The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978

Tenant Farmer Discontent and Socialist Protest
in Texas, 1901-1917
JAMES R. GREEN*
T HE TENANT FARMER DISCONTENT AND SOCIALIST PROTEST THAT
developed in Texas during the g1910os grew out of the terrible
depression of the early 189os, which caused thousands of small farm
owners throughout the South to lose their land and fall into tenant
farming. At first, academic experts thought this situation to be tempo-
rary. They developed a useful theory of social mobility, in which labor-
ers and tenants were supposed to climb an "agricultural ladder" to farm
ownership. After the turn of the century, however, the facts of rural
life in Texas and other cotton states conflicted with the theory of the
agricultural ladder.'
Indeed, by the turn of the century it was clear that many tenants
could not work their way back up the ladder to farm ownership in
spite of the return of prosperity. Yet the tenancy problem remained
largely unrecognized. The Farmers' Alliance, which originated in
Texas, slighted the issue even though it contained large numbers of
white tenants and allied itself with a Colored Farmers' Alliance com-
posed largely of black sharecroppers. Also, as Paul Wallace Gates
explains, the Populist party, which was especially militant in Texas,
"offered no aid . . . to tenants struggling to retain their step on the
ownership ladder." Despite their radicalism, the Texas Populists dis-
played little interest in Henry George's ideas about placing confiscatory
taxes on land that was rented and held for speculation. Passionate
apologists for "agrarian individualism," like Thomas E. Watson of
Georgia, ignored the growing dichotomy between "dispossessed farm-
ers and possessing farmers." They called for the unity of rural society
*James R. Green, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, is preparing
a full-length study of southwestern Socialism for publication by the Louisiana State Uni-
versity Press. The author would like to thank C. Vann Woodward and Lewis L. Gould for
their help.
1LeWanda Fenlason Cox, "Tenancy in the United States, 1865-19goo: A Consideration of
the Validity of the Agricultural Ladder Hypothesis," Agricultural History, XVIII (July,
1944), 98-ioo.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101205/. Accessed July 25, 2014.