[NOTE: This is the first of several posts that will reveal my approach to “teaching Civil Rights” to a class of high school juniors and seniors. I did not do a lot of lecturing in this course, but what I offered periodically was intended to create a framework for material in our texts, videos, and discussions. What follows is the substance of a lecture I gave very early in the semester.
As part of the so-called “Compromise of 1877,” in exchange for southern support of the Republican presidential candidate in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, the South received a southerner as postmaster-general (a patronage-rich Cabinet post); the promise of economic aid from the federal government, especially in railroad construction; and a return to local self-determination in racial matters. The Compromise of 1877 was controversial at the time and remains a source of contention among historians.
A key element in securing acceptance of the terms of the Compromise was the development of the “New South Creed.” Yet, as events unfolded from the end of Reconstruction (1865-1877) through the first decade of the twentieth century, the “New South Creed” appears to have been largely a mythical construct bearing little resemblance to the reality of the “New South,” at least in retrospect.]
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During Reconstruction, a few energetic young white southerners saw the need for a positive program to lift the eyes of their people from the poverty and humiliation that had been their lot after Appomattox: Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution; Henry Watterson of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal; journalist Walter Hines Page; and Richard Edmonds, founder of the Baltimore (Md.)-based periodical the Manufacturer’s Record.
Their program was based on the idea that the present misfortunes of the South stemmed directly from the antebellum “tyranny of cotton” and the region’s reliance on the institution of slavery necessitated by it. Their “realistic” alternative for the postwar South included:
- Harmonious reconciliation between the sections.
- Industrialization of the South through the infusion of northern capital and the immigration of skilled labor.
- Diversification of agriculture, based upon sound business principles
- Peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites on a “separate but equal” basis.
To spread this “New South Creed,” advocates resorted to what we would today call propaganda, sending speakers to the North and encouraging visits to the South by friendly northern journalists.
Proponents of the notion that there was indeed a “New South” below the Mason-Dixon Line maintained that the former Confederacy was a land teeming with natural resources begging to be exploited, and home to a large, non-union labor force that came very cheaply. Moreover, they argued that the prevailing mood in the region was one of acceptance of the verdict of the Civil War: it was a quiet place where outside capital would both be secure and produce profitable returns. Finally, those who emphasized the reality of a “New South” reassured northerners that white and black southerners were content with their lots in the post-war world.
This “New South Creed” was based upon the South’s purported belief in progress, a point emphasized in a series of industrial expositions in the 1880s and 1890s, including one in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park (1895). As part of their rosy view of progress, spokesmen promised that the South’s acceptance of the doctrine of “separate but equal” in racial matters would guarantee political and economic equality for blacks but would maintain white supremacy in social matters.
Propagandists for the “New South Creed” argued that there was no danger in allowing black people to vote; the practice provided good training in citizenship for that benighted race. As for racial equality, proponents contended that separate societies were justified by the obvious “superiority” of the Anglo-Saxon “race” and by the fact that both blacks and whites preferred segregation. This argument proved doubly useful, because a) it seemed to support the notion that segregation rested on consent rather than force; and b) it could be used to justify the desire of whites to limit African Americans’ freedom of movement and, thus, restrict contact between the races. And, of course, “separate but equal” eventually gained support from the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
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Ironically, a “separate but equal” facet of the New South Creed, the “Myth of the Old South,” that moonlight-splashed, magnolia-scented legend all who have read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or seen the movie version are familiar with, began to develop in the 1880s.
The United Confederate Veterans was formed in 1889 and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1895, each dedicated to idea that, although a “Lost Cause,” the establishment of the Confederacy–and the conflict that grew out of it–had been a noble endeavor that survivors must memorialize and commemorate in every way possible: from textbooks and school curricula that highlighted the valor of Confederate leaders and troops, to statues erected in town squares and other public places honoring the fallen in marble and bronze.
Despite the fact that the regimes ushered in by the Democratic “Redeemers” and their successors following Reconstruction were no-nonsense and seemed to be trying to make the South over into the image of the victorious North, the intertwined myths of the “Old South” and the “Lost Cause” highlighted the grace and simplicity presumed to have existed under the Old Order of pre-war years.
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The main vehicle for the “Myth of the Old South” was literary. The 1880s and 1890s witnessed a revival of southern influence, especially in fiction. Short-story writers and novelists like Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page emphasized local color, dialect, and sentimentality; realism was nowhere apparent. By the 1870s, many northerners were disgusted by Reconstruction, fed up with the perennial “Negro problem,” and yearning for reconciliation between the sections. The pervading spirit of “Old South” literature harmonized readily with those feelings, and, as a result, it was phenomenally popular with northern middle-class readers during the late nineteenth century.
Northern authors joined their southern brethren in enumerating several common themes about life in the South before and after the War. In the literary South set before the War, a prettified version of slavery was presented as the most suitable form of social control for poor, helpless slaves. Short stories and novels set in the postwar South stressed that former slaves were unable to cope with freedom; there was a need for reconciliation between North and South; blacks were innately inferior to whites; and the most desirable form of control over the African American population was the paternalism of southern whites.
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One cannot deny that there were genuine achievements during the era of the New South. For instance, a postwar boom in railroad construction saw 13,259 miles of track constructed by 1880 and 27,650 by 1890. The revival of southern railroads also breathed new life into seaport cities and ocean shipping. The federal government spent some money on southern river and harbor improvements, widening the Mississippi River below New Orleans and dredging the harbor at Galveston, Texas.
Cotton mills expanded in the South during the postwar era, as did tobacco factories, which were centered in North Carolina, and the iron industry, especially in Alabama. New towns rose, like Birmingham; old ones such as Natchez, Memphis, and New Orleans, were revitalized; and Atlanta emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of the Civil War years.
Yet, despite strides in these areas, the South’s progress was no faster than the rest of the nation. Thus, in 1860, the South had 17.5% of manufacturing establishments in the United States and 11.5% of the capital, while in 1904 those figures stood at 15.3% and 11%, respectively. During this same period, the value of manufactured products in the South rose from 10.3% of total value produced in the U.S. to 10.5%. Despite the growth of some southern towns and cities, the region’s population remained overwhelmingly rural. For instance, by 1900 South Carolina was being hailed as the “cotton mill state,” yet 69% of its population was still employed in agriculture, and only 3.6% in manufacturing; and the percentage of southerners east of the Mississippi River engaged in manufacturing in 1900 was approximately the same as in all states east of the Mississippi in 1850.
Moreover, the South was still a colonial dependency of the North, producing raw materials that were largely finished outside the region. “New South” spokesmen had emphasized that, while they were willing to accept northern financial aid and participation in industrializing the South, the South should itself determine how that money was spent.
What happened, though, was that infusions of northern and European capital led to absentee ownership. For example, of the twenty members of the board of directors of the Richmond & West Point Terminal Company in 1890, seventeen lived in New York City. J.P. Morgan took advantage of the Panic of 1893 to gain control of the South’s railroad network; other northern industrialists took over southern iron and steel corporations at the same time; and eastern money also controlled oil pipelines, sulfur, and aluminum.
Factories that moved south did so to exploit cheap, non-union labor. Declining agricultural conditions pushed farmers to urban areas, thus decreasing chances for skilled immigrant labor in those cities, and the South remained suspicious of, or even hostile towards, immigrants. If all this were not bad enough, various freight differentials were raised as artificial barriers, which further hampered the process of industrializing the South.
Southerners thus were not the happy, contented people “New South” propagandists made them out to be. Factory jobs were for whites only—in 1891, there were only 7500 blacks engaged in factory work, and most of them were in janitorial positions. If white workers threatened to strike, though, management could point menacingly to the black labor pool as potential strikebreakers. Per capita income in the United States in 1909 was $1165, but only $509 in the South. Finally, by 1900, 150,000 white and 233,000 black southerners rented agricultural land, while 404,000 whites and 229,000 blacks were sharecroppers.
In short, postwar economic conditions like sharecropping, tenant farming, the crop lien system, and convict leasing victimized poor whites and poor blacks alike. Popular unrest was manifested in the region during the 1890s in the growth of the Populist movement as a formidable political force.
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Although the New South Creed initially faced numerous obstacles, it eventually overcame them, to gain widespread acceptance on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nevertheless, the triumph of the New South Creed was one of rhetoric and literary artistry over substance. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the South remained the poorest section of the country, a colonial dependency of the North whose people lived under conditions that were, despite the claims of a central tenet of the Creed, both rigidly separate and decidedly unequal.
The “New South Creed” had become a myth. It would disappear, to be revived in a 1970 book by historian Paul Gaston, but the concept of the “New South” the Creed purported to describe has remained an integral part of the region’s identity.
Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. Oxford and New York, 1992; 2007.
Gaston, Paul M. The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking. New York, 1970.
Lamplugh, George R. “The Image of the Negro in Popular Magazine Fiction, 1875-1900,” Journal of Negro History 57 (April, 1972): 177-189.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Baton Rouge, 1951; 1967.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: