Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August 2, 1917: The Green Corn Rebellion of 1917 breaks out.

 Oklahoma farm boys, April 1917. These kids are not in school but are tending their father's mules.

On  this date in 1917 a rare, inter-racial rebellion broke out against Conscription.

The rebellion took place in a state which, at that time, was a center of radical politics.


 Oklahoma City, just northwest of the location of the rebellion, if a world away, in 1917.

As earlier newspaper entries on this site no doubt make plain, conscription in the United States in 1917, the first "draft" since the Civil War, was largely met with acceptance and even enthusiasm.  Young American men had flocked to join the service prior to conscription being passed and newspapers publicly shamed areas that didn't seem to be rallying around the flag.  When conscription came it was billed, in part, as a means of filling the ranks of the service in an orderly fashion, as "selective service", not the heavy hand of compulsory service in a war to be fought in Europe.  But not everyone bought into that, and it is clear even from the newspaper headlines early on that there were a notable number of men who said "no".

The newspapers billed these men as "shirkers" and went so far as to warn young women that men who shirked would surely keep on shirking and shirk their duties as husbands, and therefore should be avoided as marriage candidates.  Arrests occurred early on.  But in Seminole County, Oklahoma, things went a lot further than that.

 Boy cultivating peas in Oklahoma, 1917.

The Sooner state, at that time, was of course heavily agricultural, as it remains today. But at that time it also had a large population of tenant farmers combined with a large number of poor farmers who had lost their lands in the prior two years when 60% of the mortgaged farms in the state failed and were foreclosed upon.  Farming in the state, contrary to the way we tend to imagine it at the time, was heavily concentrated in commercial farming, such as cotton farming, which made for both situations.  In a time when agriculture was otherwise doing very well, this was no doubt severely galling.  It also made some sense that this was the situation as Oklahoma had only been a state since 1907.  The state had only been open to entry since the late 19th Century and therefore it came into agricultural production quite late, and at a period when industrial farming was expanding.

These men and their families were poor, young, mostly uneducated, migrants from the rural South.  In the teens they were also, interestingly, unionized and radically politicized to a surprising degree, with many of them joining the Working Class Union and the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party in Oklahoma, leading up to World War One, was the largest in the United States, having 57,000 members in 1914.  The Socialist did well in the 1916 election in Oklahoma and the WCU was doing well also, finding large scale membership in a rural expression of the same sentiments that were causing the IWW to do well elsewhere.  The WCU, moreover, took to direct action against its opponents.  Acts of violence were becoming common.  Interestingly, in a true example of economic disadvantage overcoming ethnicity, as the forces surrounding the WCU were interracial, including whites, blacks and Native Americans, and mixtures of all three.

The WCU, like the IWW, opposed conscription on philosophical and economic grounds.  By late July the WCU and its fellow travelers had decided to attempt a march on Washington from Oklahoma, quite a fanciful endeavor really given the distance and the costs of such an action at the time.  Something went badly wrong, however, as on this day people associated with the movement ambushed the Seminole County sheriff and two of his deputies near a tributary of the Canadian River.  The lawmen had been investigating radical activities in the area and were forced to retreat, albeit unharmed.  Almost immediately thereafter raiding parties went out by the movement. These actions were surprisingly successful, with telegraph wires being torn down and railroad bridges being burnt, no mean feats really.

The next day somewhat under 1000 rebels gathered on the banks of the South Canadian River and made plans to march overland to Washington D. C. more or less Sherman style, living off the land as they went.  They gathered at the "old man" Spears farm under the Confederate Stars and Bars banner which Spears had raised several days prior (so maybe they were planing on actually advancing Nathan Bedford Forest style?)  Rather obviously that idea was rather far fetched and when met with local opposition, including traitors in their midst, they disbanded.  Posses did hunt down participants for a period of weeks thereafter and there were shots fired in some of those encounters.  Three people died in the rebellion and about 150 sentenced to short or long prison sentences, many of whom were pardoned.

Farm hands working asparagus field, Oklahoma 1917.

This insurrection is mostly forgotten, but it was not insignificant.  For one thing, it wasn't small.  1,000 or so rebels is a fairly large number.  Additionally, it interestingly fits nearly halfway between the two recalled eras of draft protests in that it was almost equidistant from the Civil War to the protest period of the Vietnam War.  In some ways, it recalls both, while still being unique.  With a strong Southern yeoman element to it, it in some ways recalled the Southern yeoman resistance to the draft in the South during the Civil War which, in some areas, turned to insurrection.  With a strong radicalized tinge to it, it also foreshadowed resistance to involvement in the "foreign war" of Vietnam.  Of course, it was also its own event in history and time.

And for the "Green Corn"? Well, opinions differ. Some claimed that the event came at the end of a Green Corn observance on the part of one of the local Indian Tribes, others claim that it was because the rebels, in their intended march on Washington, intended to live on roasted appropriated beef and green corn.

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