A haze of unrest and violence hung over the dark tobacco region of Western Kentucky and Tennessee at the turn of the 20th century. The events that transpired serve as a high-water mark of civil unrest between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
This region, colloquially known as the “Black Patch,” comprises approximately 35 counties in Western Kentucky and Tennessee where the growth of dark-fired tobacco served as the foundation for the agricultural economy since the region was settled. Good crop years stimulated the rural economy, but frequent poor production set the stage for a violent reaction to James B. “Buck” Duke’s American Tobacco Trust.
On September 24, 1904, by prior announcement in regional newspapers, the word was out that a group of men were intent upon forming a tobacco association that would attempt to bring some pressure upon James B. Duke so that he would release the stranglehold he had on the farmers in the Black Patch. That afternoon an organization was established, The Dark Fired Tobacco District Planters Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee, better known as “The Association.”
By 1906, a vigilante arm of the Association had formed under the leadership of Caldwell County native Dr. David A. Amoss. Originally called “possum hunters,” this militant band of farmers met in schoolhouses, in country churches, even out in the woods, always under the cover of darkness. Their object was to intimidate – by any means necessary – other farmers into joining the Association in order to create a holding action so Duke would be forced to pay a higher price for their tobacco. Scraping plant beds, sowing grass into young fields, burning barns, lashing unwilling farmers with a whip, setting fire to full tobacco warehouses in cities: nothing was off limits. Riding in the dead of night, these men donned black, hooded masks to ensure their anonymity and wore white sashes across their chests as they powerfully persuaded other farmers to join the Association.
Known as both “Night Riders” and the “Silent Brigade,” these masked men wreaked havoc through fields and towns in the region for nearly a decade. Join us in Hopkinsville on September 25-26 for this weekend of historical events to commemorate this turbulent time in western Kentucky’s and Tennessee’s history.
Kate Lochte of WKMS, a public media service of Murray State University, interviewed Christian County Historian William T. Turner in 2012 about the history of the Tobacco War and the Night Rider movement. Listen to it HERE.