Imagine, for a moment, that you have been transported through time and place and now live in the South and the year is 1880. There are obvious differences between this time and our own. No electrical power, air conditioning, plumbing, cars, phones, internet, television, radio, or modern medicine. Aside from the absence of modern conveniences that have increasingly come to define our lives in the 21st century, you would notice that the South in 1880 was riddled with a variety of problems. Big problems that, to a very large degree, the rest of the United States did not face.
You would immediately notice the poverty. A series of depressions ravaged the region, leaving the South economically crippled. Cotton increasingly dominated agriculture on large and small farms, forcing many growers to scale back or even stop growing provision crops and raising livestock in favor of the dominant cash crop. In order to merely feed their families, farmers were now forced to go deeply into debt, placing a lien on their next crop to local merchants just to provision their farms and feed their families. As long as the price of cotton was relatively high, then both sides won – the farmer got what he needed to run his farm and also turned a profit on the sale of his cotton, while the merchant made a hefty profit on the interest. The crop-lien system worked better in theory than in practice. Many farmers became shackled to cotton and became mired in the vice grip of debt and declining cotton prices. While there were economic success stories in the South during this era, especially in areas of retail and industrial entrepreneurship, overall, the region faced severe poverty and this made daily life a struggle for countless southerners.
If you happened to pick up a newspaper, you’d notice that the South faced many problems in regards to its political system. Traditionally, we assume that, at least among whites, the Democratic Party ruled the region. While the party was very strong throughout the South, it suffered from intense factionalism. Furthermore, the Republican Party never died and was very active throughout the region and even quite powerful in certain areas, particularly the mountains. Corruption was a large problem in politics throughout the nation and the South was certainly not immune to the so-called Gilded Age. The average southerner, especially farmers, also felt like politicians didn’t really represent their interests. Many observers felt that corporations and big money interests, like railroads, controlled politics and many became disenchanted and stopped voting – even if they had passionate political views. Farmers, millhands, loggers, and many average folk simply felt ignored by state governments and by their representatives in Washington. As the economy worsened and the plight of farmers grew ever more desperate, a new political movement evolved into the Populist Revolt, reaching a fevered pitch in 1892. Populism ultimately went down in defeat, but the movement laid the ground work for a new breed of southern politician. Demagogues like Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina existed all over the South and knew how to manipulate popular sentiment into huge political capital through race baiting and inciting class warfare.
If you decided to take a railroad to travel while you were in the South, you’d immediately be confronted with racial strife. Race relations at the time in the South were particularly volatile. Many African Americans, now closing in on two decades out of slavery were starting to improve their lives financially. Some owned small farms, some owned businesses, and others were artisans. Many blacks were accumulating property, and this alarmed most white folks. It was on railroad cars that racial tensions reached an apex. If an African American could afford a first class ticket, they expected, quite reasonably, equal accommodations by the railroad. This set the stage for a showdown in court, that culminated the landmark (and notorious) Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, which legalized “separate, but equal” accommodations on railroad cars, and eventually just about everything you could think of, including schools, toilets, water fountains, and theaters. For those blacks not lucky enough to accumulate property, sharecropping offered little but grueling work and continued poverty. By the end of the 19th century, not only was the South rapidly segregating, but white lawmakers were systematically disenfranching blacks. Stripped of their right to vote, black southerners faced not only an ever-expanding Jim Crow system but an epidemic of lynchings and desperate poverty.
You might also be struck how modern and non-traditional (if that means anything at all to you) life was becoming in the region. Old communities were dying while new ones emerged in their wake. Rural farm families, sometimes willingly (and even happily), sometimes more reluctantly, left the family farm to get jobs in textile mills, mushrooming all over the Piedmont in places like Greenville, South Carolina. In West Virginia and Kentucky, coal towns emerged out of mountain wilderness almost overnight. Throughout pine forests, men went to work in turpentine camps. Logging companies similarly expanded all over the region, transforming the workers and the landscape simultaneously. It is well documented that the shift from farming to “public work” (as it was known in the South) was a difficult and anxious process for middling and poor southern families. Even aristocratic families with huge plantations felt their traditional lives ripped apart. With no slaves to work the land, planters often rented parcels of their land out to tenets or sharecroppers. Eventually, most planters moved to town to take up residency, becoming absentee landlords. As absenteeism became more common, estates fell into disrepair as landowners, living the good life in town, became complacent and took less and less interest in their old homeplaces. In symbolic irony, these formerly grand examples of southern agricultural prosperity crumbled from neglect of their owners.
While cities and towns offered some benefits, there were problems here too. For the first time, consumer culture transformed the South and its people. Railroads brought quick transportation and relatively cheap freight rates. Not only did the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue changed offer a cornucopia of materialistic delight, local department stores filled with the latest trends, trinkets, technology, and other sundries changed southern culture in subtle ways. New stoves made it easier to cook. Grocery stores, for example brought new foodways to the South. One long time staple of the southern diet gave way to another, as biscuits replaced cornbread as the bread of choice on most southern tables. Coffee, previously something of a luxury, became cheap. Thanks to the wonderfully addictive nature of caffeine and coffee drinking in general, it moved from a luxury to a necessity. It was noted that “families whose aggregate earnings do not amount to three dollars a week will rather let their youngsters run barefoot than stint themselves in the use of the popular narcotic.” While these changes were not particularly harsh, they did signal a dramatic shift in southern life. And, as with industrialization, urbanization caused anxiety as the draw of the cities pulled families apart. The lure of the city was merely symptomatic of another problem the South faced in the waning decades of the 19th century. Generational conflict constantly caused agitation between the young and the old. The Civil War and its commemoration proved to be an issue of lasting friction. Old veterans scoffed at young men who grew up soft and did not understand the sacrifices they endured during the war. Beyond the war, different generations struggled over the meaning of politics, religion, gender, and commerce. New expectations of life among the New South generation placed them at considerable distance with their parents and grandparents.
So, still imagining that you are now living in the South, sometime between 1880 and 1900, and seeing all these glaring problems and anxiety-inducing social changes taking places, what do you think of the place?
You probably think it was a really awful place. So many problems – poverty, racism, and political corruption. And for decades southern historians, quite understandably, focused on the problems the South faced. After all, many of the great southern historians in the middle and later decades of the 20th century hoped that history could be used as a tool to change the South for the better in their own time. The names C. Vann Woodward and John Hope Franklin rush to mind immediately. But by focusing on the negative so much, historians grew to disdain the region they studied. In his landmark 1951 study, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, Woodward burns with indignation on every page. Similarly, Paul Gaston proved dismissive in his important 1970 study The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking by comparing the short-sightedness of economic boosters on issues of race with that of the emperor’s foolish vanity in Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. By settling a research agenda that focused on moral failings, political corruption, violence, and oppression, historians unwittingly defined the South by its limitations. The New South, according to such highly regarded scholars, was a sad place populated by sad people.
In 1992, Edward Ayers published his landmark study The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. Overall, the 400+ page book has topical chapters: politics, race relations, religion, country life, town life, literature, music, sectional reconciliation, consumerism, industrialization, and so forth. Each chapter gives a general historical overview of its topic, sometimes offering unique historiographic insights, but with such a big and expansive book, there’s little room to spend more than a few paragraphs discussing very large questions that southern historians have argued about for decades. There is a lot of historical information to chew on, and Ayers offered new perspectives previously passed over by scholars. The Promise of the New South asks new questions by “look[ing] beyond the public realm.” Ayers examined love letters, newspaper editorials, fiction, diaries, and countless other stories to give readers an account of what life was life for the people who lived in the South after Reconstruction. Ayers sharply asserts, “The New South appears far newer when we measure change by paying close attention to concrete differences in people’s lives instead of contrasting the region with the North’s more fortunate history or the claims of Southern boosters. To say that much was new in the South is not to say that things were fine. It is to say that people throughout the social order, top to bottom, faced complicated decisions.” Instead of a book about the poisoned politics of the region, the horrors of lynching, the sad story of disenfranchisement and Jim Crow, the brutal reality of the crop-lien system, sharecropping, or any other problem the South faced, we learn a little bit about almost everything in the New South. Ayers discussed topics including courtship, Christmas, Coca-Cola, college football, jazz, blues, the founding of Belk department stores, life in a mill village, black achievement, the Holiness movement, the Spanish-American War, railroads, and also includes all the negative stuff that historians have typically used to account for the South’s stunted economic growth, political system, and race relations. The result is a book that is incredibly honest but also looks beyond the pain of the region has both suffered and inflicted upon itself.
But as I was reading the book, I found that the “promise” the New South offered, the promise that inspired the title of book, is elusive to the reader. In the opening pages, Ayers does point out that “Southerners often managed to persuade themselves…that the new era held out unprecedented promise for the region.” While Ayers is correct in this statement, I can’t help but think that he used the word “promise” as a red herring to satisfy any curiosity the reader had regarding the title very early or, more likely, at the urging of an editor at Oxford or peer-reviewer who insisted that he address exactly what he meant by the word promise even though the sentence I quoted is not really what the book is about. When you finish the reading the book, with its great breadth and complexity, and then reconsider the vague promise he mentions in the opening paragraphs, you just have to scratch your head.
So what exactly does Ayers mean? I was struggling very mightily with this question after reading the book so I re-read the preface. Ayers writes that “we have focused so much so on the limitations Southerners endured that we have lost sight of the rest of their lives. The people of the New South have become synonymous with the problems they faced. Southerners of both races have become reduced to objects of pity, scorn, romance, or condescension. That is not enough.” In these sentence, Ayers elevates New South history out of the darkness imposed on it by an earlier generation of historians. In Ayers’ use, promise can be defined as something with readily apparent potential for good that has not yet been fully realized. By presenting an honest and richly textured account of the era that left room for tragedy, Ayers liberates New South history out the emotional darkness it existed in for a decades. The “promise of the New South” is thus a new way of looking at southern history. A duality that exists for southern historians who are themselves white southerners (especially males). There is an undeniable love of home, a joy that surrounds exploring southern culture and history that we adore. We want to love the South unconditionally, but we can’t get past the shortcomings – the soul crushing moral failures at every turn throughout southern history. Whether it be issues tied to race, gender, economics, religion, politics, or some combination there always seems to be as much to hate as there is to love. That tension is reflected perfectly in the title of The Promise of the New South. So much potential. So many reasons to love it. And always in the shadow of broken promises.