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Lewis Porter Featherstone (1851–1922)

Lewis Porter (L. P.) Featherstone was an Agricultural Wheel leader and a politician who served in the state legislature in 1887 and in the U.S. Congress from 1890 to 1891. His electoral defeat in 1888 resulted in federal hearings that highlighted the extent of election fraud in Arkansas and saw him seated in Congress in 1890.

L. P. Featherstone, the eldest son of Lewis H. Featherstone and Elizabeth (Porter) Featherstone, was born on July 28, 1851, in Oxford, Mississippi. By 1860, his father, a landowning farmer, had resettled near Memphis, Tennessee, and his family eventually included five more sons. Educated in the local schools, Featherstone attended Cumberland University law school in Lebanon, Tennessee, before failing eyesight forced him to abandon his studies. About 1872, he returned to farming near Memphis, where he married Alice White in 1874; the couple had five children. After a stint working as a grocer in Memphis in 1880, he moved to Forrest City (St. Francis County) in 1881. By 1884, he was established as a farmer, cotton gin owner, and secretary of the Forrest City Manufacturing Company.

Spurred into action by the agricultural crisis of the 1870s and 1880s, many Arkansas farmers, including Featherstone, joined the Agricultural Wheel to defend their livelihoods. Before his election as the state Wheel’s president in 1887 and 1888, Featherstone served as president of the St. Francis County Wheel. Elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 1886, he represented St. Francis County and pursued the Wheel’s agenda. In 1887, he introduced and supported bills designed to regulate the cotton seed business, state officers’ fees and commissions, and railroads, but none of the bills became law. He was more successful in his support of other legislation, assisting in the passage of laws prohibiting railroads from granting free passes to state officers and regulating railroad passenger rates.

In the 1888 election, Wheel members and other groups formed the Union Labor Party and allied with the Republicans to challenge the Democrats. In 1888, Featherstone ran as the Union Labor candidate against Democratic judge William Henderson Cate of Jonesboro (Craighead County) for U.S. representative from the First Congressional District. In his home county, where three black Republicans and three white Union Laborites claimed the county offices, he garnered a majority of votes. Nevertheless, Cate initially emerged victorious with more than 15,000 votes overall to Featherstone’s 14,000-plus. Aware of widespread election fraud, he contested Cate’s election in 1888. Following the Featherstone v. Cate hearings held in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, Featherstone was seated in Congress in 1890 and served until 1891. In 1890, he ran as the Union Labor candidate for reelection to Congress but lost to Cate.

In the 1892 election, although Featherstone was not running for elective office, Arkansas Democrats attacked him not only for supposedly “stealing” his congressional seat and working for the Republicans, but also for voting for the hated Lodge Elections or “Force” bill during his congressional service. The Force bill would have authorized federal supervision of Southern elections to ensure that African Americans voted freely. By 1892, Featherstone had joined the Populist Party and served as a platform committee chairman at the state party’s convention in Little Rock (Pulaski County). He headed Arkansas’s delegation to the Populists’ national convention in Omaha, Nebraska, but the delegates in Little Rock tabled a resolution that would have instructed Arkansas’s Omaha delegates to vote for him for the vice-presidential nomination. The Populists in Little Rock also adopted a resolution, introduced by a black delegate from St. Francis County, stating that they would seek “to elevate the down-trodden sons and daughters of industry in all matters…irrespective of race or color.” Following Arkansas Populists’ electoral failures in 1892, Featherstone abandoned politics as populism faded, and Arkansas Democrats reasserted their political dominance with the assistance of legislation that disenfranchised a large number of both black and poor white voters.

In 1895, he moved from Forrest City to Galveston, Texas. Starting as a contractor for the Texas Gulf and Inter-State Railway, he became the railroad’s co-owner in 1898. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the First United States Volunteer Infantry, a unit mustered out in Galveston that saw no service outside the United States. Featherstone returned to work for the railroad and died on March 14, 1922, in Longview, Texas. He is buried in Mission Burial Park in San Antonio, Texas.

For additional information:
Arkansas General Assembly. Journal of the House of Representatives 1887. Little Rock: Gazette Printing Company, 1887.

Arkansas General Assembly. Journal of the Senate 1887. Little Rock: Press Printing Company, 1887.

Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Arkansas, October 1, 1888. Little Rock: Press Printing Company, 1888.

Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Arkansas, September 30, 1892. Little Rock: Press Printing Company, 1893.

Graves, John William. Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban-Rural Context, Arkansas, 1865–1905. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.

“Lewis Porter Featherstone.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=F000056 (accessed October 3, 2011).

Morgan, W. Scott. The History of the Wheel and Alliance and the Impending Revolution. Charleston, SC: BilioLife/Nabu Press, 2011.

“State People’s Party Platform Adopted.” Arkansas Gazette, June 22, 1892, p. 1.

“State Third Party Ticket.” Arkansas Gazette, June 23, 1892, p. 3.

Welch, Melanie K. “Violence and the Decline of Black Politics in St. Francis County.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 60 (Winter 2001): 360–393.

Melanie Welch
Mayflower, Arkansas

Last Updated 12/6/2012

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