Friday, January 27, 2012

Books You May Have Missed: Review of "Yeoman, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870-1914

Yeoman, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870-1914. By Kyle G. Wilkison. (College Station: Texas A&M University, 2008. x,297, pp. Paper, $40, ISBN-13:978—1-60344-065-3.)

Supplementing exhaustive archival research with detailed statistical analysis and intriguing oral history interviews, Kyle Wilkison outlines the spread of plantation tenancy and the attendant destruction of “plain folk” culture in late 19th and early 20th century East and Central Texas.  While Socialism in Texas received thoughtful treatment by James R. Green’s groundbreaking 1978 work Grassroots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 and Neil Foley’s equally innovative The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (published in 1999), the left wing in Texas remains sorely understudied.  Wilkison blazes a new path in this still emerging scholarly field by demonstrating how socialism overlapped with traditional, Texas rural values emphasizing community, shared sacrifice, and fair play. 

At the dawn of the 20th century, Wilkison writes, “Texas yeoman farmers exhibited both a high degree of community independence and individual family interdependence based on the widespread ownership of land and the liberty such property afforded even the common lot.” [p.8.] Increased cotton production, however, promoted landlessness and economic dependence across the Texas cotton belt.  As speculation and absentee ownership drove up land prices even as cotton prices dropped due to foreign competition and American overproduction, fewer farmers could afford land.  More rural Texans became renters, working for landlords who demanded that even more acreage of their property be used for production of the cash crop.  Renters, hoping to climb up the mythical “agricultural ladder” to land ownership instead wandered from property to property seeking in vain better financial arrangements.  This migration, however, cut these poor farming families off from the church, community celebrations and neighborly connections that sustained the agricultural community through hard times.  The relative success of socialism in highly religious East and Central Texas, Wilkison argues, derived largely from the desire not only to gain financial independence but also to re-forge lost community ties.  The most successful socialists adapted party ideology, appreciating and appealing to the local population’s strong religious faith, their tragically white supremacist racial attitudes, and the increasingly rootless peasantry’s desire for land ownership.

Wilkison writes well and perceptively.  The only shortcoming, and it is a minor one, is that the statistics-heavy opening chapters should have been leavened with illustrative quotes from the 51 oral histories Wilkison collected that are cited in his bibliography.  Wilkison interviewed former East and Central Texas landowners, tenants and sharecroppers (and their children) whose accounts demonstrate that many Texas middling and poor farmers saw no contradiction between conservative Christianity and support of socialism.  Wilkison, furthermore, demonstrates that even in very traditional East Texas communities, farming families elided assigned gender roles, though anti-black racism formed an impenetrable barrier dividing the agricultural oppressed.  Yeoman, Sharecroppers, and Socialists is a definitive work on the culture of cotton farming on East Texas and the ephemeral impact of radical politics in the Lone Star state.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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