The Lost History of Southern Republicans, Part II

Leaders of the Arkansas Republican Party, 1916 Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville

As I wrote on Friday, by the 1890s, the Republican Party in the South was mostly viewed as a set of rotten boroughs. In each state – outside of a few areas in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia – a Republican organization existed not to compete in elections, but to control delegations at the Republican National Convention and take advantage of executive patronage when a Republican was elected president.

This executive patronage was extremely valuable, and those state Republican leaders who were in control of it benefitted greatly. They either distributed the positions to loyal partisans, as a means of keeping the party machine intact, or sold them outright (with the promise of additional kickbacks in the future).

Thus, even in an era of one-party Democratic dominance, Republican leadership positions in the South were heavily contested. At first, the contests were between rival biracial coalitions tied to former elected officials and current federal office-holders in a state. By the 1890s, the nature of contests had changed and became one of insiders versus outsiders. The insiders (known as the Black-and-Tans) were the traditional biracial coalitions that comprised Republican organizations since the beginning of Reconstruction. The outsiders (known as the Lily-Whites) were a group of white politicians – some who broke from the traditional biracial organizations and some who were new to politics and were predominantly New South businessmen – that sought to restrict leadership positions in the Republican Party to whites only.

The Lily-Whites emerged in Texas in response to Norris Wright Cuney (below on the left) – a mixed-race politician who was born into slavery – becoming Republican state boss in 1886. Over the next two decades, as Southern states began passing disfranchisement laws and pushing blacks out of the electorate, Lily-Whites emerged throughout the former-Confederacy. While Lily-Whites clearly wanted to usurp control of the party – and executive patronage – from the Black-and-Tans, they also argued that in the new Jim Crow South the only way that the Republican Party could ever become electorally viable again would be to become “respectable” in the eyes of the new Southern electorate – which was nearly all white. And “respectable” in this case meant “white.” Thus, Lily-Whites contended that the face of the party – its leadership positions – needed to be exclusively white.[1] In Texas, for example, these arguments chipped away at Cuney’s power until he was finally replaced in 1896. And the Lily-Whites gained firm control of the party within a generation, as Lily-White lawyer and oilman Rentfro B. Creager (below on the right) became Republican boss in Texas in 1920 and stayed in power for three decades.

Until recently, outside of anecdotes, very little was known of the battles between Black-and-Tans and Lily-Whites in the Jim Crow South. The only book-length study of these Republican factions was written by political scientist Hanes Walton, Jr. in 1975.[2] And while it provided much useful information and data, the book fell short of being complete and systematic. As a result, Boris Heersink (Fordham) and I sought to build upon Walton’s important work. We did so in an article and a book. I summarize some of our research below.

To assess the competition between Black-and-Tans and Lily-Whites in the eleven Southern states over time, we assembled an original dataset on the racial composition of Southern state delegations to the Republican National Convention between 1868 and 1952. We argued that the conflict between the Lily-Whites and Black-and-Tans should have been fought largely with the prize of convention delegate seats in mind. As voting restrictions took hold throughout the South and excluded nearly all blacks from voting or holding elected office, the Republicans’ electoral viability in the region withered away – and being a delegate to the national convention became the only remaining form of representative political office that most Southern Republicans could achieve. The racial composition of state Republican convention delegations in the South thus becomes a useful metric (and perhaps the only one) for systematically assessing Lily-White vs. Black-and-Tan control.

We matched each individual delegate listed in the convention proceedings to their original census forms, using the online demographic aggregation search engine Census records that matched on name and hometown, and for which the matching census respondents were of voting age at the time of the convention, were accessed and the race listed on the census form was matched to the delegate. We also used other sources of information when we were unable to match to an original census form. Specifically, we looked for any references to the race of those particular delegates in primary or secondary historical sources. In the end, we were able to identify the race of almost 84 percent of the 8,660 delegates included in the dataset.

The percentage of of Southern Republican convention delegates that were African American by state appears in the table below. These data largely confirm the traditional perspective of the Lily-White takeover of the Southern Republican organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and their success at slowly but surely pushing black Southerners out of the party in the decades that followed). While never constituting a majority, African Americans consistently represented between 40 and 50 percent of Southern delegates at Republican National Conventions between 1880 and 1896.

However, starting with the 1900 convention, the percentage of black delegates began to drop considerably. Between 1916 and 1924, only around 20 percent of Southern Republican delegates were black. While the number increased slightly for the 1928 convention, black convention attendance suffered a lasting drop beginning with the 1932 convention. This decline can be attributed to a general upswing in Lily-White challenges across the South – initiated with President Herbert Hoover’s blessing – which resulted in a dramatic change of fortunes for black representation.

Some transitions were extreme in terms of the exclusion of African American delegates. In North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, and Texas, African Americans were eliminated entirely (or nearly so) from leadership positions. Some transitions were less extreme. In Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida, whites came to dominate the party, but a small percentage of African Americans were kept in place to maintain party harmony or for strategic purposes.[3] One example of the latter was in Tennessee, where Robert Church Jr. (below on the left) wielded influence for decades in western Tennessee by entering into a working relationship with E. H. Crump (below on the right), Democratic boss of the state.

And, finally, some transitions were very slow. In South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, Black-and-Tan leaders – like Perry Howard in Mississippi (below, pointing, with Republican orator Roscoe Conkling Simmons in 1932) and Joseph Tolbert in South Carolina, mentioned in Friday’s post – retained control of the party deep into the first half of the twentieth century and sometimes beyond. Howard and Tolbert staved off President Hoover’s attempts to remove them from power – although Tolbert was removed temporarily. Tolbert was finally removed for good in 1940. Howard survived until 1960.

We also used these data to examine something bigger – namely, how the Republicans began to emerge as a viable electoral party in the last half of the twentieth century. In this way, per the claim made by Lily-White leaders from the faction’s inception, the battle between the Black-and-Tans and Lily-Whites was not just about executive patronage (and who would receive it), it was also about whether the Republican Party would develop as a viable alternative for the Southern (white) electorate after disfranchisement laws were passed.

Was there in fact a systematic connection between the “whiteness” of the Republican Party and its electoral vote totals in the Jim Crow South? We used the data on the racial makeup of Republican convention delegations in the South to examine this. We measured whiteness using the proportion of a state’s Republican National Convention delegation that was white. We called this proportion – 100 percent minus the percentages listed in the table above – the “Whiteness Index,” which captured the racial composition (or in this case, white composition) of a state’s Republican Party by presidential election year at a time when other systematic measures simply did not exist.

We regressed Republican presidential vote (by state and year) on the Whiteness Index lagged one election cycle, believing that four years was enough time for a Southern voter to assess the “respectability” of the Republican Party when he went to the polls;[4] a Disfranchisement variable, which takes a value of 1 if voting restrictions intended to disenfranchise African Americans were in place in a state, and 0 otherwise;[5] the interaction between lagged Whiteness Index and the Disfranchisement variable; and fixed effects to control for unobserved variation at the state level and by presidential-election year.

The average marginal effects of the lagged Whiteness Index on Republican presidential vote are illustrated in the first figure below. Prior to disfranchisement, there was a −0.23 percentage-point change (p < .01) in Republican presidential vote for a one percentage-point increase in lagged Whiteness Index. After disfranchisement, there was a 0.12 percentage-point change (p < .001) in Republican presidential vote for a one percentage-point increase in lagged Whiteness Index. The predicted Republican presidential vote by level of the lagged Whiteness Index is illustrated in the second figure below. The two data series cross, based on their negative (before disfranchisement) and positive (after disfranchisement) slopes. After voting restrictions were in place, a change from one standard deviation below the mean lagged Whiteness Index to one standard deviation above it resulted in a nearly 6 percentage-point increase in Republican presidential vote. This represents more than one-third of a standard deviation change in Republican presidential vote. We find similar results when looking at the marginal effects and plotting the predicted Republican support for congressional vote and governor vote.

Average Marginal Effects of Whiteness Index (Lagged) on GOP Presidential Vote
Predicted GOP Presidential Vote by Level of Whiteness Index (Lagged)

Thus, the relationship between the whiteness of the Republican Party and its share of the vote was consistent with the Lily-White argument. Digging deeper, we found that the results varied considerably by sub-region. For the states of the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina), which had a higher percentage of African Americans in the population, a whiter party was an extreme disadvantage before disfranchisement, but a whiter party provided no significant advantage after disfranchisement. For states in the Outer South (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia), however, a whiter party provided no significant advantage (or disadvantage) before disfranchisement, but a whiter party provided a significant and sizable advantage after disfranchisement.

These results comport with historical expectations. Prior to disfranchisement, a whiter Republican Party was a hindrance in the states of the Deep South, where black voters were a much larger part of the population than in the states of the Outer South. After disfranchisement laws were introduced, the whitening of the Republican Party had its greatest impact in the states of the Outer South, where the baggage of the Reconstruction era was not as entrenched. White voters in the Outer South were more willing to vote for the Republican Party based upon a visible change in the racial composition of the party leadership. This was not true in the Deep South, where a deeply ingrained racial consciousness was present and white voters had long viewed the Republican Party as the party of “Negro domination.” A whitening of the Republican Party leadership was not going to easily wipe away those long-standing beliefs. More had to happen before white voters in the Deep South would view the Republican Party as a viable electoral option.

To summarize, variation in both the onset of disfranchisement and the Whiteness Index among the Southern states allowed us to identify the effect of Republican leaders “whitening” the party in the post-disfranchisement era. The takeaway is this: the whitening of the party in the South – by moving toward Lily-Whiteism – produced a significant vote gain for the Republican Party after disfranchisement. Once voting restrictions effectively removed African Americans from the eligible Southern electorate, the Republican Party was able to slowly reemerge as a viable electoral party – considerably more so in the Outer South – by excluding blacks from leadership positions, thus satisfying the “respectability” condition of the new, nearly all white Southern electorate.

More generally, the whitening of the Republican Party in the South was a necessary condition in the Republican Party’s electoral growth and eventual dominance in the former Confederacy. By becoming a Lily-White party, the Republicans achieved some electoral gains, notably in the Outer South. But this move to Lily-Whiteism, by itself, was not sufficient. In order for those electoral gains to spread to the Deep South and grow generally such that the Republican Party could command a majority of votes throughout the entire South, a number of other things had to occur. The national Democratic Party, for example, had to move leftward on the issue of civil rights. And the national Republican Party had to continue emphasizing its economic-conservatism credentials while moving rightward on civil rights (first explicitly in 1964 during Goldwater’s presidential campaign and implicitly thereafter). Indeed, the Republicans had to become the broadly accepted party of racial conservatism before they could make a significant electoral breakthrough in the Deep South.

[1] While some Lily-Whites wanted to throw all blacks out of the Republican Party, most understood the importance of keeping blacks within the organization (but out of leadership roles). As political scientist Ralph Bunche explained some years later: “The lily-white Republican organizations do not generally exclude Negroes entirely. There is no such thing as a pure white Republican primary in the South. In some states . . . the Negro Republican registrants are needed in order to give the party sufficient representation in the state to continue the party’s legal recognition and keep its place on the ballot.” See The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 82.

[2] The photo at the top of this blog post shows the leaders of the Arkansas Republican Party in 1916.

[3] Note that historian Donald J. Lisio also provides a comprehensive account of Black-and-Tan versus Lily-White battles just prior to and during the Herbert Hoover presidency. See Hoover, Blacks, and Lily-Whites: A Study of Southern Strategies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

[4] Note that our results hold if we lag Whiteness Index two or three time periods, or use the average of the last three time periods.

[5] Disfranchisement provisions by state and year were based on data collected by J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 238-40.


  • Jeff Jenkins

    Jeffery A. Jenkins is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Political Science, and Law, Maria B. Crutcher Professor of Citizenship and Democratic Values, and Director of the Political Institutions and Political Economy (PIPE) Collaborative at the University of Southern California. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy (JPIPE) and the Journal of Historical Political Economy (JHPE). He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Politics for six years (2015-2020).

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