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Ghost Fry

Hiram Hoover was a white man born in Texas, probably shortly before the Civil War, and we know little else about his background. Traveling through the country in the late 1870s he met a young Miss Stockwell of Newberry, S.C., who eloped with him against her parents’ wishes. The young couple traveled throughout the United States, supported primarily by Mrs. Hoover’s sales of dressmaker’s charts. After about 10 years they accumulated enough money to build a home in Hickory, N.C.

But the Hoovers did not settle down. The mid-1880s were years of turmoil throughout the United States; the Knights of Labor and other workers’ organizations rose up in protest against the increasing brutality of American capitalism. In early 1887 Hiram Hoover either joined or, more likely, organized a labor union, The Cooperative Workingmen and Women of America. Hoover would come to be represented as a charlatan and his union a charade, but his detractors were by no means objective.

In February 1887 the Hoovers traveled to Greenville, S.C., where Hiram spent several weeks lecturing and signing up members for the Cooperative Workingmen. He gave out handbills, gave talks to both white and black laborers, and signed up over 200 members, most of them black. His activities soon drew the notice of Greenville’s capitalists who began investigating the troublemaker.

As indignation grew among the propertied classes, Hoover left his Greenville organization in charge of Lee Minor, a black man, and went over to Walhalla, S.C., to continue his work. Hoover’s reputation had preceded him and on his arrival in Walhalla March 11 was immediately arrested for vagrancy. On the day of his trial he managed to escape from the constable. Although he was not able to organize his union in Walhalla, his mission, arrest and escape stirred great interest and discussion in the black community, and dread in the white.

Hoover managed to stay out of the newspapers for several weeks after his arrest. He and his wife went to Covington, Ga., which in those days had a reputation as a labor stronghold. They rented a hotel room and Mrs. Hoover went to work selling her dressmakers’ boards and making corsets. On May 16 or 17 Hiram Hoover checked into the Edwards House hotel in Milledgeville and began making his presence known.

He gave two speeches to large black audiences at the home of Peter O’Neal, an elderly militant black leader who had served in the Reconstruction legislature. Hoover told his listeners that they were being robbed by their white employers, that they should be willing to strike for $1.50, triple customary wages, and that they must be willing to organize and defend themselves. He issued a charter for a union and collected dues of 55 cents a head.

The local newspaper reported that Hoover had urged the local black community to murder and arson. Milledgeville’s whites were incensed. Hoover received two letters threatening his life and was thrown out his hotel. O’Neal was threatened, as was F.F. Boddie, the minister of the African Methodist Church, who wrote a letter to the paper dissociating himself from Hoover. Word went out that Hoover was heading for Athens or Covington, but he surfaced in Warrenton instead.

On the night of May 19 Hoover addressed a crowd of over 300 at the black Methodist church on the outskirts of town. At about 10 p.m., two community leaders introduced Hoover and he was just beginning his speech when a shotgun blast came through the open window beside him, destroying the left side of his face and putting out his right eye. Several robed and masked men rode away from the church on horseback.

No doctor appeared to be willing to treat the grievously wounded agitator, so his wounds were dressed as well as could be done and he was taken to Norwood where he was put on the train for Augusta the next afternoon. On his arrival he was arrested and taken to the courthouse, but was soon brought to the hospital where he got medical attention and was interrogated by the chief of police.

The doctors told Hoover that he was likely to lose his left eye as well as his right and that it was unlikely that he would live in any case. In two days Hoover left the hospital and caught the train for Madison where his wife had taken a hotel room for them. There was much talk of lynching the maimed man, but it was decided that murdering a blinded, dying man was fairly poor sport. Newspapers throughout the state praised the attack, lamented that the night riders had not completed their work; only the Macon Telegraph denounced the shooting as an act of cowardice and savagery.

In Milledgeville Peter O’Neal was preparing to move to Macon in response to threats against his life. On the night of May 29 his house burned to the ground. The newspapers, as usual, said the arsonists were probably black, and hinted at insurance fraud. O’Neal’s aged wife barely escaped with her life.

On May 30 the Hoovers left Madison for North Carolina, never to be of in Georgia again. Within months the Farmers Alliance and the associated Colored Alliance would begin their successful campaign throughout the South. Unfortunately for the black members, they would be junior members of an organization dominated by white men who paid their meager wages.

Was Hoover a fraud? His union seems to have existed mostly on paper, but it must be said in his favor that many worthwhile organizations have had similar beginnings. As a white Southerner, he knew that he was risking his life by taking his radical message into the Black Belt; if he had only wanted to run a con he could have done better with patent medicine, insurance or lightning rods. More important, the black leaders who received him seemed to have found him sincere and his message important enough to risk their lives in giving him a hearing.

Next Week: Georgia Baptist Gunfight in Waco: W.C. Brann and The Iconoclast.

© 1995, John Ryan Seawright


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