In the 1880s Black farmers in the South, like white farmers, faced economic problems resulting from falling commodity prices, rising farm costs, and high interest rates. Since the Southern Farmers' Alliance (see FARMERS' ALLIANCE) barred Blacks from membership, a small group of Black farmers organized the Colored Farmers' National Alliance and Cooperative Union in Houston County, Texas, on December 11, 1886. They elected J. J. Shuffer president and H. S. Spencer secretary. Richard Manning Humphrey, a white, accepted the position of general superintendent. After the alliance received a charter from the federal government in 1888, Humphrey began organizing chapters throughout the South. For a while he faced competition from a rival group, the National Colored Alliance, which appeared in Texas about the same time as the Colored Farmers' Alliance and was led by Andrew J. Carothers. In 1890 the two groups merged, and the next year the Colored Alliance claimed to have a membership of 1,200,000.
The Colored Alliance tried to help its members in a variety of ways. To educate them on how to become better farmers, it established a weekly newspaper, the National Alliance, published at Houston. It established exchanges in the ports of Charleston, Houston, Mobile, New Orleans, and Norfolk, through which the members bought goods at reduced prices and obtained loans to pay off mortgages. The alliance raised funds to provide for longer public school terms, and in some places it founded academies. Being a fraternal organization, the Colored Alliance solicited funds to help sick and disabled members. Its spokesmen advised Black farmers that they could best alleviate racial prejudice by owning their own homes and avoiding debt. In pursuing these programs the Colored Alliance resembled other Black organizations of that era that urged members to uplift themselves by hard work and sacrifice.
The Colored Alliance occasionally cooperated with the Southern Alliance. Both advocated the abolition of the Louisiana lottery, fearing it would lead farmers further into debt. To keep vegetable-oil prices low in comparison to the prices of animal fats, they opposed the Conger lard bill, a measure that attempted to impose taxes upon the production of vegetable oil. The two alliances sometimes joined forces in attempting to improve their business ventures. Despite their mutual support for some goals, however, the two organizations had sharp differences, as they revealed in a clash over the Lodge election bill, which promised federal protection to safeguard voting rights in the South. The Southern Alliance condemned that measure, while the Colored Alliance supported it.
The Colored Alliance was made up of landless people who picked cotton for white farmers. In September 1891 it called for cotton pickers throughout the South to strike unless they received wages of a dollar per hundred pounds, but the organization had neither the local leaders nor the means of communication necessary to unite its members in such a venture. Consequently, in most places the strike failed to materialize. When pickers in one Arkansas community actually tried to strike, whites forcefully crushed it and in the process killed fifteen strikers. In the months following the abortive strike, the Colored Alliance declined rapidly. The strike contributed to its demise.