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Book Review 270: The Cotton Plantation South

March 10, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE COTTON PLANTATION SOUTH SINCE THE CIVIL WAR, by Charles S. Aiken. 451 pages, illustrated. Johns Hopkins paperback

Professor Charles Aiken's “The Cotton Plantation South” is the most perceptive book about the place I have read. It is written from the perspective of theoretical geography, a discipline I have not studied, although some of its core concepts are readily understood from the text.

“De land ob cotton” was far larger than the plantation region, which is limited to a (formerly, now degraded) fertile crescent starting in eastern Virginia and passing through the Carolinas, comprehending most of Georgia, the narrow black belt of Alabama, about half of Mississippi, and into Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas.

Here for nearly 400 years, most of America's black people lived and worked, and the story of the plantations is a story of labor and mismanagement. A plantation, to a geographer, has a restricted definition, but it is enough to consider that it is a large agricultural unit with central direction of large labor forces.

After the laborers became freedmen, the economic organization of the plantation region was revolutionized four times, but the political organization only twice, and the social organization only partly.

Aiken's chapters on the civil rights movement are the best I know, and ring perfectly true to what I experienced at the time (in North Carolina, not the cotton belt).

After the Civil War, freedmen had a limited opportunity to trade their labor for concessions, although – as Allen Nevins remarked in his history of Reconstruction, the failure to dispossess the landowners meant that no true reform would occur – and they opted to get away from massa.

The old, nucleated, closely watched (but not profoundly understood) “quarters” were abandoned for dispersed cabins across the plantation, where each family could labor on its sector without much supervision.

This was bad for the land. The blacks had neither the education nor the capital to preserve the land, and it was quickly ruined. The status of tenant, also, turned out to be an economic trap.

“Management failure was the underlying basis of the decay,' writes Aiken, contradicting the fondest beliefs of southern whites.

It is somewhat satisfying to realize that the planter class's efforts to keep blacks impoverished left the planters impoverished, too. Aiken does not make too much of this, only referencing Hortense Powdermaker's observation that the Delta elite was, compared to national norms, barely middle class.

He could have said more. On a single day in 1933, one quarter of the land in Mississippi was sold at sheriff's sales. It is not true that old families maintained their position after the war.

Old classes did, but as Aiken mentions (but only in a note), land changed hands frequently, at least until corporations snapped it up around World War II. Most of the cotton plantation South changed hands at $5 or $6 an acre and is now in pines or weeds. The tens of thousands of pillared mansions in Atlanta refer back to the movie of “Gone with the Wind,” not to anything in the South's real history.

Aiken finds that large parts of the plantation South failed early, in large part because of the incompetence and indifference of the landlords. Even the parts where plantation agriculture remained viable (especially the Yazoo Delta) made decisions which pushed the South into an economic trap from which it may never emerge.

“The South is the part of the United States which is most similar to the rest of the world,” writes Aiken, trying to place the South's situation at the end of the 20th century in a wider context.

However, he cautions that the common interpretation of the South as a colony is at most incomplete.

The book is well illustrated with photographs of old and new buildings, many taken by Aiken, that, using the concepts of spatiality, tell their wordless stories about what was going on among the people.

Nowadays, blacks are back in nucleated settlements, but not in agriculture. It is a fascinating tale, full of heroes and villains.

Aiken is more likely to praise the heroes than to sneer at the villains; the book is remarkable for its calmness. Only twice does Aiken resort to emotionally-tinged characterizations: once to praise Harry Caudill's “Night Comes to the Cumberlands”; and once to condemn the Agrarians, whom he calls charlatans. Since Aiken taught at Knoxville, calling the Agrarians charlatans probably cost him some invitations.

I could go on and on about the insights in this book but will mention only one more. When federal registrars were sent into the South to register voters after the Voting Rights Act (whose attack by rightwing Supreme Court justices is wrongheaded, as this book makes clear), more whites than blacks were registered.

It has been said many times that freeing the black Southerners equally freed the whites. That is true. White Southerners of good will did not vote, because there was no one to vote for. It took some argument from me to persuade my father to register when I did, in 1968, but from then on for the rest of his life, he became an enthusiastic and conscientious voter.

“The Cotton Plantation South” explains why as a man of conscience, he did not vote earlier.


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