By January 1887 Hover formed his own organization, the Co-operative Workers of America (CWA), in order both to achieve major reforms in labor laws and to establish cooperative stores.
The 1880s were a period of rapid industrial growth and increasing distress for farmers in upstate South Carolina. The events inspired by the activities of the labor organizer Hiram F. Hover (whose surname was commonly misspelled as “Hoover” in contemporary sources) illustrate the responses some factory workers and agricultural laborers made to their difficult circumstances and the response of powerful members of South Carolina society.
Raised in the Shaker community of Mount Lebanon, New York, Hover was employed in the garment trades and traveled the country as a dress cutter. Arriving in Knoxville, Tennessee, in late 1885, he joined the Knights of Labor, the nation’s largest labor union. By the following summer, he had settled with his wife in Hickory, North Carolina, but internal disputes led to his departure from the Knights. By January 1887 Hover formed his own organization, the Co-operative Workers of America (CWA), in order both to achieve major reforms in labor laws and to establish cooperative stores. In February 1887 he set out for South Carolina to organize local branches of the CWA. Hover first spoke in Spartanburg, where he addressed an interracial crowd of several hundred people. By March he had moved on to Greenville and Walhalla. The authorities in Walhalla charged Hover with vagrancy but allowed him to flee the state to Georgia, where he continued his organizing activities. On May 19, 1887, a mob of white landowners in Warrenton, Georgia, shot Hover while he was speaking in an African American church. Severely wounded, Hover returned to Hickory and later moved to New York, returning briefly to Atlanta and Greenville in 1889 in a failed attempt to resuscitate the CWA.
Other organizers recruited by Hover created “Hoover clubs,” or local branches of the CWA, in the city of Greenville and in the rural area where Greenville, Spartanburg, and Laurens Counties meet. Most of the leaders and members of these CWA branches were landless African American laborers, and the primary goal of the branches was to establish cooperative stores so that members could avoid the entangling web of credit that perpetuated the sharecropping system. Wary of attracting the attention of white landowners, they held their meetings secretly, usually at night in African American churches. By late June, rumors of the existence of these “Hoover clubs” were circulating among whites in Laurens County, who feared a massive uprising by black farmers and laborers in the area. Whites in Laurens County convinced the adjutant general to send arms for a cavalry patrol that they had formed to defend against the anticipated uprising. The fear spread to southern Greenville County, and white landowners formed a vigilance committee. On June 29, 1887, they rounded up the leaders of the CWA branches and held an inquisition at Fairview Presbyterian Church. They ordered the African Americans to abandon the CWA, which they did. The organization’s Greenville membership saw this disruption and quietly left the CWA as well. A group in Spartanburg seems to have persisted, however, and it opened a cooperative store in September 1887, though it is unclear how long it operated. The “Hoover Scare,” as the newspapers dubbed it, provides an example of collective action by African Americans, and the difficulties they confronted, in the period between Reconstruction and disfranchisement in 1895.
Baker, Bruce E. “The ‘Hoover Scare’ in South Carolina, 1887: An Attempt to Organize Black Farm Labor.” Labor History 40 (August 1999): 261–82.