3 1/4 x 4 1/4 advertising card for J.F. FRANK & CO., grocer and cotton plantation owner in Memphis, Tennessee, offering his services “General Commission Merchants and Plantation Supplies.” Frank also imported champagne, wine, brandies and cigars. Frank’s business was located on Front Street, not far from the location of today’s Cotton Museum. Frank was obviously a man of integrity who wanted to pay cotton pickers a fair wage, a situation that apparently backfired and resulted in The Cotton Pickers Strike of 1891, which led to the deaths or imprisonment of nearly two dozen African Americans, including Frank’s plantation manager.
The strike was an ill-conceived attempt by a group of African American sharecroppers in Lee County, Tennessee, to increase wages they received from local planters for picking cotton. By the time a white mob put down the strike, nearly two dozen African Americans and one white man had been killed. Memphis grocer and cotton factor J.F. Frank appears to have set off the strike during a discussion with his plantation manager, Tom Miller. Miller complained that his pickers were working too slowly. Frank proposed that Miller increase workers’ wages. Miller informed Frank that all local plantation owners had agreed that none of them would pay more than 50 cents per hundred pounds of cotton picked. Frank told Miller that he was willing to raise wages as high as $1 per hundred pounds if that is what it took to get the job done. When eavesdropping workers reported this statement to others, they agreed to strike as there was obviously some dissension within their planter ranks.
Frank received an ominous letter warning that “50 cents is the price and we are not going to pay any more, neither are we going to permit any more to be paid in this neighborhood.” On a nearby plantation, the owner fired workers and banished them from his plantation. Many white planters expressed concern that their crop would rot. The local sheriff organized a posse to break the strike. Violence broke out between strikers and non-strikers. Frank’s plantation manager was killed. A group burned down a cotton gin.
Strikers were on the run and many fled to Cat Island, located on the Mississippi River. The white posse stormed the island, killed two strikers and capturing nine. The captured were seized by masked men and were transported to Lee County, TN, and subsequently hanged. By the time the mob had finished suppressing the strike, it had killed 15 African Americans and imprisoned another six. The Cotton Pickers Strike of 1891 in some respects served as a precursor to the Elaine Massacre of 1919, revealing how far white landowners and authorities were willing to go to keep black laborers in subservience and poverty to protect their profits.
Expected toning to the advertising card, but a fine example of a cotton plantation and the infamous Cotton Pickers Strike of 1891.
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