S.J. Harper, early official, got Huey Long Started

By Tammie A. McDaniel
Special to The Journal

ęCopyright 2012 by Louisiana Historical Association. Used by permission.

In 1916, American voters acted on their commitment to remain isolated from World War I reelecting a president who promised to "keep us out of the war." Yet a majority of these same voters expressed a different sentiment on April 6, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson sought, and received a declaration of war from Congress. The nation was not wholly united in support of this action, however, and those citizens who continued to express reservations or outright opposition to America's participation in the Great War would soon find themselves the target of congressional legislation aimed at silencing them.

The Espionage Act, enacted June 15, 1917, and the Sedition Act that amended it a year later, served as a basis for the indictment of more than 15,000 American citizens over a three-year period. Under this law, in Louisiana, the Annual Report of the Attorney General recorded twenty charges brought against individuals. Perhaps the most notable case involved the indictment of State Sen. Samuel James Harper, Jr., of Winnfield, whose District encompassed Grant, Caldwell, and Winn parishes. Although more prominent national figures were indicted, and some convicted under the Espionage Act, the Louisiana trial provides an excellent case study into the character of native-born radicalism, and it illustrates how national policy can often become entrenched with local political feuds.

At the time of his indictment, Harper was serving a second term in the Louisiana Senate. Born at the outset of the Civil War in the piney woods of Simpson County, Mississippi, Harper moved with his parents to the rolling, red clay hills of Northwest Winn Parish in 1867. His mother shortly died, and by 1868 the seven-year-old youngster would be expected to welcome a step-mother into the family's already crowded Beech Creek home. Though life must have been a daily struggle, Harper's father and uncle obviously believed that education was a path toward a more prosperous future as they built a one-room schoolhouse and hired a teacher for their nine children. The young student would attend various rural schools for a total of sixteen months until 1884, when he became the first teacher in a Winn Parish public school. At the age of twenty-eight Harper married Clarinda Shumaker, daughter of a local country doctor. He and his young bride left the family's rural Beech Creek outpost and moved to Winnfield to set up a mercantile business in 1902.

Throughout the 1890s, Winn Parish politics was punctuated by clashes between Populists and Democrats. In the 1890 congressional election, Winn Parish politicos nominated T.J. Guice, an independent candidate running on the People's Party for the fourth Congressional seat. Guice lost the race in a lopsided vote, but populism gained a foothold in the state. During the campaign, Guice's supporters bought the only newspaper in Winnfield, the Winn Parish Democrat, renamed it the Comrade, and chose H.L. Brian as its editor. Brian, the leader of the People's Party in Louisiana, and chairman of its state central committee, now had a powerful voice for spreading the party's ideology. The influence of this newspaper along with the fusion agreement between the People's Party and Louisiana's anti-lottery Democrats, surely contributed to the triumph of Grant Parish farmer B.F. Brian, in his quest for the state senate in 1892, and to the success of the People's Party candidate to carry Winn Parish in that's year's gubernatorial election.

The People's Party enjoyed a measure of regional success and influence throughout much of the decade but its liberal stance on race relations caused problems for the party across the South. Even Winn Parish disciples failed to support the Populist Gubernatorial candidate, Donelson Caffery, in the 1900 election.

In Winnfield, Harper's new store was near the office of the Comrade. Such proximity afforded the aspiring politician with ample opportunities to exchange views with the paper's editors on the role of government in the lives of citizens across America. Indeed, the editors of the Comrade spoke favorably of Harper and his views as he entered the local political arena in a successful bid for a seat on Winnfield's Board of Aldermen in 1908. The paper supported him again when he made an unsuccessful run for the Mayor's office in 1910.

Next: Populism wanes, and hill country farmers and workers employed by large lumber companies and railroads gravitated towards the Socialist Party banner.