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In 1886, the Knights of Labor engaged in two strikes in Arkansas. The first of these strikes, the Great Southwestern Strike, involved railroad workers from Texas to Illinois. It began in March and ended in failure by May. The second strike occurred in July at the Tate Plantation in Young Township of Pulaski County, nine miles south of Little Rock (Pulaski County) on the Arkansas River. While this strike also proved unsuccessful, and much briefer, it remains significant because all of the strikers were African Americans, and it foretold efforts at black farm labor activism that would continue in Arkansas well into the twentieth century.
Formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1869, the Knights of Labor spread across the nation during the 1870s and early 1880s and became the largest labor organization in the nation’s history to that point. The Knights began forming local assemblies, or lodges, in Arkansas during the winter of 1882–83, first with an all-white local and then with an all-black local at Hot Springs (Garland County). During the 1880s, the Knights organized at least eighteen local assemblies of African Americans in Arkansas, including at least ten in Pulaski County.
During the spring and summer of 1886, forty African-American men and women worked as farm hands at the Tate Plantation; according to local newspapers as well as the New York Times, at least thirty of them belonged to the Knights of Labor. In late June, a leader among the farm hands, Harrison Goble, gave a written statement to one of the plantation managers expressing the workers’ demand for a raise from seventy-five cents to one dollar per day and for payment in cash instead of scrip. The manager rejected these demands and told the farm hands to resign and leave the property (which included the houses in which they lived) if they were not willing to work under the existing terms. Instead, thirty of the farm hands went on strike on Thursday, July 1, 1886. The strike continued through the weekend, and the strikers remained on the plantation and received supplies of meat, flour, and meal from their fellow Knights of Labor in Little Rock. On Monday, July 5, at 5:00 a.m., the sheriff of Pulaski County, Robert W. Worthen, arrived at the plantation with several deputies. The officers tried to arrest one of the strike leaders, Hugh Gill, and one of the deputies shot Gill with a double-barreled shotgun; Gill was wounded in both arms. As the news spread throughout Pulaski County, approximately 250 black men, many of them armed, came to the fields surrounding the Tate Plantation. Sheriff Worthen and his deputies remained ensconced in Gill’s house and sent out word for a posse to come to the plantation. When the posse arrived that night, gunshots were exchanged, but no one was seriously hurt. Many of the black men dispersed.
Sheriff Worthen then allowed two Little Rock Knights of Labor leaders, an African-American man identified in newspaper accounts only as Merriman and Dan Fraser Tomson, one of the founding members of the first local assembly in Arkansas, to go to the plantation to try to “control the colored men.” The two Knights leaders helped to soothe the tensions, and on July 7 most of the strikers returned to work under the same terms as before the strike.
Tomson wrote in the Arkansas Knights of Labor state newspaper, the Industrial Liberator, that Sheriff Worthen and his deputies had committed “outrages” at the plantation “in the hope that the colored people, being organized, would resist, and that this would serve as a pretext to break up organization among them.” Local Democrats blamed the strike not only on the white and the black Knights of Labor but also on local Republican politicians, while Republicans of both races defended the strikers and accused Democrats of exacerbating the tensions at the Tate Plantation for their own politically motivated reasons.
The state elections in the autumn of 1886 marked the beginning of a biracial coalition of members of the Knights of Labor and the Agricultural Wheel, along with Republicans, culminating in the formation of the Arkansas Union Labor Party, which would have most likely captured the governor’s office in 1888 had that election not been marred by violence and corruption.
In retrospect, the Tate Plantation Strike also stands out for its lack of fatalities. Just five years later, black farm hands in Lee County were the only ones in the entire South to wage a cotton pickers’ strike called for by Colored Farmers’ Alliance leader R. M. Humphrey, and the strike resulted in the killing of at least fifteen African Americans, as well as a white plantation manager. Well into the twentieth century, efforts at activism by black farm laborers in Arkansas would continue to be met with deadly reprisals, making the Tate Plantation Strike notable for its relative lack of bloodshed.
For additional information:“Alarming Rumors.” Arkansas Gazette, July 8, 1886, p. 8.
“All Quiet.” Arkansas Gazette, July 7, 1886, p. 8.
Case, Theresa A. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.
“Colored Knights of Labor. Plantation Hands Become Riotous and One of Them Is Shot.” New York Times, July 7, 1886.
Hild, Matthew. Greenbackers, Knights of Labor, and Populists: Farmer-Labor Insurgency in the Late-Nineteenth-Century South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
Rogers, William Warren. “Negro Knights of Labor in Arkansas: A Case Study of the ‘Miscellaneous’ Strike.” Labor History 10 (Summer 1969): 498–505.
“War in Young.” Arkansas Gazette, July 6, 1886, p. 4.
Matthew Hild Georgia Institute of Technology
Last Updated 6/7/2016
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