Book Review: Yeomen, Sharecroppers and Socialists by Kyle Wilkison
In his review of the era 1870 to 1914, Prof Wilkison offers an in-depth analysis of the evolution of rural Texas from a subsistence economy to a cotton dominated economy characterized by tenancy and the political consequences of that economic shift.
Focusing on 83 counties in the Eastern third of the state, stretching from the Piney Woods sandyland to the Central Texas blackland, Wilkison examines the decline in land ownership and subsistence farming (looking at the decline in the production of hogs, sweet potatoes and milk) and the increase in the production of cotton. As more and more acres were devoted to cotton production, the independent family farm slowly became a thing of the past and was replaced by landlords who rented the land to tenants for a share of the harvest.
With the decline in the independent farm and centralization of land ownership, a growing class consciousness began to show itself, and the rural poor began to resent the new economic order, in which their societal position had been reduced to that of a renter of land. This resentment lead them to seek out forms of resistance, such as the Greenbackers, Populists, Texas Farmers Alliance, and ultimately, Socialists, in an effort to restore their place in society as landowners.
The rural poor began to successfully challenge the established order, reaching their peak of success with the Populist Party, but the establishment fought back and through the enactment of the poll tax, appeals to racism, etc., they were able to reduce the threat posed to the cotton economy. Following the decline of the Populist movement, the rural poor began to turn to the young Texas Socialist Party, who used the religiosity of the rural poor, particularly among the Holiness denominations (such as the Pentecostals), and an appeal to their egalitarian values to make steady gains until 1914, when they were undermined by the allure of Democratic politicians like Jim Ferguson and Sam Rayburn.
There are many more things I could elaborate on due to the depth of the details provided by Wilkison, but I’ll instead strongly recommend purchasing this book, especially if you’re at all interested in the history of agrarian revolt in the U.S. or just interested in Texas history.
Further recommended reading…
The Lone Star Left
The American West, Agrarian Populism and Democracy