J. William Harris. Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xii + 454 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-6563-3.
Reviewed by David B. Parker (Department of History and Philosophy, Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-South (August, 2002)
Writing the Souths
Writing the Souths
Sixty years ago, Allison Davis headed a team from the University of Chicago that wrote Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class, a study of Natchez, Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century. "Old City and Old and Rural counties [as they called the Natchez area] are located in the heart of the 'deep south'.... Before the Civil War, great plantations flourished here. Many of the planters made cotton fortunes, and lived in feudal grandeur. They became the aristocracy of the white owning group and were known to be superior to all white freemen; and all white freemen lived in another and higher world from that 'other species' of man, the black slave. When the South was defeated, the old social system of white master and Negro slave was destroyed, although they continued to raise cotton.
"But a new social system began ... to evolve out of the destruction of the old. It, too, organized the relation of Negroes and whites among themselves and each other. It controlled the relations between Negroes and whites, and it regulated the social behavior of the different groups among the whites and among the Negroes."
These words, from the introduction to the 1941 volume, describe fairly well J. William Harris's new book, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation. There are some differences. Harris writes better than the authors of the previous book, for one thing, but more important is the "s" that Harris added to the title. It is a little letter that leads to a major difference: where Davis et al. used Natchez as a representative for all the Deep South, Harris understands that there is more than one Deep South, hence his use of the plural in the title.
Harris examines three "Deep South" regions, each of which will be familiar to historians because of previous studies, memoirs, and so forth: the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia; Georgia's eastern Piedmont; and the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta. Harris convincingly shows that these areas were, despite a number of similarities, distinct "Deep Souths."
Along the Georgia coast, white landowners tried to reassert control on their rice plantations after the Civil War, but African Americans, in the majority here as in the other two areas studied, were able to resist that control to a remarkable degree. The former slaves actually ended up owning much of the land, which they used to escape (to a greater degree than elsewhere) the market economy through subsistence agriculture. The result was a period when blacks were able to maintain traditions that were eroded elsewhere, at least until wealthy capitalists decided that they liked the resort possibilities of the Sea Islands. (The pages on the Carnegies are an unexpected delight.)
The Georgia Piedmont, worked by tenant farmers and sharecroppers of both races, presented a different picture, one of small cotton farmers, which made this region the most amenable to the Populist challenge of the 1890s. Harris's telling of the Mississippi Delta region story emphasizes the Delta and Pine Land Company, a business that has received little attention until now. The company and its successors cleared thousands of acres of land of timber and then set up cotton plantations larger than any before the war. Thousands of African Americans migrated to the region because of the demand for labor and the possibility of doing well; the limitations on those possibilities in turn helped foster a distinctive musical form, the Delta Blues.
The major difference between Harris's Deep Souths and the previous Deep South is the recognition of regional variations -- the "s" in "Deep Souths." A second difference, almost as important as the first, is in the chronological coverage. Where the earlier book examined Natchez at a particular moment in time (aware of the past, of course, but emphasizing the present of 1941), Harris looks at six decades, from the end of Reconstruction through the New Deal. You could say that Harris's book shows how we got to the Natchez of the Davis volume in 1940. There is no static South here; Harris's story is one of constant change and evolution, in response to forces both internal and external.
The book is divided into three chronological sections, each covering about twenty years. Part 1, 1876-1896, sets up the regional differences following Reconstruction, emphasizing the variations in labor patterns and land ownership; describes the beginnings of comprehensive systems of legalized segregation; and concludes with the election of 1896. Part 2, 1897-1918, covers culture and society at the turn of the century, especially the influence of World War I. Part 3, 1919-1939, looks at the effects of modernization (in transportation, communication, and so forth), the problems of the boll weevil and the Great Depression, and the role of the New Deal.
Scholars who have kept up with the literature of southern history for the last fifteen years or so will see little new in this volume. We all know that there were many Souths, not one; that white landowners often had difficulty reasserting control over their labor force; that African Americans played a more active role in their lives than had been previously thought; that Populists experienced varying degrees of success in different regions of the South; that World War I impacted the southern economy; and so forth.
Harris's achievement is not in reconceptualizing southern history, it is in synthesizing many of the strands of recent historiography, helping us understand how they fit together in the lives of real Deep Southerners. The last few words of the book's subtitle ("... in the Age of Segregation") are slightly misleading. Chronologically, the phrase fits, since Harris covers the years from Reconstruction to just before the Civil Rights movement. But the title implies an emphasis on Jim Crow, and the book is much richer than that. Harris integrates sixty years of culture and politics, race and labor, women's suffrage and technological advances, religion and music, class structures and family life, the Klan and New Deal farm policy, as well as any historian.
Another thing readers will appreciate is that Harris writes about people, both famous and unknown. Planters and sharecroppers, musicians and school teachers, preachers and newspaper editors, James K. Vardaman and Arthur Raper (who got into trouble in Georgia for using the titles "Mr." and "Mrs." for his African-American colleagues)--they're all here, as of course they were in the Deep South(s).
Scholars, students, and general readers will find Harris's book both interesting and useful.
. Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (University of Chicago, 1941), pp. 4-5.
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David B. Parker. Review of Harris, J. William, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation.
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