AP US History

The New South


*After the devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Southern leaders felt they needed to change how the South did business.  They wanted to move away from growing staple crops, and industrialise as the North and Europe had.  They said they needed to become ‘Southern Yankees’ and create a New South.


*In some places this happened, although it was usually funded by Northern (and sometimes British) investors, so a lot of the real profits did not stay in the South.


*Some industries seemed natural for the South:  textile mills opened in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; cigar factories opened in Virginia and North Carolina.  A large timber industry developed in the Appalachians (especially North Carolina) and iron and steel manufacturing expanded in Nashville and especially Birmingham.  Tennessee, especially Middle Tennessee, also produced a great deal of flour.  A lot of their products, though, were sent North (planks went North to become furniture, cloth went North to be dyed and made into clothes, iron and steel went north to be made into beams, machines, and tools).


*Many more railroads were also built, particularly leading to and from major cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, Montgomery, Mobile, and elsewhere, but they were still slow to enter rural areas and only a few linked the South to major Northern cities.  Later, Atlanta, Dallas, and Nashville also grew into railroad hubs, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad had a near-monopoly on rail transit in much of the central South.


*The Southern economy did grow, but slowly, largely because there were not enough educated workers, nor did Southerners have enough money to spend or to invest to really help industry grow.  Northern industry had grown in part because of the conspicuous consumption or a growing middle class, but the South could not afford that.


*Because business owners had limited funds, and Southern banks did not have much to lend, Southern factories could not grow as large or offer the same wages as Northern businesses, so southerners who wanted to work in factories often went north to work for better wages there.  In the South, workers might earn 6 cents to 50 cents a day, while the standard daily wage in the North was $1, and railroad workers might make $1.75 to $2, and some jobs even paid more.



*In many ways, therefore, the New South looked a lot like the Old South.  Most people were still farmers, even though many people, white and black, could not afford to buy land.  Unable to afford land, or often even the supplies needed to farm it, blacks and poor whites had to find other things to do or other ways to get the means to farm.


*Many southern planters could not afford to pay their workers, either, so rather than paying them, large landowners began to let people work the land under other systems.  In exchange for granting a family the use of some land, the landowner received a portion, usually one third to one half, of the family’s crops at the end of the year.  Because they shared their crops with their landlord, these farmers were called sharecroppers.


*Other poor families worked for rich planters, but rather than sharing their crops, they would pay a fixed rent.  This gave them more flexibility, partly because they were allowed to choose what they grew.  This gave them a slightly higher status.  Because they paid rent, they were known as tenant farmers.


*These sharecroppers and tenant farmers were encouraged to grow only cash crops on their plots, so they could give a better crop to their landlord of have the money to pay their rent.  This meant that the South quickly regained its cotton production and soon exceeded pre-War levels.  However, farmers often stopped growing enough food to feed their families, and had to buy it elsewhere.  Eventually the South, the most rural part of the country, had to import food.


*These systems inadvertently (or sometimes intentionally) created vicious cycles of debt for whites and blacks. At the beginning of the year, sharecroppers and tenant farmers had to buy their seeds and other supplies, but they typically had to borrow money to do so, either from the bank, their landlord, or the local merchant, a class that grew richer and richer during this time.  Likewise, farmers often borrowed money to buy food, clothes, or supplies during the year.  When the crop was finally sold, the proceeds went to pay off this debt.  The next year, more money was borrowed to start planting again.  If crops failed one year, it might be difficult to pay off the debt, and the land and property would be seized by creditors. 


*Furthermore, the price of cotton fell badly after the end of the Civil War, making it even harder for small farmers to get out of debt or large landowners to spare money to invest in businesses.


*Just as Northern workers created Labour Unions, some Southerners created the Farmers Alliance—many chapters even included Black members, as some poor farmers came to feel they were more alike due to their economic status than they were different due to their race.  It demanded that the government force railroads to ship agricultural products cheaply.  It also wanted the government to regulate interest rates so that it would be easier to repay loans.


*Indeed, repaying loans became a major political issue in parts of the South.  In many Southern states, railroads (and some other public works) had been funded by issuing bonds, but as many of the early railroads had gone bust, states were still paying interest on loans that had ended up being wasted.  Many of the bonds had been sold on by the initial beneficiaries (who were often corrupt or sometimes just incompetent), and ended up in the hands of legitimate businessmen—although many of them were Yankees, British, or other foreigners.


*Paying these bonds back was expensive and unpopular, and some Southern governments wanted to repudiate their debts in whole or in part, but others felt this would make it impossible for the states or business leaders there to borrow again, and said the bonds needed to be redeemed at face value (which happened in Tennessee, and many other Southern states).  Because they wanted to redeem the bonds, this faction of the Democratic party was known in some places as the Redeemers (and all Southern politics was between factions of the Democratic party, not between Republicans and Democrats, except occasionally in Tennessee).  In economic terms, the Redeemers were typically supporters of the New South.


*In political terms, Southerners escaping Reconstruction also described their new state governments as Redeemed governments (which even had a religious element, comparing salvation from Reconstruction to redemption from sin and damnation), and the Democratic politicians who led the opposition to Reconstruction and its legacy were also called Redeemers.  However, for some people in the South, the end of Reconstruction was not a redemption at all.


*The end of Reconstruction meant that the US Army was no longer in the South to protect the rights of African-Americans.  The XIII, XIV, and XV Amendments had ended slavery, established civil rights, and granted Black suffrage.  The Freedmen’s Bureau had also built schools and provided legal services to African-Americans.  Once they were gone, Southern states began to create black codes.


*Black codes contained oppressive provisions that included curfews (to keep Blacks from gathering together after sunset), vagrancy laws (which let vagrants (Blacks who did not work) be whipped, fined, or sentenced to a year’s labour and sold to a white man under a contract), labour contracts (obliging blacks to sign year-long contracts for which they were often paid at the end of the year so they could not quit), and land restrictions (allowing blacks to own or rent property only in rural areas, which essentially forced them to live on plantations).  Blacks could not vote, marry white people, own firearms, or exercise many other rights white people enjoyed.


*In one of the most important rights they were denied, African-Americans were kept from voting through literacy tests (which required voters to read, but gave much harder tests to blacks than whites, grandfather clauses (which only let people vote if their ancestors had voted before 1866), and poll taxes (which kept poor people from voting).  Although the Ku Klux Klan vanished in the 1870s, terror and violence also kept blacks from voting.


*Eventually, leasing out convict labour came to an end in parts of the South, including in Tennessee.  It happened in Tennessee in the Coal Creek Miner’s Wars.


*In 1891, a mining company in Briceville (in East Tennessee) brought in convict labour to break a strike.  This started the Coal Miners’ War.  Three hundred coal miners from around Anderson County surrounded the convicts’ stockade and forced their guards to surrender.  The prisoners and their guards were shipped back to Knoxville.


*Governor Buchanan and the state militia marched the convicts back to work.  The miners sent them back to Knoxville again, and then started going around the county breaking up other convict camps.


*The governor sent in 600 militiamen.  The miners refused to stand down until they were promised that the convicts’ lease would be repealed by the state legislature.  Instead, the legislature made it illegal to interfere with convict labour at all.


*From 1891 to 1893 the miners struck back, freeing convicts, burning their stockades, and fighting with the state militia.  It was estimated that although the state made $50,000-$75,000 a year from the convicts’ lease, it spent about $200,000 on the militia.  Furthermore, most Tennesseans sympathised with the miners.  Demonstrations were held across the state, and money was sent to the miners.


*Finally, in 1893, the state agreed that while the existing convict leases would be allowed to run their course, none would be renewed and no new ones would issued.


*Some African-Americans tried to escape this system by leaving the South.  Kansas welcomed freedmen and encouraged them to move there, and the African-Americans who went to Kansas were known as Exodusters.  One of the Exodusters’ leaders was a former slave from Tennessee, Pap Singleton.


*Some African-Americans sued for their rights, but usually lost their cases.  One of the most important was the Supreme Court case of Plessy v Ferguson in 1896, in which it was decided that it was acceptable to force Homer Plessey to ride in a railroad car for blacks only, because that railroad car was (supposedly) as good as the ones whites rode in.  This established the precedent of ‘separate but equal’—as long as blacks got accommodations as good as those whites got, it was all right for them to be segregated.  In fact, the separate facilities were almost never equal.

This page last updated 26 September, 2018.
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