John B. Rayner

Crucial Moments in Texan History Book Review:

Cantrell, Gregg. Feeding the Wolf: John B. Rayner & the Politics of Race, 1850-1918.

Wheeling, IL: Harlan-Davidson, 2001.

The complex career of the Texas politician John B. Rayner demonstrates how the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the rise but ultimate failure of Reconstruction defined the history of Texas during the 19th century. Despite the profound prejudice that existed against African-Americans during the era, John B. Rayner was able to rise to public prominence during the latter half of the 19th century in Texas. His politics fused populist rhetoric with a desire to bring about a multiracial coalition of Texans with mutual economic interests.

Yet coupled with this populism was a frequent elitist streak in his temperament, as he disdained a wholly inclusive voting rights policy, ended his career supporting vocational rather than academic schools for blacks despite his own considerable learning, and he frequently resorted to backroom deals to create a vision of Texas in the new era of America after Reconstruction. His flexible liberalism and wheeling and dealing makes him quintessentially Texan, in the later mode of Lyndon Johnson, although Rayner was fundamentally an iconoclast, and was not nearly as successful as capitalizing upon and using his political leverage as some later Texas politicians. Gregg Cantrell's book Feeding the Wolf: John B. Rayner & the Politics of Race, 1850-1918 creates a picture of an ambitious, yet politically passionate man who always triumphed by exceeding the odds and expectations society extended to African-Americans of the period, even though his dearest dreams were not always realized for Texas' farmers and African-Americans.

Rayner's personal and political achievements are still remarkable, especially when considering the era when he lived and its attitude towards African-Americans. Many African-Americans never learned to read or write, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Rayner was born a slave in 1859, during the final years of the antebellum period. His father was a white slave owner, Kenneth Rayner, a wealthy man from Raleigh, North Carolina, who later became a leader of the natvist anti-immigration American Party, otherwise known as the 'Know-Nothing,' Party.

John Rayner would be classified as a mulatto, in the post-Civil War discourse about race. (During the antebellum period, of course, a slave was simply a slave no matter what.) but while Kenneth Rayner, who was a prominent attorney as well as a slaveholder negotiated the surrender of Raleigh during the Civil War may have also been a politician like his illegitimate son, John's political career would take a very different political orientation from Kenneth. Both father and cast-off son would rise to prominence in their respective states, Rayner as a Populist advocate of African-American rights, while his father died an advocate of slavery.

John Rayner was a member of the first generation of Southern American blacks able to seek an education, largely due to the American government policies during Reconstruction. He studied to be a minister and a teacher at Raleigh Theological Institute and at St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute. After working as a teacher, he began his career in Carolina politics, but eventually left North Carolina, and went to Texas, where he made his home for the rest of his life, acting as an advocate for agrarian, populist interests.

At first, like most blacks of the era, Rayner's alliance was squarely with the Republican Party when he came to Texas. The Republican Party, after all, was the part of Lincoln. But gradually, he became convinced of the righteousness of the emerging Populist Party's cause, particularly given the difficulties suffered by farmers in the state. Rayner believed that the Populist Party was uniquely situated to fuse the interests of poor blacks and whites together, as he saw them as both united by a common economic cause. Rayner rose to prominence in the party, despite racial prejudice. At the 1894 state convention he became a member of the powerful executive committee of the party, and, rather than attempting to shun controversy, actively sought it out, as he urged the party to take a stronger stance on expanding African-American civil rights within the state. Rayner gained a reputation as one of the party, if not the state's greatest and most eloquent orators of the Populist cause.

However, his hopes were dashed when the Populist Party rallied around the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, William Jennings Bryan. The Democrats used the rhetoric of white solidarity to rally support for the Republican's opponent. The Republican Party, the party of Reconstruction was uniformly hated across the South, including Texas. This was despite Rayner's initial belief that Texas was profoundly different than Carolina. He was quickly disabused of this notion. He began to lose confidence in the ability of a party to create a truly multiracial coalition, despite the fact that he was of multiracial heritage himself.

Rayner was so outraged at the national Populist Party's move to support Bryan that he decided to go against the Populist Party and to support William McKinley for president instead, the Republican candidate. Marshalling all of the political support he could muster, he attempted to broker a deal with the Texas Republican party so that the Populists would support McKinley, in exchange for the Republicans not fielding any state candidates to increase the chances of the Texas populists securing their hold upon the state. However, the Texas Democratic Party, to circumvent Rayner's efforts, instead did all it could to block African-Americans across Texas from voting at all. Despite this, McKinley won the election for the Presidency handily. This was some consolation for Rayner, even though he had seen his hopes dashed of seeing a vision of the Populist Party of his dreams come to fruition, and more importantly, he had seen the disenfranchisement of a substantial proportion of the black electorate that had supported him since he arrived in Texas.

Although Rayner 'lost,' in some historian's estimations, not just Cantrell's the real losers were Texas farmers, and the Democrats. William Jennings Bryan had campaigned on a platform for free silver, a major Populist demand, and his most famous campaign speech decried the crucifixion of agriculture on the "cross" of the gold standard. Democrats hoped to sway farmers away Populists because of the centrality of this claim in the election. The Populists feared splitting the pro-silver vote, which they were certain, would worsen the depression gripping the Midwest and West, thus they threw their backing to Bryan. McKinley supported the gold standard. But by supporting Bryan, the Populists essentially brought about the death of their own party, because their main demand was now part of the Democratic platform. "When Bryan went down to defeat, the Populists had the worst of both worlds - free silver and inflation were lost causes and the Populist party would become a withering shell of its former self" (Patrick 2008). The two-party system of America held fast afterwards, as it does to this day.

The actions of the Texas Democratic Party to advance Bryan's candidacy is one peculiar example of race being used to advocate other political interests, in addition to racial divisions -- Rayner's political stance was circumvented not because of his race exclusively, but race was used as a tool of the dominant, Democratic political regime in Texas. Racism was indeed endemic to the history of the Democratic arty, but racial rhetoric was also deployed as a canny political tool of the Democrats. Gold and African-American rights were fused in the Democratic rhetoric, much to Rayner's dismay.

The portrait of a complex man emerges in the book and of a complex period of Texas' history, a book in which a man's career must truly be understood in context to evaluate his life and legacy. Cantrell suggests Rayner's ethnic heritage fueled his ambitious drive to create alliances…