New Orleans Love it or leave it, there’s just something about the American South that just can’t keep people away. By the droves if we’re talking about the continued populations shifts from almost everywhere across the country to the South. By the billions if you look at the Biden infrastructure investments. By the scores if we’re talking about historians who continue to probe and poke at the myths to tell the true story of the old and new South, as I found talking to Professor Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina about a fascinating book he edited called A New History of the American South.
I’m not going to lie about it, the volume is a doorstopper, coming in at over 500 pages, so I won’t pretend to have read it all, but I read enough of it to be able to report that it’s worth the climb. Brundage brought together a number of “new look” Southern historians to contribute essays in their specialties from the contemporary perspective that looks as much from the bottom up as from the top down and privileges stories and people’s voices that have usually been overlooked. These viewpoints reward all of us with a better, more nuanced view of Native Americans in the pre-conquest South, of African Americans in the pre-and-post-Civil War South, and working people as well, and that’s beyond argument a great thing.
Dividends are paid, even if some are disturbing. Take the move in the South, ahead of many other parts of the country, to enforce and require mandatory school attendance. Turns out, a big part of the push came from political and commercial concerns that poor white were falling behind poor blacks, and that was something that the powers that be couldn’t abide. Though we tend to see the Tuskegee approach of uplift and conciliation as providing tacit support for separate, but equal in the South, hearing and reading the stories of the price many paid in simply trying to provide equal education for Black children, softened my view of the focus on industrial education as perhaps as much tactical, as strategic.
My wakeup calls in reading New History, as well as Iron Heel, has forced me to seriously reevaluate what I had often thought were the generally positive contributions of the Progressive Movement. The repression of the IWW was abetted by the Progressives staunch anti-unionism. The deeply embedded racism infected what might have been seen as Progressive accomplishments in the South. Political leaders like Georgia’s Tom Watson who had begun as advocates of programs for the poor were quick to embrace virulent strains of racism in order to win and maintain power.
One essay by Peter Coclanis on the economy of the South was also a revelation. Who knew that workers could make more money picking cotton on plantations than owning their own property and sharecropping? Not me! Certainly, the fact that the southern economy was stunted for a century – and to this day – by slavery and the plantation economy isn’t news, but the way the textile industry employed whole families, rather than just individuals, goes a long way to explaining other legacy issues.
Like I said, the South isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but live here or just visit, if you want to understand America, you need to understand the South, especially these days. To do so, requires looking past the old stories, myths, and rose-colored glasses, just as Brundage and his co-authors have done.