Oxford Public Ledger
March 28, 2002 - Vol. 121 No. 25 - Oxford, North Carolina
The Making of a Black Populist:
A Tribute to the Rev. Walter A. Pattillo
By Omar H. Ali
Every generation has its heroes - ordinary folks, men and women, who do extraordinary things for their communities. Their names seldom appear in the newspapers, magazines, or history books. Yet some of the things they once said, or did, survive through the stories we pass along from one generation to the next.
A little over a century ago, one of Oxford's very own, the Reverend Walter Alexander Pattillo, was at the heart of the nation's most memorable agrarian movement for political and economic reform - the Populist movement. The Populists were farmers who organized themselves into economic cooperatives, and called for a national subsidy program, a reform of the credit system, and enforcement mechanisms to regulate railroads - all to deal with the crises facing agrarian communities in the period following Reconstruction. At that time, African-Americans and white farmers alike were in dire need of capital and legal protections.
Populism had its origins in the 1870s with agrarian organizations such as the Granges, and continued to grow through the work of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. By the late 1880s, the movement of farmers was consolidated into broad networks of farmers that came to include thousands of black and white chapters of the Farmers Alliances. In 1891, these Populists established an independent political party, the People's Party, which in a number of states, including North Carolina, would go on to win significant electoral gains.
By 1896, however, the Democratic Party had managed to co-opt the movement, which came to full closure by 1898 with the Wilmington Riot, during which dozens of African-Americans were killed. Those Populists whose vision was of a more democratic society were effectively out-organized and shut out through a combination of violence, racist propaganda, and intimidation - principally led by reactionary white supremacists affiliated with the Democratic Party. While Populism collapsed, its legacy as a movement for social and political reform is still felt throughout the region. The role of African-Americans as leaders of the movement has yet to be fully ascertained. Little scholarship on the Black Populists has been done, and even less of this scholarship has reached the general public.
The life of Walter Pattillo, the principal leader of the Black Populists in North Carolina, sheds new light on the movement. Reverend Pattillo emerged as their leader after having built up the Black Baptist Church, expanding public education, and creating much-needed social services in his community. By examining his life, we begin to see how African-Americans continued to create independent community-based organizations to advance their interests despite the demise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow - the legalized segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans.
Pattillo was born on November 9, 1850 into the largest and most sophisticated slave system the world has ever known. Although he began his life enslaved, and despite such adversity, he managed to help lead his community's transition out of slavery, towards freedom. Over the course of three decades, he became one of North Carolina's most important religious, educational, and political leaders. Throughout his life Pattillo would give expression, in practice, to his perspective that African-Americans needed to create their own independent (though, not necessarily segregated) organizations when barred from equal participation as members in organizations already in existence. Pattillo vigorously practiced what he preached through his work in public education, the Colored Farmers Alliance, and later, independent politics. His leadership, however, is first noted in his work with the Black Baptist Church - an institution which developed and sharpened the skills of many black leaders of the era.
As a slave, he had been moved to Granville County, where he gained his freedom after the Civil War. Following emancipation, Pattillo drove wagons and worked in a sawmill to support his mother. (His father may have been white.) Pattillo joined the General Association of the Colored Baptists of North Carolina at the age of seventeen to promote the expansion of the black-led church. He had taught himself how to read and write while a slave and was now determined to pursue a formal education. In 1870, Pattillo married Mary Ida Hart (with whom he would have twelve children), and soon thereafter gathered the necessary funds through friends to enroll into Shaw University.
In 1874, two years before entering Shaw to study theology, Pattillo received a permit to preach. After receiving his degree, he gained a reputation as a "convention stalwart" of the Black Baptist Church. Between 1874 and 1908 he preached to dozens of congregations, including First Baptist in Oxford - Granville's largest Black Baptist Church. His son recalled in a memoir of prominent Black Baptists of North Carolina that his father "delivered nearly three thousand sermons, including funerals, and baptized about 3,100" people. Near the end of his life, Pattillo even crossed over to Virginia to serve the Mount Olive congregation in South Boston. He also served as a member of the Home Mission Board of the Baptist State Convention in Sassafras Folk in Granville and was elected President of the Middle Baptist Association.
His work with the Black Baptists brought him into contact with people all over the state. He used his influence to help support public education throughout the region, not only by teaching classes himself but serving as Superintendent of Schools in his county and adjoining areas. In 1884 there were twenty-seven small school houses for black children in Granville. The only private school in existence for black children in the county was affiliated with Antioch Baptist Church, one of the churches where Pattillo regularly served as a pastor.
Pattillo used his experience in the church and his knowledge of the Bible to help students take their first strides towards literacy. One of his pupils recalled how Pattillo began his classes by asking: "Can you repeat the Lord's prayer? ... Can you repeat the Ten Commandments? ... Can you count to one hundred?" He would go on asking questions, seeking responses, and asking more questions of his students, drawing them into conversation by building upon what they already knew.
Pattillo went on to establish the Colored Orphanage Asylum, the state's only black orphanage. As it was being conceptualized in 1882, he acted as its General Agent. From 1886 to 1887, he served as Superintendent, helping to direct its initial construction and shaping the orphanage's character as a non-denominational institution. Today, the orphanage (renamed the Central Children's Home) stands as a testament to his inclusive vision and his devotion to his community. Pattillo would later be described as a "magnanimous spirit" of the orphanage.
While helping to establish the groundwork for the orphanage, Pattillo had run for Register of Deeds as a Republican. He was defeated after his white opponent warned that, if elected, the "sleek, oily, negro," would have the authority to issue marriage licenses to white couples - thereby violating the sanctity of marriage.
In the face of such hostility, Pattillo continued teaching, ministering, and working to build the orphanage. But as the economic and political prospects of rural communities in North Carolina worsened, he turned his attention to building what would become the largest network of Southern agrarian organizations for black farmers, the Colored Farmers Alliance. During this period, he edited two newspapers - the Alliance Advocate and the Baptist Pilot. Both newspapers addressed issues of concern to the rural African-American community (unfortunately, not a single issue of either newspaper appears to have survived).
In his capacity as the elected state organizer and lecturer for the Colored Farmers Alliance, Pattillo began traveling across the state in 1890 spreading word of the movement and recruiting members into local Alliance chapters. Because African-Americans had been excluded from the Southern Farmers Alliance, black and white farmers, beginning in Texas in 1886, founded the Colored Farmers Alliance as an integrated organization. With few exceptions, the Colored Farmers Alliance made sure not to exclude white participants willing to help grow the organization. In fact, white leadership in the organization was welcomed, since white members had a particular advantage in reaching the mostly white media and in acting as liaisons to leaders of other organizations who refused to meet with black leaders of the Colored Farmers Alliance.
Pattillo actively sought cooperation among black and white members of his community and region. His son recalled that "Aside from his ministerial work, [Pattillo's strength lay] in the middle ground he occupied … in bringing about peace and goodwill between the colored and white races." It was his capacity to assume with grace and pride the "middle ground" - that is, to relate to both the black and white communities - that made Pattillo an extraordinary mass organizer. His success was in part reflected in the phenomenal growth of the Colored Farmers Alliance, which by the early 1890s claimed a membership of some 55,000 farmers and agrarian laborers in North Carolina.
At its height, the Colored Farmers Alliance reported up to 1.25 million male and female members in the South, most of whom were sharecroppers - that is, agrarian workers without land of their own. Historians estimate that the number of active members in the organization may have been closer to several hundred thousand, still making the Colored Farmers Alliance the single largest black-led agrarian organization in American history.
The Colored Alliances initially functioned as non-partisan social organizations and economic cooperatives, which helped to keep black farmers informed of innovations in agricultural techniques and facilitated the sharing of resources. Members of the organization paid dues and attended local chapter meetings. Like the church, Alliance chapters also helped to raise money to support education and community welfare programs. But as it met resistance to its efforts and growth, often from white Populists themselves, it began to take an active role in politics.
As it became increasingly politicized, the Colored Alliance sent its national spokesman, a white Baptist minister and farmer, Richard M. Humphrey, to Congress to lobby on behalf of a sub-treasury and loan program for poor farmers. The Colored Farmers Alliance voted unanimously in favor of federal supervision of elections by endorsing the Lodge Bill, which passed the House but was defeated in the Senate; and in 1891 it called for a strike of cotton pickers in the region. While the strike failed to gain widespread support, it had some temporary impact in the lower South. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Colored Farmers Alliance, however, was in creating an organized and politicized base that helped to prompt the shift in the Populist movement towards independent electoral politics.
As a delegate of the Colored Farmers Alliance to national conventions bringing together a variety of agrarian and labor organizations - including the Northern and Southern Farmers Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union - Pattillo was the first North Carolinian to call for the formation of a third party.
In January of 1891, Pattillo traveled to Washington, D.C. as a Colored Farmers Alliance delegate for the Confederation of Industrial Organizations, organized by the Alliances and sympathetic groups. The Conference put out a call for a convention to be held in St. Louis the following year, where "all interested groups were to discuss the issue of a national third party." Pattillo would be only one of three national representatives of the Colored Farmers Alliance on the credentials committee of the St. Louis convention - signifying his importance as a national leader of the Black Populists.
The third party he called for would soon become known as the People's Party. In 1892, in what must have been an extraordinary scene, the party's Presidential candidate, James B. Weaver, was flanked by some 350 black and white men on horseback in a parade in Raleigh. That year the People's Party competed directly against the Democratic Party, receiving over one million votes nationally for its candidate. By 1894, in coalition with the Republican Party, the People's Party (also known as the Populist Party) brought life to the national movement by gaining a majority of seats in the North Carolina State legislature. This accomplishment was achieved in spite of repeated campaigns to discourage independent electoral efforts by the Democratic Party, local law enforcement, vigilante groups, and elements of the Southern press.
The new "fusion" government tried to implement a series of economic and political reforms (including changing state appointed positions to elected positions, and creating a more equitable tax system), but their efforts were resisted and ultimately thwarted as white supremacists wrecked havoc in the state and toppled not only the government but called for the disfranchisement of African-Americans as well.
The Populist movement has a mixed legacy. On the one hand, it lay the groundwork for regulatory measures against transportation monopolies at the turn of the century, two Constitutional Amendments (the direct election of U.S. Senators and the creation of a progressive personal income tax, both in 1913), the enactment of the secret ballot, and federal subsidies for farmers in the 1930s (albeit favoring more affluent farmers).
On the other hand, the Populist movement produced contradictory actions and messages with regard to African-Americans and the issue of democracy. A number of its white leaders were swept into the racist environment as the new century unfolded (most notably, the infamous Tom Watson, at one time a champion of black political rights, turned rabidly racist, and then called for disfranchisement). By the turn of the century, discriminatory laws based on skin color would be enforced throughout the South. African-Americans (along with thousands of illiterate whites) were disfranchised, and within a few years all black and white people were legally separated in the areas of public transportation, education, and housing.
The movement's failure to democratize the region in the face of Jim Crow had far-reaching consequences, affecting not only the South but the nation as a whole. For the next half-century, segregation, racial violence, and disfranchisement engulfed the South. It would take three generations and a new independent movement - the modern Civil Rights movement - for black Southerners to finally regain their political rights. (That mid-20th century movement also had its roots in North Carolina, when a group of students defied Jim Crow by refusing to leave their seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro.) As tensions had escalated and conflicts erupted, divisions arose within Pattillo's movement. This reaction was largely due to the success of the growth of Black Populism within the Populist movement as a whole. Black and white organizers committed to democracy continued working - only now they did so at greater personal risk, the cost of which sometimes was their lives. Mississippi's Black Populist leader Oliver Cromwell (described in the press as "the notoriously bad negro"), for instance, was murdered after he led a boycott in Leflore County.
Other Black Populists went on to win offices. These included the farmer and inventor George Washington Murray (known as "the black eagle"), elected to Congress as a Republican after serving as a lecturer for the Colored Farmers Alliance in South Carolina. Still others, such as John B. Rayner (described by one contemporary as "the silver-tongued orator of the colored race," for his eloquence and erudition), helped to build dozens of chapters of the People's Party in Texas up until 1898. He went on to develop two black vocational schools, though he remained, to his last days, deeply embittered at the racism that drowned the South.
Whatever their particular fate, only the stories of a handful of the Black Populists have survived the century that separates us from them. So while the lives of countless rank-and-file Black Populists who made possible the movement for political and economic reform remain lost to us, we fondly recall Pattillo - the former slave, who with emancipation became a free laborer, a minister and teacher, the founder of an orphanage, editor of two newspapers, leader of North Carolina's Colored Farmers Alliance, and organizer of the People's Party.
The January 10, 1896 issue of the Oxford Public Ledger reported that Pattillo, who had been traveling and working throughout the state, had just returned to Granville, whereupon he was appointed principal of Oxford High School. He would go on preaching and teaching until his early death on the morning of May 12, 1908 - six months shy of his fifty-eighth birthday. Some two years before he died, his alma mater honored him for his life's work with a Doctor in Divinity degree.
Pattillo's final sermon, in which he extolled the virtues of love, labor, and loyalty, included a reading from Corinthians: "Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. I urge you to be subject to such men and to every fellow worker and laborer" (Corinthians 1: 13-16).
Walter Pattillo's story is not only the story of an individual, but reflects the plight of the entire Oxford community and its struggles during the post-Reconstruction era. It is a story of hope and resilience, which now, a century later, re-emerges from the dusty archives and through the collective memories that link us to him.
There are a number of people I would like to acknowledge and thank for helping me weave together the story of Pattillo's life. My research would not have been possible if it weren't for the generous assistance and intimate knowledge of several Oxford residents and two of Pattillo's own relatives, one of whom I had the great pleasure of meeting in Durham - his great-grandson, the now retired professor of biology from North Carolina Central University, Dr. Walter H. Pattillo. I am particularly grateful to the Robert H. Thornton Library's genealogist, Ms. Fann Montague; the Executive Director of the Central Children's Home, Mr. Michael Alston; Granville County's oral historian Mr. Eddie McKoy (whose tapes of interviews dating back to the late 1970s are now being archived at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill); and several other senior residents of Oxford and environs - including the lovely Ms. Irene Parham, Mr. Johnny Cruse, and Mr. Wilburt L. Morton of Antioch Baptist Church.
© Copyright Omar H. Ali. 2002 ® All Rights Reserved.