 1884. Candidates emphasized structural issues, unlike Democrats. In this election, Arkansan Democrats began to use mob violence.

The national railway strikes of the mid-1880s signaled the “most inclusive and broad-based working-class revolt” in state history. (41) Organizing with the Knights began in shops of the Iron Mountain branch of the Missouri-Pacific Railway, several months after the fall 1884 collapse of the Southwestern Railway. Strike action began in mid-1885. There were several developments in 1886. The Brothers of Freedom merged into the Agricultural Wheel. Knights organized a strike among sharecroppers in Pulaski County, crushed within days by a sheriff’s posse. The great railway strike spreading throughout the American Southwest and the Trans-Mississippi stalled trains around Little Rock for several weeks. There was closer collaboration between Arkansan farmers and railway workers. Delegates to joint Wheeler-Knights meetings made an electoral ticket. Although the interstate strike was a crushing defeat for the Knights, Arkansas membership continued to grow, particularly among Blacks.

Hild then focuses on the Union Labor Party (ulp), active in the 1888 and 1890 elections, alone or in fusion with Republicans. Held after the establishment of the national ulp in Ohio, the state ulp’s first convention had over 50 delegates; “three or four” were Pulaski County Blacks. (72) The three delegates selected to go to the national convention included two Wheelers, Confederate veteran Reuben CarlLee and Little Rock saw mill owner Charles E. Cunningham, and a Knight, P.M.E. Thompson, a Black police captain from Little Rock. Charles M. Norwood, Confederate veteran, large landowner, Greenbacker, and former state senator, became ulp gubernatorial nominee. In the presidential election, Cunningham ran next to Alson J. Streeter of Illinois. Norwood’s defeat by several thousand votes to Democrat James T. Eagle was “undoubtedly” due to election fraud. (83) Norwood demanded a recount. A General Assembly resolution stipulated Norwood first pay $40,000; there was no recount. Incumbent Democratic governor Simon P. Hughes wrote the one election killing (of Republican John Clayton, brother of radical reconstructionist governor Powell Clayton) was accidental.

The Farmers Alliance, Knights, and ulp participated in forming the People’s Party. Formed in 1891, the Arkansas branch had a weak following if only because disenfranchisement was already law. Established third-party leaders were active through the decade, though. To the list of Populist grievances, they added opposition to convict leasing and the recently-passed Election Law. The national crisis triggered in May 1893 came as no surprise in Arkansas. Since the beginning of the decade, crop prices were falling and tension between farm workers and land-owners was rising (a strike by cotton pickers in Lee County, assisted by the Colored Farmers Alliance, was swiftly and violently crushed). Coal miners and railway workers dominated most strikes in the 1890s. Governor William Fishback sent militia units to Little Rock and Fort Smith, a furniture manufacturing centre. Meanwhile, President Grover Cleveland sent federal marshals to the state.

Despite “frustrations and failures,” there would be important impacts on subsequent state reforms and subaltern movements. (127) United Mine Workers’ locals became active in the 1890s. The Arkansas Socialist Party and a few Industrial Workers of the World locals were suppressed during World War I. The destruction of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union in the 1919 Elaine Massacre notwithstanding, Black Arkansans carried on practices of resistance from the 19th century. The Socialist-oriented Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed in 1934.

Hild has consulted salient historiography for Arkansas’s Gilded Age. It complements a new essay collection on themes in southern labour history (Matthew Hild and Keri Leigh Merritt, eds. Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power [Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018]). Addressing conflicts about electoral politics, Hild notes that reality was more complicated than doctrinal arguments. He also deals with voter suppression and violence against newly elected officials and Blacks. He explains that the term Great Upheaval entailed the railway uprising of 1877 as well as strikes of the mid-1880s and 1894. Hild substantiates his arguments with census records, papers of contemporary labour leaders, and meeting minutes. The text is supplemented with primary documents and a map.

While Hild’s institutional emphasis perhaps cannot be helped given a possible dearth of resources in which to reconstruct the daily lives of common labourers, a few words of criticism are in order. Hild does not directly address how the Civil War affected perceptions Arkansas workers had of each other. Was the turbulent relationship between craft unionists and industrial workers in other regions of the country a defining issue in Arkansas’ working-class revolt? On balance, Hild’s monograph lends to a deeper understanding of the radical tradition among working people in Arkansas. It must also be remembered that this “tradition” arose in the not-too-distant past.

Anthony Newkirk

Philander Smith College