Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book Review: Kyle G. Wilkison, (2008). Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plan Folk Protest in Texas, 1870-1914.

Book Review

Kyle G. Wilkison, (2008). Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plan Folk Protest in Texas, 1870-1914. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press. ISBN-13: 978-1-60344-065-3. 297 pages with appendices, notes, bibliography and index.

Review by James Wheat

In this book, Collin College history professor Kyle G. Wilkison examines the effects of changing economies on the rural poor of East and Central Texas and their responses to these changes. During this forty-five-year period, the rural population went from majority farm-owners practicing subsistence farming to majority tenant-farmers primarily producing cotton. The culture of interconnected, but fiercely independent yeoman farmers gave way to the disconnected and alienating culture of cotton-based capitalism.

Wilkison presents analyses of both quantitative data and first-hand accounts of life in turn-of-the-century Texas, providing a historical picture that is easily accessible. This book is of great interest to socialists in general, but is especially critical for modern Texas socialists. The author illustrates that socialism was able to address the concerns of rural Texans, and that socialist candidates received the support of large portions of the population. Understanding how we achieved this in the past is an important step to finding success for modern socialists.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter one is an introduction, and is not included in this summary. Chapter eight is Wilkison's own conclusion, which better summarizes this work.

Chapter two uses data from the decennial censuses to illustrate the quantitative changes that occurred in this period. Wilkison compares the changes in East and Central Texas, and uses Hunt County as a small-scale sample representative of both regions. Using data such as the number of hogs and milk cows per farm, the percentages of improved farmland, and the production of cotton, Wilkison effectively demonstrates the link between cotton and tenancy.

Chapter three looks at the distribution and composition of wealth, and the social characteristics of households in Hunt County. In the four-decade period, not only did the wealthy become wealthier and the poor poorer, but the percentage of totally impoverished persons also increased. Between 1870 and 1910, the bottom 70 percent of the population experienced decreases in their share of household wealth, while the top 30 percent gained.

Chapter four uses interviews to illustrate the culture of the yeoman farmers. Through these interviews, we are able to see how this culture valued independence (privileging farm ownership), hard work (with prescribed gender divisions), and egalitarianism (one interviewee relates how a newly-arrived snobby neighbor who, rather than inviting all of her neighbors, picked guests for her party found her geese plucked of feathers the next morning).

Chapter five continues to use interviews, but shifts focus to look at the effects of class and race. Farming families frequently looked out for each other, sharing crops when they were abundant and caring for the crops of others when they were sick. Despite this sense of community, African Americans were routinely and violently excluded, and white supremacy was widely enforced.

Chapter six focuses on the rural church. Although most Texans belonged to mainstream Protestant denominations, the responses of the various churches to the changing economic realities varied wildly. Some churches, especially those courting more middle-class and townfolk congregations defended the right to private property and capital accumulation. Other churches condemned this consolidation of wealth and land as a sin. It is in this chapter that socialists begin to appear. This chapter also details how religion was a source of conflict for these socialists, with orthodox socialists opposing religious socialists who used Biblical scripture to support socialist arguments.

Chapter seven analyzes political resistance to the changes that rural Texans faced in this period. This chapter features Greenbackers, Populists, and the Farmers' Alliance. However, it is socialists who feature most prominently. This chapter details how the Texas Socialist Party adapted to one individual condition of Texas, shifting from a hardline, collectivist position on land ownership to a policy of ownership based on occupancy and usage. Following this change, socialists received 1 in 6 votes in Hunt County, and over 30 percent in some rural voting districts. However, the chapter also details how the Texas Socialist Party was unable to overcome the belief in white supremacy. This, combined with Democratic demagoguery and the reduction in the electorate due to the poll tax, prevented greater support for the socialist position.

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