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Fleshpots in the South

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

The notion has long prevailed that the South is peculiar. New England, the Middle West, the Northwest, and the Pacific Slope have their characteristics, but these have been accepted as products of physical environment and economic pursuit, and have not been considered ingrained genius of the people. In the latter sections changes have taken place. New England has shifted from farming to commerce and so to industry; from a huntsman’s frontier the West has become a “producing interior” for foodstuffs and manufactures; on the Pacific, fruit growing and ocean shipping have been added to mining; all populations have been on the move, blood-strains altering, and, through discovery of ore and oil deposits, extension of railways and development of irrigation, new enterprise has been invited.

Nobody was surprised if other regions shifted political allegiance, showed novel industrial adventure, or made fresh contribution in art or literature. Such things are the products of American communities in process of growth. But the Southern tradition has been viewed as fixed. New employments might enter, unwonted alignment of classes might be suggested, but these only slightly modified the essential nature of Southern society. There was a presiding spirit in the people which rendered them superior to external influences and set them apart as belonging to a distinct culture.

Southerners have been foremost in putting forward this view of themselves. What we have made a fetish others have been willing to accept as a fact. We have constantly used the theory of peculiarity as an alibi, to make light of lack of accomplishment or to defend departures from national practice. Even when the Union forced the abolition of slavery, the discipline was not sufficient to stop the defiant protest of innocence or to stamp out the disturbing sense of martyrdom. We have not been distinguished for critical faculty. We have been romanticists rather than realists.

It is universal knowledge that the South is making spectacular strides economically. The rush to Florida and the diffusion of the speculators as they drifted out of the peninsula have brought suddenly to the attention of the country changes which had long been in process. The Southward drift of the cotton manufacturing industry has produced resounding yelps of pain from New England. Everyone begins to speak of Birmingham in the same breath with Pittsburgh and Gary. Muscle Shoals and the Catawba River power dams are great units in a new national resource. North Carolina bond issues to build thousands of miles of perfect roads have captured the imagination of the continent. Securities of Southern railroads are bid for by every investor. The South is news for every editor. Magazines devote issues to proclaiming fresh achievements from the Potomac to the Gulf.


The question now is whether these great industrial developments will banish the personality of the South as we have known it, or whether the old spirit will actuate the new performance. Will industrialism produce the same effects here as elsewhere, or will it submit to be modified by a persistent Southern temperament? Will an underlying culture prove superior to changed economic pursuits?

Almost fifty years ago when the term the “New South” was popularized by Henry W. Grady and others, many decried its use if by the phrase the death of the Old South was implied. And in the years since then writers have attempted to show not only that the Southern tradition has been continuous, but that industry itself has exhibited, except for the interruption of the Civil War, a steady growth.

To take the second of these contentions first. In the antebellum South a slothful, wasteful agriculture predominated. There were a few iron furnaces and little cotton-yarn factories, but they were small neighborhood affairs, for the most part supplying a local market; they were frequently worked by slaves and often gave their products in barter. William Gregg, who built his cotton mill at Graniteville, South Carolina, in the late ‘forties, is almost the sole figure who compared with Northern manufacturers of the period. In organizing ability, in grasp of the South’s economic problems, and in eagerness to save the South by introduction of industrial activity, he was remarkable, and his crusade had results which might have been of dynamic importance had not the system against which he worked proved too strong for him.

The Civil War cut short these beginnings. When, following Reconstruction, the campaign to “bring the cotton mill to the cotton field” enlisted wide support, the movement was an entirely new one. If there was a hold-over from Gregg’s day even, it was not conspicuous. A few men who figured in the later period were connected, in one way and another, with the old factories; George A. Gray, who was the pioneer of the great development at Gastonia, had worked as a boy in the little mill at Pinhook near by, and H. P. Hammett, who built the Piedmont Mill in the ‘seventies, was the son-in-law of an ante-bellum manufacturer. But for the most part the boom swept into cotton manufacturing any and all who had the confidence of their communities. It was a new gospel. The will to be saved was more important than previous experience.

Nor does the spirit of the old South survive in the new day which confronts us now. The industrial enterprisers of the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, while borrowing little of manufacturing practice from ante-bellum years, were in many cases men of honorable tradition. They showed extraordinary economic suppleness in taking the lead in unaccustomed projects. Adhering to an old code, they functioned in a changed environment. They were used to assuming responsibility. They were proud of their families. They were mindful of the esteem in which they were held. Slavery had taught them to be fatherly toward those dependent upon them. They had always been resourceful, and the havoc of war could not destroy their self-confidence. They had fought in gray jacket and red shirt to preserve the South, and now, if manufacturing was the right way out for their people, they would learn to produce yarn and cloth. With the hope of personal profit playing no mean part, it is still not too much to say that giving employment to the poor whites became their passion. Just as the villein of the Middle Ages rendered unquestioned service if only he could build his thatched hut in the shadow of the lord’s castle, so the poor whites flocked from mountain side and tenant-holding to enter new factory villages where they received the first protection they had known. Management and men were drawn together in the closest ties, because all alike were investing their last fervent hopes in a strange adventure. Moreover, New England mocked. The South manufacture cotton? The thing was ridiculous. Where was the capital, the skill, the labor? Could gentlemen turn factory superintendents? Could degenerate squirrel-shooters and bilious share-croppers learn to tend looms and frames? And this raillery solidified Southern energy; the toes of socks were searched to find money to buy shares of mill stock on instalments; and besides, some willing allies were found at the North—machinery men and commission firms which stood to profit by advancing equipment and credit.

These leaders in the first twenty years of the South’s manufacturing development were not working in a normal industrial order. They were not faced with many problems of competition. Despite the rise of cotton mills in the South, the Northern factories continued prosperous. It was two decades before the United States census, for example, attached much importance to the Southern growth from a national standpoint. Such change as was effected in the North was in a gradual shifting away from coarse goods manufacture, in which Southerners had differential advantage. The counterpart of this inter-sectional freedom was intra-sectional peace. There was no cleavage between owners and operatives. They did not see themselves as employers and employees, but as companions in the same boat on rather desperate seas. If anything besides joint economic effort were needed to weld them into one, the presence of the free blacks accomplished it. Cotton manufacturing, a providential escape from jeopardy, was to remain a white man’s industry. Moreover, managers and men were of one blood and, essentially, of one tradition. The poor whites had always hated negroes rather than their owners, and the trials of Reconstruction had wiped out lingering enmities. Therefore, as whites and as Southerners and as injured and poor men, all were partners in enterprise. Long hours, low wages, and early work of children did not even arouse comment for many years, and realization of a “cash nexus” did not become articulate until the late ‘nineties.


These industrial leaders in the South in the opening decades were of a different stripe from most of the cotton manufacturers, mine owners, and iron masters who figured in the English Industrial Revolution. The former were gentlemen, the latter were small men who struck it lucky. Only such exceptional individuals as Robert Owen, Richard Arkwright, and Samuel Oldknow, who were philanthropists while they were employers, were of the same temper with the first Southerners. In New England the rigors of the outset of factory employment had been softened by such a benevolent proprietor as Francis Lowell. But just as in Old England and New England, gain got the better of generosity, so in the South the second generation of manufacturers chose speedily to hunt with the hounds.

In fact, they are industrialists, business men, capitalists, and congratulate themselves upon supporting these characters. They are not subject to the restraints of their fathers. They do not have an emotional attitude toward their workers. They are not burdened with a sense of noblesse oblige. They are not aristocrats, but bourgeois. They are class-conscious and money-wise.

One could overlook a natural lack of economic breadth if only they were honest. They have sought to cloak their materialism with a great show of philanthropy and social conscience. Qualities which in their fathers were spontaneous and meaningful, they have laid claim to and adapted to their uses. They have built up a program of welfare work in the villages which is the last word in the furnishing of health and social facilities to employees. They subsidize schools and churches and Y. M. C. A.’s; they build recreation centers and moving picture houses and swimming pools; they furnish doctors and nurses; they maintain libraries and dairies and brass bands. There is some good will in all of this, and in particular instances it is mostly good will, but generally speaking the welfare program is prosecuted because it pays.

You would never think so to listen to these mill men. In their accounts human kindness is the overwhelming motive. They assert that the South, always different from the rest of the country, more spiritual and more idealistic, is showing a new reaction under industrialism. Manufacturing development is not to repeat in the South the history it has had elsewhere. The South is now demonstrating again the truth of the theory that it is “peculiar.” The familiar phenomena of bitterness and exploitation, they declare, do not figure in this favored section. Witness the way in which a Charlotte trade journal sought to neutralize the movement for national child labor legislation by publishing at strategic moments, “Health and Happiness” numbers, showing little girls in sashes scampering about May-poles!

This is pure cant. If you thrust your fingers into the downy wool of the lamb you feel beneath it the coarse bristle of the wolf. The employers, certainly in the cotton manufacturing business, have tried to make their private interests appear as synonymous with the well-being of society, and have very largely succeeded. Whatever they touch, they contaminate. The devil-fish, swimming toward his prey, throws out his inky fluid before him. The ministers supported by manufacturers have, as a rule, no independence of mind. Religion, as one observer has said, is administered to operatives like a drug. Welfare agents, when it comes to the test, are wholly the servants of management. The schools do not emphasize, if they so much as discuss, the economic issues every day present and pressing.

What is true of the company-dominated villages is also true of social institutions in the wider community. Legislature, press, pulpit, and platform subscribe to the employer’s creed of disingenuous individualism. Yet in the larger sense this is not altogether, or even mainly, a result of the direct influence of the Southern business man of today. He himself and all the agencies which speak with him are products of a stage of economic evolution. The South, despite every denial, is showing all the well-known consequences of industrial growth, and the unconscious elements in the situation declare this fact most eloquently. Did not the English manufacturers of the Industrial Revolution proclaim that private interest was identical with public benefit? However compensated for or glossed over, wages are low and hours are long. Unionism is greeted by employers with abuse. It is effrontery, a pernicious piece of presumption, a cancer in the industrial body, and is always a foreign importation—if not from the jealous North, then proceeding immediately from Bolshevist Russia itself. Unionism would never be born in the minds of the satisfied, right-thinking native workers. Strikes are put down ruthlessly, with eviction, starvation, militia, spies, and effective co-operation between employers. The sop of company unionism is thrown to the workers, with every effort to make this move appear as a progressive philanthropy. Anent the sessions of the American Plan Open Shop Conference in Dallas in November, the Manufacturers’ Record said: “To the South . . . this meeting will be of peculiar significance and importance as the South now appears to be the only corner of the country not yet harried by the warfare of organized labor against the unorganized people of the nation.”

In wider public expression the same spirit is manifest. A map of the country showing the progress of workmen’s compensation legislation shows the South as the backward provinces. The solid South offered the greatest bloc of opposition to the child labor amendment to the constitution. The shibboleth of states’ rights was disinterred and held up before the country as the high principle animating the South’s objection. In this case as in that of slavery, the use of states’ rights, where not a device of corruption, was the sign of a depth of ignorance even more lamentable. Western farmers were organized against the amendment by a North Carolina textile trade journal. The same men who a few years ago were protesting against state legislative interference with labor conditions represented themselves, when truly effective federal law impended, as wedded to the principle of careful control by the individual commonwealth. There was no subtle engineering, no fine Italian hand in maneuver. The awkward driving fist of capitalism pushed at every point, without so much as the saving grace of consistency, but only the thinly disguised force of a greedy interest.

The poor whites, who at the outset of the cotton mill era in the South were cherished and by whose labor the industry has been built up, are now looked upon as a resource to be exploited. Not only is this true within the section, but the poor whites are being served up to employers of the country who may be tempted to locate plants in the South. The workers are being offered on the auction block pretty much as their black predecessors were, and their qualities are enlarged upon with the same salesman’s gusto. Native whites! Anglo-Saxons of the true blood! All English speaking! Tractable, harmonious, satisfied with little! They know nothing of foreignborn radicalism! Come down and gobble them up! Trade papers advertise them, chambers of commerce sound their convenient virtues. Hear Mr. Edgerton, a Southerner and president of the National Association of Manufacturers: “This population is preponderantly native. It is a native soil in which exotic radicalism does not thrive, for the worker of the South has as a heritage a sturdy Americanism that restrains him from running after strange economic gods and makes him a dependable factor in industry.”

Everybody recognizes that the chief advantage which the South possesses in cotton manufacturing in particular, but in other industries as well, lies in cheap labor. There are other items of importance—abundant power, a wealth of raw materials, up-to-date management, lenient taxation, genial climate—but the great differential is in low wages paid to submissive workers. What is the attitude of the Northern manufacturers who enter the Southern field? In two years, it is calculated, they invested $100,000,000 in 1,000,000 Southern spindles. They know perfectly well why they come, and they intend to make the most of the opportunity before them. Lockwood, Greene & Company, great New England cotton mill engineers and manufacturers giving ever increasing attention to the Southern field, were recently asked for a statement of the advantages offered by this region. Everyone concerned for the people of the South must resent the reply: “As compared to New England and the Northeastern part of the country, the South has the advantage of longer hours of labor, lower wage scales, lower taxes and legislation, which gives a manufacturing plant a wider latitude than is usually possible in the North in the way of running over-time and at night. . . . The South is . . . fortunate in having a supply of native American labor which is still satisfied to work at a low wage.” Here is naivete, but also that cruelty which has earned hatred for capitalism. The South is now being visited by an elemental economic force, the search of a world industry for an area of cheap labor. The present rush to the cotton states is but an episode. Will Asia be next?

Newcomers have always been quick to profess loyalty to the Southern tradition—like other apostates, they are more ardent than believers to the manner born. In the past, firms with plants in both sections have submitted to an advanced labor code in New England while arguing for lax-ness in the South. Only in the last few years have they come out boldly when, for example, petitioning the legislature of Massachusetts to let down the bars in order that the industry there may survive the killing competition of the Southern states.


Southern churches and colleges have not borne an honorable part in the problems brought by the new industrialism. Both have been soaked with evangelism, and this has not made for the defining or even the realization of issues. In a broad view this behavior has not been their fault. Simon N. Patten was right when he said that a society on a deficit basis produces a religion of fear and of asceticism, but not of enterprise and courage. When the South was desperately poor, men’s minds flew to the thought of salvation through, denial. The great virtue was to suffer and do without, while cultivating spiritual purity. Sufficiency of economic goods appearing impossible, it was looked upon as a profanation. To the extent that physical well-being was striven for, it was to be got through loyalty to one another and should be received with humble thanksgiving.

Now that Southern society is entering into a surplus of wealth, the old motives are, unfortunately, slow to relax their grip. We see in a mirror, darkly, and rarely face to face. We do not recognize evidences of the changing order which are commonplaces elsewhere. The pity of fundamentalism is not that it clings to the Garden of Eden. That point of conflict is of trifling and transient importance. But to the extent that the doctrine holds sway it argues ignorance of the principle of growth in social institutions; being religious fundamentalists, we declare ourselves lay fundamentalists as well. Industrialism, however, is precipitating in the South a whole series of imperative new moralities, and we are not readjusting our sanctions to meet them. If ministers are still obsessed with faith and piety and strained with mental anguish, teachers confuse issues with an elaborate overlay of sociological metaphysics. Religion plays a stronger part with them than science; emotion is more potent than analysis. Has either the church or the college shown leadership of the South in the maze presented by industrial advance? We speak strongly of the necessity of courage on the part of Southern teachers in the social sciences. How many sought to direct the public thought on the important question of national control over child labor?

The day when preachers and pedagogues dedicated themselves to the salvation of a backward South is passing. We need to be more objective, more pragmatic. Material prosperity is putting the South on a parity with the rest of the world. Pulpit and classroom can fill their best office now by being critical rather than compassionate. The bedside manner should be dropped for straightforward diagnosis. The old conjure is discredited. If the South is by any chance to escape certain of the ill effects that have marked the course of industrialism elsewhere, it is to be by hushing the ancient incantation of a persistent Southern tradition, and seeing ourselves in the flat light of historical experience. A move in this direction has been made by the University of North Carolina, and the need for it is shown by the fire immediately drawn from the cotton manufacturers of the state.

A Baltimore minister has recently denounced the economic interpretation of history as damnable. Nevertheless, all in the South except a tiny minority can see now that it was an economic system which drew us, with labored justifications thrust before, into the Civil War. How long will it take us to comprehend that industrial forces are shaping Southern life of today?


It is inevitable that a great new urge from farming toward industry should color and presently determine the culture of the people. If it is possible to shape industrial practice deliberately, or to direct the development of social institutions, we must at least know the history of similar societies in the past. We must be historically conscious. In this historical awareness the South is conspicuously lacking, and most of all the spokesmen for the business community itself.

The theory that the South is peculiar is at variance with the facts. I have been reading the confession of faith, covering fifteen years’ activity, of the editor of the Southern Textile Bulletin. This story of exultant opposition to protective labor legislation and labor organization is an amazing recital. It would need a very superficial glance to wave it aside as the effort of a special pleader to curry favor with profit-seeking advertisers on whose patronage the journal depends for its fife. To the student of economic history it is first of all a declaration of ignorance. Before me is also Samuel Kydd’s “History of the Factory Acts.” The two present a parallel perfect to the last particular. The struggle of collective welfare against individualistic design in the South was acted out, speech by speech, scene by scene, a century earlier in England. Substitute Murphy, McKelway, and Love joy for Sadler, Oastler, and Shaftesbury, and put Smyth and Clark in the places of Cobden and Taylor and it immediately strikes home that the advocates of our time, both for and against, have been the products of an economic process.

The same arguments, evasions, tricks, the same words make up the two stories. To go a little farther back, there was the Southern Gregg to match the British Owen. Substitute the name of Graniteville for that of New Lanark and you do no violence to the facts of early welfare work in a factory village. The president of the Southern Textile Social Service Association is “anxious that the development of the industry and the changes accompanying continue to be controlled by (sic) a result of conscious planning rather than unconscious drifting.” Yet the industry does drift because the rudder of perspective has been lacking to the manufacturers and to the community which should steer them. Why kick against the pricks? Robert Owen was right. We are creatures of circumstance, unless we lay hold vigorously upon education. If other proof in the case of the South were wanting, consider with what accuracy the Irishman Cairnes, supplied by Olmsted with a few basic economic facts, pictured forth what must be the nature of Southern society under slavery. Helper, in the midst of what was happening, did not achieve a more accurate account. From disturbances in the motion of Uranus, Leverrier described the planet Neptune which he could not

Industrialism, with its concomitants, will, soon or late, appeal to everyone as the most potent fact in the life of the South since emancipation of the slaves. In many respects the second is a more fundamental change than the first. The passing of slavery left us the Negro still a serf wholly dependent and playing the same old role in a predominantly agricultural order. Nominally his status was different, but practically it was the same. The Poor White still had to meet black competition. The upper whites—expropriated, humiliated—were in worse case than before to act the part of social solvents.

But manufacturing was commenced and, though effects showed themselves only slowly, a real hope for the future of the South had dawned. For many years while industry was in its incipiency, the South followed the tradition it had known, that of agonizing over present difficulties and praying for future adjustments. There was much weariness of the flesh and vexation of the spirit. We lashed ourselves to unavailing heroisms. We sat in sackcloth and ashes and, like Job, boasted our woes. Or we invoked Heaven to send a miracle to release us, and there was no answering voice. We were trying to lift ourselves by our bootstraps. The disappearance of distrust of the North, the banishment of illiteracy, the bettering of farm methods, the enlivening of country life, the improvement of the Negro’s lot could not be wrought through a hocus-pocus.

All of these consummations waited upon a very material thing—the accumulation of wealth. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Now the horses are here. A more generous basis of taxation speeds the spread of schools. The coming of cotton mill communities carries the poor whites, in seven league boots, from stagnating isolation to participation in a busy progress. Restriction upon immigration does more for the Negro in a decade—opening to him steel mills and automobile plants and a thousand other avenues of employment—than a generation of interracial conferences could accomplish.

The plight of the cotton grower is not resolvable except through industrialism. Extension agencies, government bureaus, valorization, co-operative selling, rural credits are all limited by the incurable individualism of the farmer. The retributive justice of low prices is cruel in the process but kinder in the end. Why prolong the agony of marginal producers? When they give up and go to cotton mill work they gain and those left in the country gain. The mill village has not been an unmixed blessing, but still it is, more than any other one thing, the road to freedom. The cotton manufacture is now attracting its proper accessory industries. Lumbering, mining, construction and transportation, iron, tobacco and fertilizer works offer alternative employments, and the South approaches release from the lop-sided economic development from which most of her woes have sprung.

The South a champion of fundamentalism? Why, it is the world’s chief evidence in our day of the compelling power of evolution! In 1900 only 14 per cent, of the South’s population was urban. Now 25 per cent, of Southerners live in cities. Cities and all they imply will be the death of the fundamentalist superstition. Cities mean variety of work, keenness of competition, sharpening of wits, relief in amusements. Cities are tossing streams running away to the open sea. They have left behind the headless, slimy ponds of the back country. Cities represent works rather than faith.

Only to the superficially spiritual does all this activity in the South appear as materialistic. Probably there were some with Joshua who refused to enter the promised land, and would fain go back to be buried with Moses. But the chastening of desert years ought to lend a finer appreciation of our new flowing land. All that was best in the South of yesterday is needed in the South of today and tomorrow.

Even accepting the view of pessimists, did the old South have so much to offer that we should regret its passing? Viewed honestly, what was it? A frontier community, with a degree of luxury for a tiny minority resting upon social starvation for a subjected majority. Such a scheme of things might be expected to produce some few elegancies. Czarist Russia did as much, or more. Something precious perished when the family of Nicholas was shot down. Turkey had its divans and pillows and perfumes. “Still,” the doubter says, “there has always been an unique inescapable something in the Southern people, in all the Southern people.” I wonder if there has been. There was, for long, inescapable poverty, and ignorance, and lack of opportunity. There was a deceptive loyalty on the part of the masses to the very agencies of their oppression. There was hospitality for strangers, but this has been the universal accompaniment, the world over, of sparse settlement. Warmth of meeting did not extend itself to new ideas.

No, it is not the New South which is on trial, but the old. Industry below the Potomac is in adolescence, it is true. It flouts its elders, it distorts values, it mocks with its self-assurance. But it will soon be growing to manhood, and will bring up with it the whole of the South—calm, matured, and, be it hoped, resourceful—for the first time established as a part of the American achievement. Industrialism, though alien, is the instrument of Southern salvation. Joseph, carried off into Egypt, succored his brethren.


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