From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject When the Socialist Revolution Came to Oklahoma—and Was Crushed
Date September 23, 2019 1:43 AM
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[Inside the little-known story of the Green Corn Rebellion, which
blazed through the Sooner State a century ago ]
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WHEN THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION CAME TO OKLAHOMA—AND WAS CRUSHED  
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Richard Grant
September 18, 2019
Smithsonian Magazine
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_ Inside the little-known story of the Green Corn Rebellion, which
blazed through the Sooner State a century ago _

The type of socialism that took root in Oklahoma was unique—it
allowed private farms and invoked evangelical Christianity. , Trevor
Paulhus

 

Ted Eberle, 68, a solid, rough-hewn man in a canvas vest and
camouflage cap, drives the gravel back roads of southeast Oklahoma in
a pickup truck that smells of deer meat. Speaking in a twanging drawl,
he tells story after story about the area—killings are a recurring
theme—as we rattle and jounce through low wooded hills, isolated
farms and thickets full of wild hogs.

“Seminole County was a refuge for outlaws when it was Indian
Territory, and there are still places you don’t go unless you’re
invited,” says Eberle, a former county commissioner.

Seminole County was also the center of the last armed and organized
insurrection against the U.S. government. This dramatic, quixotic
uprising of impoverished tenant farmers—mostly white, but including
African-Americans and Native Americans—made front-page news across
the nation in the summer of 1917, but is now almost forgotten, even
where it took place.

“Most people around here have never heard of the Green Corn
Rebellion,” Eberle says. “Or it might ring a bell somewhere, but
they can’t tell you what happened. Hell, I had two uncles that went
to prison for it, and I don’t even know how they got mixed up in
it.”

Eberle knows the geography of the rebellion, though, and he’s taking
me to key locations, starting with a rocky, brush-covered hill on the
Little River. “That’s what they call Spears Mountain,” he says.

Ted Eberle believes that his two rebel uncles were duped. "They
thought they could overthrow the government and avoid the draft—but
it wasn't going to happen." (Trevor Paulhus)
 

In early August 1917, several hundred rebels gathered here by the farm
of John Spears, who had hoisted the red flag of socialist revolution.
Socialists are about as common as Satanists in rural Oklahoma today,
and regarded in much the same light, but in the early 20th century,
poor farmers flocked to the anti-capitalist creed. Most of the men on
Spears Mountain, and at other rebel gathering places, were members of
the Working Class Union (WCU), a secret socialist organization that
vowed to destroy capitalism as well as resist the military draft for
World War I. The rebels planned to rout the forces of law and order in
Oklahoma, and then march to Washington, D.C., where they would stop
the war, overthrow the government and implement a socialist
commonwealth. The rebel leaders had assured their followers that two
million working men would rise up with them, forming an unstoppable
army. On the long march east, they would feed themselves with green
(yet to ripen) corn taken from the fields. Hence the rebellion’s
name.

Eberle now drives to a rise overlooking the shallow, sandy South
Canadian River. “Uncle Dunny dynamited a railroad bridge right
there, or burned it down, I’ve heard it both ways,” he says.
“His name was Antony Eberle. The other uncle was Albert Eberle. We
called him Chuzzy. He went to prison because they hung someone using a
rope that had his initials on it. At least that’s the story I’ve
always heard.”

On Spears Mountain, the final, suspenseful confrontation between the
sheriff's posse and hundreds of tough-talking socialists ended in
anticlimax, with the rebels fleeing or surrendering. (Trevor Paulhus)
 

Dunny and Chuzzy wouldn’t talk to Ted about the rebellion after they
came out of prison, and neither would Ted’s father. But others said
Dunny and Chuzzy were “backed into it” by violent threats from a
few outside agitators. Ted wants to believe this, but he doubts it’s
true.

“They had razor-sharp knives, and they were quick and mean,” he
says. “Uncle Dunny killed a man in Arkansas, and did ten years in
prison, and came here when it was still outlaw territory. It’s hard
to imagine anyone forcing Dunny—or Chuzzy—into doing something he
didn’t want to do.”
 

Rebels dynamited the bridge over the South Canadian River near
Sasakwa—to little effect. "The fire was extinguished and traffic
resumed late this afternoon," one report said. (Trevor Paulhus)
 

It’s extraordinary that this violent socialist rebellion against the
U.S. government—the only one of its kind—has been largely erased
from collective memory. Despite its failure, it wrecks long-standing
arguments for “American exceptionalism,” as Alexis de Tocqueville
called it—the notion that the United States is uniquely immune to
radical class-based uprisings. But what’s most striking about the
Green Corn Rebellion is the ambition of these half-starved backcountry
farmers, the combination of boldness and delusion that propelled them
to take on the government and the capitalist economic system. Armed
with Winchesters, shotguns and squirrel-guns, riding on horses and
mules, or walking on foot, they were confident of victory.

* * *

It might surprise many who call themselves socialists today, including
members of Congress, that the heartland of American socialism was once
rural Oklahoma. In 1915, there were more registered Socialist Party
members in Oklahoma than in New York, which had seven times the
population and a much stronger tradition of left-wing politics.
Oklahoma socialists built a statewide movement, but won the most
converts in the southeastern counties, where a small elite of
predominantly white landowners had established a cotton fiefdom in the
old Indian Territory. They rented out most of their land to tenant
farmers, black and white, who had migrated to Oklahoma from Texas,
Arkansas and the Deep South, dreaming of opportunity on a new
frontier.

 

A view of a farm through trees, taken from train tracks outside of
Sasakwa, Oklahoma. (Trevor Paulhus)

One reason that socialism thrived there was the appalling exploitation
of these tenant farmers. In addition to being rack-rented, with the
lease payable in cotton and corn, they were charged outrageous rates
of interest by banks and merchants for the credit they needed to put
another crop in the ground. Twenty percent interest was the baseline,
200 percent was not uncommon, and the highest compounded rates reached
2,000 percent. Buyers offered rock-bottom prices for cotton, and
tenant farmers had no choice but to sell, and mortgage the next
year’s crop, to keep going. Adding to these burdens were the poor
soil and periodic ravages of the pestilential boll weevil. No matter
how hard they worked, or how thrifty they were, tenant farmers were
trapped in perpetual debt and abject poverty.
 

From left, a fenceline covered in thorns outside Sasakwa, Oklahoma,
and the morning sun shining on a field in Seminole County,
Oklahoma. (Trevor Paulhus)

In 1907, the German-born socialist organizer and editor Oscar
Ameringer met these ragged, emaciated men and women. He had been
organizing dockworkers in New Orleans when he agreed to come to
Oklahoma and spread the budding socialist movement. What he found in
the southeastern cotton counties was “humanity at its lowest
possible level of degradation.” Tenant farmers were living in crude
shacks infested with bedbugs and other parasites. They were suffering
the diseases of malnutrition, and toiling in the fields for up to 18
hours a day. Though the American Socialist Party, following Marxist
orthodoxy, disdained farmers as petty capitalists and argued that
agriculture should be collectivized, Ameringer and other socialist
leaders in Oklahoma viewed “agricultural laborers” as members of
the working class, and argued that anyone who works the soil has the
right to own land. That was Marxist heresy—but it won over tens of
thousands of debt-ridden small farmers.

Socialist Party organizers, who typically shun religion, exploited the
evangelical Christianity of the Oklahoma countryside. They portrayed
Jesus Christ as a socialist hero—a carpenter who threw the
money-changers out of the temple and said it was easier for a camel to
pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.
The gospel of socialism spread through Oklahoma at weeklong summer
camp meetings that attracted thousands and had the atmosphere of
holiness revivals. Religious songs were given socialist lyrics.
“Onward Christian Soldiers,” for example, became “Onward,
Friends of Freedom,” and began “Toilers of the nation, thinkers of
the time....” Speakers told of the evils of capitalism, the great
beast whose lair was Wall Street, and the imminent arrival of a
paradise on earth called the Cooperative Commonwealth, in which
everyone would have enough to be comfortable and happy. Here at last
the tenant farmers’ degradation was explained to them—the cause
was the system, not their own shortcomings.

Tenant farmers in Seminole County often failed, a 1922 account said,
because rates on debt "ran 18 to 60 percent." (Trevor Paulhus)

This unorthodox brand of socialism won support in Texas, Arkansas,
Louisiana and Kansas, but it was strongest in Oklahoma. In 1914, the
Sooner State elected 175 Socialist candidates to county and township
positions, including six to the state legislature, alarming the
political establishment. Between 1915 and 1917, the recently founded
Working Class Union recruited thousands of angry, frustrated men in
southeast Oklahoma, perhaps as many as 20,000. Their activities ranged
from legal strikes, boycotts and lawsuits, to night-riding, bank
robberies, barn-burning and dynamiting farm equipment.

Nothing helped the WCU more than President Woodrow Wilson’s decision
in April 1917 to engage the United States in World War I. It meant
that young men would be fighting and dying in Europe, not helping
their families raise a crop. Under the charismatic leadership of H.H.
“Rube” Munson, the wayward son of a prosperous Kansas pharmacist,
and his mesmerizing lieutenant, Homer Spence, the WCU grew stronger by
promising to shelter draft dodgers. Oklahoma farmers and socialists
called Woodrow Wilson “Big Slick” and denounced the Allied cause
as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”

No one knows more about the Green Corn Rebellion than Nigel Sellars, a
historian at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia,
who discovered an archival goldmine in the “Old German Files” of
the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of the FBI. The files,
preserved on microfilm at the National Archives, contain the
bureau’s records of antiwar activities from 1915 to 1920. “I found
affidavits, federal agents’ reports and interviews with the
participants,” Sellars told me via email. He suggested that I take a
look for myself.
 

Little River passes through Seminole County, Oklahoma. (Trevor
Paulhus)
 

It was at the National Archives branch in College Park, Maryland, that
I learned the truth about Ted Eberle’s mysterious uncles, Antony and
Albert Eberle. Far from being “backed into it,” they were among
the leaders of the local WCU and the draft resistance. That’s why
Uncle Chuzzy went to prison; there are no records of anyone being
hanged during the rebellion. The Eberle brothers had dynamite for
blowing up railroad bridges, and strychnine to poison the food and
water that rebel wives would offer to investigating lawmen. They also
threatened people into joining the rebellion. Uncle Dunny, in a moment
that captured the rebellion’s atavistic frontier style, pointed two
Winchester rifles at a young, wavering recruit and said, “God Damn
you, get on that horse and come along.”

The rolls of microfilm reveal that the WCU, despite its vows of
secrecy, its murder policy for snitches and a system of secret
passwords, was thoroughly penetrated by undercover federal agents and
informants. One agent drank and played cards for ten hours with WCU
leaders at a saloon called Mother McKeevers in Dewar, Oklahoma, as
they plotted to dynamite the gas lines to the smelters at a local
mine. The sabotage, they said, would launch a campaign of “dirty
work” so devastating that the “big bones,” or rich capitalists,
would hide in their cellars when they saw the sign of the WCU. It
wasn’t all barroom talk. Soon afterward, explosions destroyed gas
lines and a waterworks near Dewar, and WCU members were arrested for
the crimes.

On May 25, Special Agent M.L. Cutler reported that WCU members in
Hughes County, Oklahoma, were recruiting men in large numbers, and
buying guns and ammunition “with the intention of fighting
conscription.” In Seminole County, “after considerable
questioning,” a Native American WCU member named Ottie Tiger
revealed plans to murder local draft officers.

Homer Spence was in Seminole County on June 8, and spoke to the
Friendship local of the WCU. If they allowed themselves to be examined
by draft officers, he said, they would “never get to see Sally and
baby no more.” He laid out some tactics for the first phase of the
rebellion: poison the wells, fight from the underbrush, seize weapons
from Uncle Sam’s dead soldiers, blow up buildings belonging to the
“Slicks,” destroy the railroads, loot everything possible, carry
it home in wagons and hide it. Then be ready to march to Washington.

Spence warned members that he was a “sub-cat,” and asked if they
knew what that meant. They said no. He said it was a “death angel
with a blind fold on that would appear to them in sleep.” According
to the affidavit of W. H. Hoobler, “That nearly scared the boys to
death, they didn’t know what to do.”

The Friendship local was led by Jim Danley, a wiry 35-year-old with a
sandy complexion, and by the Eberle brothers. Danley was overflowing
with revolutionary fervor. He told “the boys” that the uprising
wouldn’t just be nationwide, but global, and they would whip the
capitalist class once and for all. Meanwhile the Eberle brothers were
recruiting their relatives to the WCU, urging people not to register
for the draft, and stashing ammunition, strychnine and dynamite.

On August 4, 1917, local papers trumpeted Sheriff Robert Duncan's
warning to the draft-averse revolutionaries: "They'll either surrender
or we'll shoot to kill." (Newspaper.com)

On the night of August 2, the Friendship local and the Francis local
met on a sandbar in the South Canadian River. The meeting was
interrupted when “Captain” Bill Benefield, head of the Lone Dove
local, rode up on a mule. He was, according to historian James R.
Green’s account in _Grass-Roots Socialism_
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waist. He announced that some of his members had ambushed and killed
Sheriff Frank Grall and his deputy, Will Cross, and the rebellion was
now underway. (In fact, Grall was only grazed and Cross survived his
neck wound.)

Some of the men on the sandbar threw their hats in the air and
hurrahed. Others got scared and wanted to leave, but Jim Danley
grabbed his shotgun, the Eberle brothers leveled their Winchesters,
and Benefield drew his gun. “The first son-of-a-bitch that starts to
leave here,” Danley reportedly said, “we’ll leave him right
here.”

Then they dispersed in groups, and started carrying out their plans.
They cut telephone and telegraph lines, and set fire to railroad
bridges and trestles. One group attempted—but failed—to dynamite
an oil pipeline. On the morning of August 3, they mustered on Spears
Mountain (also known as Spears Ridge), some 400-strong. They roasted a
large quantity of corn and a stolen heifer. Then they waited for Uncle
Sam’s troops to come, or a signal to begin marching to Washington.

News of the rebellion had spread rapidly, carried in part by fleeing
conscripts, and nearby towns were in a panic. “Reign of Terror”
and “Whole Region Aflame,” one newspaper proclaimed. White
citizens were particularly alarmed to learn that blacks and Indians
were among the rebels. In the town of Konawa, women spent the night
hiding in a cornfield, while men lay on the roofs of store buildings
with rifles. Sheriffs wasted no time. Within 24 hours, they had 1,000
armed men guarding the towns or hunting the rebels.

On Spears Mountain, around 3 p.m., the rebels saw a posse coming
toward them. Benefield counted 30 or 40 men in the distance, and
declared that killing them all would be light work. As the posse drew
closer, however, courage deserted the rebel leaders. “At first
Danley and Benefield gave orders to ‘fight like hell,’ but before
a single gun was fired they gave orders to ‘run like hell,’”
according to the affidavit of Lee Adams, a 22-year-old in the
Friendship local. The vast majority of the rebels fled through the
hills for home, or hid out in the river bottoms.

One group remained to put up a fight. But, expecting federal troops,
they saw instead the familiar faces of their neighbors in the posse.
As Walter Strong later explained, “We couldn’t shoot ’em down in
cold blood. That’s the way we felt about the Germans too....We
didn’t have no quarrel with them at all.” So they threw their guns
down and surrendered.

Out of all the insurrections in American history, very few were as
ambitious as the Green Corn Rebellion, and it must be judged as a
disastrous failure. The authorities used the rebellion as a pretext to
arrest innocent socialists all over Oklahoma and permanently destroy
the socialist movement in the state by equating it with treason and
violent anarchy. State and local governments established an intensely
repressive, hyper-patriotic regime, in which citizens were jailed for
failing to buy war bonds, and lynched and murdered for voicing antiwar
sentiments. Nigel Sellars sums up the rebellion as “the only
explicitly socialist insurrection in American history, and the only
one that mirrors the other revolutions in 1917.” As Oklahoma
newspapers and politicians proudly declared, Marxist revolution might
have triumphed in Russia that year, but it got nowhere in the Sooner
State.

Victor Walker, 75, is a genial retired sales executive in the small,
shrinking town of Konawa. His grandfather, William Wallace Walker, was
one of the rebellion’s leaders. The evidence was a document
unearthed by a local journalist at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“It was never talked about in my family,” Victor says. “My
sister knew that Grandpa had gone to prison, but she thought he’d
stolen a horse. I had to tell her, ‘No, he tried to overthrow the
U.S. government.’ She said, ‘_What?_’ She had never heard of the
Green Corn Rebellion.”
 

From left, old street signs stand in a field and the sun sets over
trees and grassland in Sasakwa, Oklahoma. (Trevor Paulhus)
 

Victor, the youngest child, found out about the rebellion from his
father, Rex, who finally broke his silence toward the end of his life
and told a few stories about the rebellion’s aftermath. Posses and
lawmen were scouring the countryside in the biggest manhunt in
Oklahoma history. Three rebels were killed in shootouts, and an
innocent schoolteacher was gunned down while attempting to drive
through a roadblock. William Wallace Walker was still hiding out, and
young Rex was delivering his meals.

“One day lawmen came to the house, and wrapped a log chain around my
dad’s neck,” says Victor. “He was 15 or 16, just a boy. They
told him, ‘We’re going to hang your ass from a tree unless you
tell us where that son-of-a-bitch is hiding.’ My dad didn’t tell
them a damn thing, which was typical of him and his brothers. Grandpa
raised five or six of the meanest boys that ever walked this
county.”

On several occasions, Rex woke up in the middle of the night to find
lawmen in the house holding kerosene lanterns and searching through
the one room in which the family slept to see if the fugitive had
sneaked home. Eventually, William Wallace Walker turned himself in; he
served a year and a day in the federal penitentiary at Fort
Leavenworth. “He lived ten more years after that, but he was never
the same,” said Victor. “He came out broke, mentally and
physically, and lost his farm while he was in prison.”

In the course of the manhunt, law enforcement authorities arrested 458
men, including many Socialist Party members who had no connection to
the rebellion. At least 16 wanted men were never captured, including
one of the WCU members who’d shot the sheriff and his deputy near
Lone Dove. Some newspapers and politicians called for the arrested men
to be lynched, and initially the U.S. prosecutor said their treason
warranted the death penalty. But two-thirds of them were released for
lack of evidence, and the authorities accepted that most of the rebels
had been duped or coerced into taking part. Eighty-six men, all of
whom pleaded guilty, were sentenced to prison terms of one to ten
years. Rube Munson and Spence got the longest terms, and served under
tough conditions in Fort Leavenworth.

Wildflowers grow in a field in Seminole County, Oklahoma. (Trevor
Paulhus)
 

When the former Green Corn rebels were released, many had to move away
because landlords refused to rent to them. The rest kept their heads
down and their mouths shut. “Captain” Bill Benefield was so
tormented with regret and remorse over the rebellion that he committed
suicide. Ted Eberle’s uncle Dunny, if anyone asked, said he would
gladly fight for Uncle Sam if given another chance. The Oklahoma
Socialist Party disbanded in 1918.

* * *

In a manicured neighborhood in an Oklahoma City suburb lives a
courtly, cigarette-smoking octogenarian named Paul Gaines. His family
history contains a bitter footnote to the Green Corn Rebellion. On the
first day of 1920, nearly a year and a half after the rebellion
folded, his grandfather Tom Ragland, who had served on the county
draft board, was riding through Seminole County. Five men lurking by a
culvert blasted him off his horse with shotguns. His body was found
with a typewritten note pinned to his chest saying “never again
would he send men to war.”

Paul Gaines, in Edmond, recalls the murder of his grandfather, Tom
Ragland. "They found out when his horse come home without him. That
was a faithful horse. His name was Button. (Trevor Paulhus)
 

“My grandmother put up a grave marker where his body was found, but
the family was worried that it might get stolen or vandalized, so I
have it here now,” says Gaines. “I’d be happy to show it to
you.”

He leads me across the back lawn to a storage shed, unlocks the
padlock, pulls back the door and points to a slab of gray stone
inscribed with these words: “Tom Ragland. Killed here, Jan. 1,
1920.” Below that, the stone is damaged, but you can still see most
of the ominous message that Raglan’s wife put there for his
murderers: “Prepare to meet your God.”

The men who killed Tom Ragland, a member of the local draft board,
were never brought to justice. Rebels had opposed what they called "a
rich man's war" but "a poor man's fight." (Trevor Paulhus)

“I think it’s fair to say that my grandfather was the last
casualty of the Green Corn Rebellion,” says Gaines, closing up his
shed. “And his killers got away with it. The case was never
solved.”

_Richard Grant is a British journalist currently based in Mississippi.
His most recent book is Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the
Mississippi Delta
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more articles from Richard Grant
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Twitter @richardgrant4 [[link removed]]_
 

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