Working in a Southern Wire Factory

By Curtis Price

Posted November 19, 20


It’s change of shift and SK has walked into the break area. She is a woman in her mid-60s, with a white-haired, grandmotherly look, complete with granny glasses and page –boy hair-cut. But when she talks, SK speaks with a toughness and resilience that belies her appearance.  Her co-worker, N, has also come in, but N doesn’t make much small talk. Instead, N curls up in a chair to play online casino games and plot her next trip to the Tunica, Mississippi gambling palaces, perhaps an unintentional comment on the state of working-class consciousness these days. Both are rural, working-class Southern white women used to doing unskilled labor.

SK and I have settled into the type of easy informality that leads to good conversations. She worked for 35 years in a wire factory outside Hartselle, a small town of ten thousand about a half-hour away from Decatur, Alabama. Although Morgan County – where both Hartselle and Decatur are located – is mainly rural, there’s a large swath of heavy industry in Decatur and over 27% of the population work in factories, everything from Wayne Farms poultry to GE and rocket fuel processing. In fact, the Decatur area is number two in the U.S. for the percentage working manufacturing jobs, according to a recent report, a factory town bucking the trend toward deindustrialization. This concentration of industrial jobs even spills over into the rural areas surrounding Decatur such as Hartselle, where small industrial parks dot the flat expanse of cotton, corn, and soybean fields.

SK applied to the Hartselle wire factory when she got out of high school but they told her they didn’t have any openings. However, SK knew they did from friends who worked the line inside and was convinced they didn’t want to hire her because she was a woman. Instead of giving up, she went back and demanded they give her a chance. She got the job.

SK had to deal with the sexism of the men, mainly from the maintenance crew that was key to keeping up production, because if a machine broke down, maintenance could pick and choose how quickly they would get the line up again. To avoid being victimized, SK learnt to do her own maintenance. After a while, she got so good that the maintenance crew would ask for her help in resolving problems.

I asked her if the work was repetitive, thinking of a typical assembly line, and she said it was actually more varied because the nature of the contracts changed. Sometimes she would be spinning thin wire, other times thick cable. SK learnt how to maneuver spools weighing several hundred pounds by herself and described how she would have to monitor a line a hundred feet long. She talked passionately about different aspects of the work, how she learned to tame the wire and make the machines do her bidding. You work the machine, the machine doesn’t work you.

For her, working was a sense of mastery over an impersonal process and she went home every day confident she had won out. This sense of mastery as personal accomplishment and creativity gives her a work ethic that is unusual in this era of bullshit, abstract labor, email-caste jobs. Management tried to promote her, but she couldn’t stand the office politics and demanded to be sent back to the line.

Like most Southern working-class women of whatever race, her life has been full of hardship. She survived two husbands dying young and an accident with an 18-wheeler that left her in the hospital for weeks. She told me about her son, an electrical contractor working unstable gigs, and how, when his wife became pregnant while he was unemployed, had a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t provide for the family. He signed himself into a mental institution after a suicide attempt. When SK went to see him, the staff had him so doped up he could barely respond. She signed her son out on the spot. He recovered when SK got him a job at the wire factory, where he’s now been working for over twenty years. As Langsdon Hughes wrote:

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

It had tacks in it and splinters

And boards torn up

And places with no carpet on the floor…bare

Don’t you fall now

For I’se still goin, honey.

I’se still climbin,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

***

We never talk politics, but it wouldn’t surprise if SK is a Trump supporter, although I don’t see her fist-pumping at a rally screaming “lock her up!” But she knows instinctively that “big-city types” look down on people like her and in this assumption, she is absolutely correct. A rootless, middle-class, hobbyist left focused on posturing, therapeutic expressions of “rage,” and “transgression” just simply has nothing to offer. Instead, SK embodies that sense of “common decency” Orwell rightly pointed to as so characteristic of working-class culture, a culture of “common decency” crossing racial boundaries that still hangs on in many areas of the South even as it has frayed elsewhere. This culture of “common decency,” I am convinced, will be the basis of any future politics of genuine emancipation, should such politics ever arise.

Johnny’s Fish Fry

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted September 30, 2022


Being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer didn’t come as a surprise. Years of smoking in the cab of a long -haul truck takes all surprise about something like that away. For Johnny, the diagnosis was somewhere between possible and inevitable. He said cancer let’s you know who your friends really are. “You ask for nothing your whole life, only to have people make excuses about why they don’t call.” But he didn’t worry too much about other people before cancer and he wouldn’t start now.

We are early. The fish is yet to go into the outdoor propane fryer. The anti-keto buffet is covered in the kitchen. Drinks are on ice. Only, most of the guests were missing. I’ve never attended this fish fry before so I was probably the only one there who hadn’t heard Johnny’s life story, yet. Being twenty years younger, I certainly couldn’t dispute anything he would tell me.

Johnny grew up next door to my grandparent’s on the raucous north side of town. It was a lower working class neighborhood that didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was. There was a bar called “the brick” on the corner, because the building looked like one, and a brothel across the street.

Johnny grew up when there were physical consequences to messing up and he was a “bad” kid. A self-professed bully who didn’t “mind his mother”, he heard the request to “go to the tree” many times. That meant go and bring back the switch you were going to be beaten with. Once, he dragged a fallen tree limb to his mother and got the smile and reprieve he’d hoped for. “These bad-ass kids today could use some old-fashioned discipline”, he said.

He talked about growing up in our semi-segregated hometown in the early 60’s. He had to learn to deal with white people because he grew up not caring for them much. He asserted his dominance over other boys, and got good in sports at a time when winning became more important than race. He joined the army and got out of town as soon as he could.

By that point in the story, a witness showed up to offer occasional commentary. When the witness, one of the kids Johnny bullied, told him, “I hated you growing up,” the feeling was as fresh as the fish for the fryer. 60 plus years didn’t blunt much.

The years had obviously changed Johnny’s views about white people who were at least half of the people at the fish fry. White wives of black men, including his own, his neighbors, and former drinking buddies made the occasion as mixed as the half and half ice cream that awaited us for dessert. He wasn’t just tolerating white folks anymore.

Johnny didn’t regret much except not being there for the black kids who could have used role models growing up in our hometown. While he was away in the 70’s and 80’s, things had changed there as they had for the country. It was easier to move up and out but not so easy to stay together.

Spending years on the road made self-reflection an occupational hazard. With all of the truck stops, restaurants, and hotels, you were your own constant companion. There’s only so much to distract you from examining yourself. He spoke as someone who come through that for the better. He accepted where he was, what he had done, and the consequences. The cancer was just one more thing to deal with and he accepted that too.

We prayed, ate, drank bottled water and caught up with the events of the year before the fish fry culminated with the release of balloons in remembrance of the recently departed. It had been a tough year with the pandemic as there were almost as many balloons for the dead as there were people to hold them.

I wondered who would hold Johnny’s balloon someday as the soloist sang, “Thank you lord”.

Back in the USA

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted August 6, 2022


As I arrive back in the US for another extended visit, I’m always jolted by the tenor of political speech here. “Pritzger sucks” and “Let’s go Brandon” signs in my rural hometown qualify as legitimate political commentary. I come back to a Republican Party that is embracing Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s democracy light movement. People can vote as long as Orbán wins. Orbán proves you don’t have to use centuries old social grievances to whip up an illiberal mob as the threat of non-European immigrants and their non-European genes is just fine, among other things.

The Republicans have also taken the “see something, say something” notion of mutual surveillance a step further by advocating and rewarding citizen snitches in the classroom to discourage “divisive” teaching and in the very personal business of policing pregnancies.

Living in Germany allows a particular window into the relatively recent past. The existence of the GDR, East Germany, is not that long ago and right up until its demise in 1989, it was a vibrant police state led by their secret police nicknamed the Stasi. I know many who grew up in East Germany. I’ve heard direct accounts of victims of the police state in tours of Stasi prisons. I’ve seen the tools used to spy on neighbors in museums.

Historian David Cook writes that there is evidence that 1 in 30 East Germans acted as Stasi informants…and we don’t have all of the evidence. To put that in perspective 1 in 30 Americans would be nearly 11 million people officially providing information to the state against their friends, neighbors, families, and colleagues.

A scary thought is that we willingly provide advertisers more information than the Stasi could dream of. Big Data and data mining tools allow keepers of massive amounts of information to have insights into our individual lives that we don’t have ourselves. Imagine if they start using all of that for reasons other than selling us stuff.

Beyond the data is the corrosive role of suspicion. In East Germany, suspicion of your neighbor as an informant was obviously warranted. Sometimes people didn’t know they were informing on someone as a story here, or bit of information there shared unwittingly with an informant or undercover agent could be compiled into the picture a Stasi official could use to threaten to destroy a future. Things didn’t have to be illegal, they only had to look illegal to the right decision maker to kill job or educational opportunities.

Is that where we’re headed? Virginia Gov. Youngkin, who used fear of black history to gain political backing, instituted a tip line for parents to inform on teachers. Youngkin’s stated purpose for the tip line is to, “Help us be aware of … their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia, and we’re going to make sure we catalogue it all. … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.” The rights parents are denied is the right for their children to be unchallenged and comfortable in the classroom. Maybe it’s the right not to have to answer difficult questions when their children get home from school? Naturally, Youngkin is also fighting to keep tip line data from being made public.

The insidious Texas anti-abortion bounty is even more craven by offering a reward for legal action leading to the conviction of abortion providers or anyone who assists in the provision of an abortion in the state.

As a 2021 article in Vogue described it,

“If an individual were to suspect, say, a Lyft driver of taking a pregnant person to an appointment for an abortion after the six-week mark, said individual could sue the Lyft driver and collect a judgment of $10,000—and a refunding of their legal fees—from the Lyft driver if the lawsuit were successful. “

Of course, the Supreme Court has made the necessity of the provision of six weeks to legally have an abortion obsolete. Idaho and Oklahoma have already followed the Texas bounty model that turns private citizens into potential litigants against people who actively support women’s access to abortion. How many other of the 14 states that currently ban abortion will follow suit is not yet clear. Many other states are using their existing criminal justice systems to enforce their anti-abortion laws.

So it begins again. Some of us know all too well the price of continuous suspicion and friendly neighborhood surveillance. I can only imagine the level of scrutiny union organizers got in the 50’s or get at Amazon today. It’s almost like a black teen in a department store. If public tolerance of tattletale policies continues, we stand to lose the ability to trust others who are in our boat, making it even harder to organize for our interests. Who is interested in that outcome, I wonder?

https://fee.org/articles/10-terrifying-facts-about-the-east-german-secret-police/

https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/living-with-the-enemy-informing-the-stasi/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/08/08/va-gov-youngkin-faces-second-suit-over-teacher-tip-line/

https://www.vogue.com/article/how-does-texas-abortion-bounty-work

George Floyd in the Deep South

By Curtis Price

Posted July 4, 2022


(Reprinted from the End Notes dossier, “That Summer Feeling: The George Floyd Protests and America’s Hot Pandemic Summer, 2020,” https://endnotes.org.uk/dossiers/that-summer-feeling)

Outsiders often lump the South together as an undifferentiated region, but this blanket categorization disguises important differences in culture and politics between Southern states. Mississippi and Alabama, for instance, are radically different from North Carolina and Tennessee despite their geographical proximity and their shared Confederate history. Mississippi and Alabama had different courses of development than the Upper South, where small yeoman farming dominated (in contrast to the Deep South’s large plantations). George Floyd demonstrations took a different form in these states, both desperately poor and sharing a long history of reactionary superstructures dominated by what are called in Alabama the “Big Mules,” landowning and industrial elites that controlled state politics and social life for over a century. To a large extent, they still do.

Alabama has the longest state constitution in the world, going on for hundreds of pages, a thoroughly anti-democratic 1901 document specifically designed to prevent any replay of the 1880s-era multi-racial populist movement that threatened elite power. The extreme centralization encoded in this revanchist constitution has stripped cities of almost any local control, which has kept Birmingham and Huntsville from mothballing Confederate statues or else face a $25,000 fine. The state legislature is currently trying to raise fines to $5,000 a day and hold city officials personally liable for them. The irony of public officials railing at the federal government for trampling on “states rights” and yet not hesitating to apply an iron heel to any expressions of local autonomy is lost on the perpetrators.

Even obscuring a Confederate statue, as Mayor Woodfin of Birmingham did by covering it with plywood, is labeled a crime worthy of state prosecution. Mississippi only removed the Confederate cross bars, enshrined on the state flag for over a century, in 2021. In the Deep South, as William Faulkner – who knew a thing or two about such things – famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

With this background, what was striking is how the George Floyd protests ended as possibly the largest and most widespread demonstrations in each state’s history. In Mississippi, for instance, a protest outside the state capital in Jackson attracted over 4,000 people. A critical difference between the protests during the Civil Rights movement and those that erupted after George Floyd’s death however is that state repression was absent in the latter, so comparing absolute numbers of crowds is misleading when assessing their social impact. During the George Floyd protests, for instance, there were no phalanxes of cops with riot shields and snarling dogs ready to be sicced on protestors. The cops mostly stayed unobtrusive and, at times, even participated by “taking a knee.”

Besides the Jackson demonstration, there were solidarity rallies in Biloxi, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Tupelo, Meridian, Starkville, and Oxford ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. In Petal, a tiny town outside Hattiesburg, home of the University of Southern Mississippi, large demonstrations of a few hundred took place calling for Mayor Hal Marx’s resignation after the good mayor said he saw nothing unreasonable in how the cops responded in Minneapolis.

In Alabama – more populated and industrialized (Alabama is now an auto industry center because of factory transplants from the North) – protests took place not only in the larger urban cores such as Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile but also in many smaller peripheries. In Dothan, for instance, a small agricultural city near the Florida panhandle – the “Peanut Capital of the World,” as the city dubs itself – demonstrations were organized by The Ordinary Peoples’ Society (T.O.P.S), a pre-existing, mostly black working class group already mobilized around police brutality and voting rights for felons. Florence, Decatur, Troy and Auburn also saw sizeable-for-their-size demonstrations.

In contrast with Mississippi, there were confrontations with police in several Alabama cities, the sharpest of which was in Birmingham, where downtown stores were looted after cops stopped an attempt to take down a Confederate-era statue. Mobile also experienced smaller skirmishes with police that were quickly quashed. In Huntsville, which has a larger professional managerial sector because of the city’s reliance on military and aerospace contracts, police still attacked a peaceful crowd after a demonstration went over the allotted time, tear-gassing and arresting many in a pre-emptive strike under the excuse of preventing rumored “Antifa-type looting.”

If most demonstrations in Alabama and Mississippi conformed to the pattern elsewhere, in other cases, the particular contradictions of the Deep South played out.

In Gadsden, a smaller de-industrialized city in central Alabama whose last major employer, Goodyear Tires, had just announced its plant closing and where disgraced far-right Republican senate candidate Roy Moore rides on a horse to vote wearing a Stetson, protests faced different obstacles.

A target for the local BLM was the Emma Sansom statue in downtown Gadsden erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Sansom was so honored for having tended the war-wounds of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who later founded the Ku Klux Klan. Sansom’s descendents wrote a moving open letter supporting removal. But demonstrations at the statue were met by pro-Confederate counter-demonstrators.

Jerome Gunn, a Detroit ex-pat, became known as a leading Gadsden BLM organizer. Before BLM, Gunn ran clothing and food drives for the poor and a soup kitchen for the homeless out of his Gadsden car wash and detailing business. Gunn had also personally paid for hotel rooms for people displaced by a fire at a local apartment complex and for survivors in nearby Jacksonville when swaths of the city were flattened by a tornado outbreak in 2018.

Those good deeds didn’t stop Gunn from getting arrested at BLM demonstrations on dubious charges of “first degree theft by deception,” which many rightly interpreted as harassment for his role in BLM. Shortly afterwards, Gunn’s business was fire-bombed and gutted (the same fate, coincidentally, befell the home of one of Roy Moore’s accusers). The irony, as Gunn pointed out, was that the majority of people he helps are white. No suspects have been arrested – and probably never will.

It deserves mentioning how Gadsden BLM demonstrations, in an inspiring display of cross-issue solidarity, regularly stopped outside the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, which doubles as one of the most repressive holding tanks for ICE immigrant detention, while inmates cheered and banged on windows in support. But such connecting up of different struggles was all-too-rare during George Floyd protests here.

A few dozen miles away in Albertville, a small city of 20,000 dominated by the poultry industry and where mostly Hispanics and Haitian workers recently wildcatted over wages, a George Floyd memorial march attracted over 600 people. Even counting the presence of outsiders from other cities such as nearby Huntsville, this was a huge turn-out.

But the Confederate flag still flies every day outside the Marshall County Courthouse in Albertville. When Unique Dunston, an Albertville BLM organizer, attempted a campaign to remove the flag, the turn-out was tiny and like Gadsden, counter-demonstrators, some armed, came out in opposition. The city refuses to take down the flag.

The focus on removing Confederate statues and flags in the South has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how these are visible symbols of an era of white supremacy and a reminder of its continued grip in the South today. Thus, they became an easy target for protests. Yet on the other hand, statues are just symbols of this larger web of social relations and removing them was an easy cathartic gesture that left these underlying conditions intact while giving people a sense of having accomplished “something.”

For this reason, many – but not all – the demonstrations against Confederate statues mostly attracted college-educated whites. This was certainly the case in Huntsville, where protests against the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse were white-dominated, a reflection of the city’s higher than average share of white PMC workers and smaller African American population. The response among working class blacks was more muted. As one African-American Mississippi farmer, a man who limped from beatings during the Civil Rights era, put it, “Those statues? We never paid attention to them. We know we ain’t going back to those days.” This probably reflected the silent opinion of many, who voted with their feet by not coming out.

A further irony is that the Redeemer myth of the “solid South,” the very memory which the statues honor, papers over how the South lost the war in large part because of mass desertion. Towards the end of the war, nearly 40% of Confederate soldiers had gone M.I.A. Not all of these desertions were consciously anti-Confederate – many soldiers abandoned their posts because of family hardship at home and not from a conscious rejection of war objectives.

But enough did. In North Alabama, for instance, an area where big plantations never existed, whole swaths became ungovernable, with multi-year sustained guerrilla warfare erupting against the Confederacy. Secret societies formed within the ranks of the Confederate army that sabotaged the war from within and provided an underground railroad to encourage desertion to Union armies or hiding out from authorities. Du Bois notes this phenomenon in “Black Reconstruction” when he wrote, “the poor white not only began to desert and run away, but thousand followed the Negro into the Northern camps.” Little of this history is known in the South and is unlikely to surface anytime soon.1

Still, as the situations in Gadsden and Albertville both show, vague exhortations to racial reconciliation and healing can run up against genuine white supremacy (the real deal, not some feigned, promiscuous, au courant accusations where anything under the sun can get labeled as “whiteness” with enough effort) if limits are pushed too far, violating boundaries of what is considered “acceptable” discourse. Under this rubric, slavery gets acknowledged as a wrong – there is little talk anymore about how happy enslaved people were on plantations – but then the topic is quickly changed. Dwelling too much on slavery then becomes a sign of stirring up “trouble.”

The threat of non-state agents of repression enforcing this “acceptable” race discourse, with local authorities predictably turning a blind eye, especially outside the major cities, remains real. It’s all more underground now: there are no visible White Citizens’ Councils with vigilante clout, memberships in the thousands and control of local small-town infrastructure. Yet the fact that these informal networks exist at all highlights the tortured link between the entrenched old South and the slowly emerging new in two states where “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

What’s Goin’ On

By James Murray

Posted May 21, 2022


“C’mon and talk to me
So you can see
What’s goin on..”
-Marvin Gaye


I first met ‘Steve,’ when he came to work at our department. Compared to the old-timers we were, ‘the young guys.’ We were never close friends but we got along and worked well together. We both followed the NBA and listened to some hip-hop and neither of us like ‘the old guys,’ at the shop. About once a week we would go to lunch and shit-talk our co-workers and discuss mutual interests.
I knew Steve had experienced a tough childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he had bounced back and forth between Oklahoma and southern California with a chronic alcoholic father, always in extreme poverty, he had spent several teenage years living with his father (literally) in a van down by the river. He seemed to be a survivor though, in an apparent happy marriage with two children. He had a semi-skilled trade and our jobs paid relatively well. He told me once he, ‘Had done a lot of drugs,” in his misspent youth but, “A lot of drugs,” mean different things to different people and its common for
people to be overly dramatic about past debauchery. He didn’t seem like any kind of dope casualty to me. We met up at a sports bar a few times to watch games and I got to know his wife, ‘Shirley.’ She seemed pretty typical and would have a couple of beers whereas Steve didn’t drink at all, being turned off and distrustful of alcohol due to his father’s experience. I ascertained Shirley had trouble keeping a job. I thought she had some anxiety issues, and did not possess great social skills and I realize working-class culture (especially in the south) can be difficult for a woman (or anyone) to navigate if they weren’t raised in it, and sometimes even if they were raised in it. But it wasn’t my problem and I didn’t judge her.
Sometimes Steve would mildly complain about how Shirley would continue to spend money even when she wasn’t working. She pressured him to buy a big, expensive (is there any other kind) pickup they really didn’t need. But lots of people buy vehicles and luxury goods they really don’t need, and he never expressed any animosity toward his wife. I sensed more of a good-natured fatalism than anything else. “I make it, she spends it,” he told me one time. And Steve really was a kind, good-hearted guy. Very little education, formal or informal, but he had the natural sophistication of someone that had grown up struggling and hustling and moving around the country. As far as I could tell, Steve and Shirley were completely irreligious and totally apolitical. As well, mildly culturally liberal in the way followers of pop culture and mass media usually are. I can’t remember politics and religion ever coming up in conversation.
From want or necessity Steve started doing side gigs in the evenings and on weekends. Likable, competent, honest and reliable, he did well, making money and acquiring a client list in short order. I would estimate this was about 2013/2014.
In time he quit our department on good terms to pursue the side-hustle full-time. The old guys at the shop began retiring, one by one. I got a raise, then a promotion, then a ‘position.’ One boss retired and we got a new, better boss, one that I had rapport and mutual respect with. We got new hires. I was doing well, but usually busy and running at110mph most days between 7 and 4. I lost contact with Steve.
Suddenly, it’s summer, 2016. I’m in a McDonalds getting coffee one morning about 6:15 am and I run into Steve. I’m amazed to see he’s wearing a red, ‘MAGA’ hat. At first I thought it’s a joke. It seemed so unlikely. Despite my long-standing politics (anarchist/Marxist/etc.) I myself was sympathetic to Trump. I loved the way he had humiliated and defeated Republican dirt bags like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, and the way he had unapologetically disrespected the GOP’s ‘serious men,’ like John McCain and Mitt Romney. And that summer he was running against an (IMO) psychopathic monster named Hillary Clinton. In such circumstances how could any empathetic reasonable person not be sympathetic to Trump? But my sympathy was ironic and highly conditional. Steve’s support of Trump was serious, embittered, aggressive, paranoic. His entire personality seemed to have changed. No longer laid back with a constant soft smile and good humor he was agitated by the ‘Fake News’ conspiracy and now I saw him as edgy and driven with sole interest, it was all – Trump Trump Trump.
Of course Trump won the big election but my life didn’t change – long work weeks and totally checked out on weekends. I continued to find Trump an entertaining, yet farcical creature. Good for a laugh but completely unserious. Certainly not a fascist and revolutionary, just a clown with a lot of money like Berlusconni. I did not see or hear from Steve for months and months. One day he called me out of the blue and asked if I could help get his wife, Shirley a menial job in the department, I was noncommittal but brought it up to my boss. We both knew her sketchy job history but he said – why not? Give her a chance. So Shirley got hired but I very rarely saw her, and when I did I was in a hurry and just waved or said, “Hi,” We never had a conversation. She seemed to be doing well but I didn’t know any details.
More months passed. Then a year or two. One day I was having coffee and
gossiping with Shirley’s immediate supervisor, ‘Misty.’ “She has some strange beliefs,” Misty told me.
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. Like some weird religious shit.”
I just laughed. I had never known Shirley or Steve to be religious at all. But I thought the conversion to Trumpismo might have led to a conversion to fundie Christianity.
“She’s obsessed with pedos,” Misty told me.
“Pedos?”
“Yeah bruh it’s weird. She does a good job but all she can talk about is conspiracy shit, pedos, and the Bible.”
“Well at least she shows up.”
“Yeah.”
In hindsight I think Misty was describing some early version of the ‘QAnon ideology,’ but I knew nothing about that then and know very little about it now. More months passed. Steve texted me unexpectedly one night, knowing I am a fairly serious, ‘firearms enthusiast,’ he wanted my advice on which manufacturer’s AR-pattern rifle to buy. His budget was one-thousand. Knowing it didn’t really matter and not wanting to have a long text exchange about semi-automatic rifles I just gave him some answer, “Bushmaster or FN,” I probably told him.
More months passed. Someone told me Steve was now, ‘preaching.’ I could just laugh. “Professionally?” I asked. The person didn’t know the financial details but said Steve was traveling all over the state and region to ‘share his message.’ Someone else told me he was neglecting his business and abandoning half-completed jobs to focus on his politico-religious mashup. He had several lawsuits for ‘Breach of Contract’ pending against him. He and Shirley had pulled their kids out of the public school and were now, ‘homeschooling.’ All of this was interesting and a bit concerning to me but I had much bigger concerns almost every minute of the day and night.
Months kept passing, some said they were picking up speed as the fortunes of Trumpismo ebbed and flowed and ebbed. Covidmania and Lockdown Fever gripped the country. In Oklahoma, any such concerns were a passing phase, and as an ‘Essential,’ I kept going to work everyday like normal. For a few months the restaurants were closed and masks were, ‘Mandatory,’ but then it was all over. Everything open, no masks in sight. I thought Trump’s defeat in November, 2020 was more than a bit suspicious, but again – it’s just not something I cared that much about.
“Did you see the new Paper?” Misty asked me one day, referring to the small-town
weekly newspaper.
“No. Never.”
“Shirley’s husband got arrested.”
“Really? Steve?”
“Really bruh.”
“For what?”
“Possession of methamphetamine.”
“Wow. That’s crazy. He was a religious fanatic the last I heard.”
“I don’t know bruh. I think Shirley’s on it too. She’s been acting real weird. Talking to walls and shit.”
“Oh my God.”
“Be glad you don’t have to deal with her.”
“I am.”
In a few weeks Shirley’s bizarre behavior got her called into the office for a ‘write up.’ When notified of the reason she was there she went wild, throwing pens and inanimate
objects, threatening Misty and others and screaming profanities. She walked out and never returned.
You have to wonder what’s going on in a culture that can take functional normies and their semi-functional spouses and put them on a track that leads through Trumpismo, into religious nuttery, then around the curve into conspiracism and then dump them into methamphetamine abuse. I don’t think Trump’s charisma and manipulative ability, or ancient Bible secrets unveiled, or shocking crackpot political analysis, or the addictive properties of fine Oaxacan ice provide an answer here. I’m
certainly no clinician, not even an ‘expert,’ but the clinician would just write you an antidepressant script and the ‘experts,’ blame it all on racism and ‘white privilege,’ or something. I think people are just so exhausted and burned up and out from these past decades of reaction. They just want to ‘feel something.’ They want to ‘experience something.’ They want to have an explanation. They want to know an answer. They will go into bankruptcy, destroy their families and livelihoods, wreck their own and other’s lives to chase the dream that life might have meaning and value outside the markets
and system of financialization. Of course they’re going to fuck up, there’s a million and one wrong turns and no one has a map here

A Short History of the Tulsa Dixie Mob

By James Murray

Posted May 14, 2022


(A text like this must remain in the arena of “informal history.” There are traditional sources – a few pages in this book or that one, newspaper and magazine articles, law-enforcement reports, etc., but not nearly as many as one might expect considering the sensational nature of some of the events.  There is also an oral history,.. From its peak –  powerful and feared – respected by organized crime organizations across the country – the Dixie Mob has  receded into a shadowy Oklahoma legend.)

“Stories of crime and corruption yes it’s true

Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs and whores and booze..”

                                               -Drive By Truckers

     Alcohol prohibition did not end in Oklahoma until 1959, but of course there had never been a shortage of strong drink in Oklahoma. Bootlegger organizations and independent moonshine cooks and beer brewers had operated with varying degrees of openness and semi-official protection since before statehood. Everyone in a small Oklahoma town knew who the local bootleggers were, they handed out business cards and operated with regular ‘business hours,’ and made home deliveries. In Tulsa, a city flush with post-war oil, aerospace and manufacturing money, there were some bootleggers who grew rich and well-respected for their “honesty,” and business ethics. Such a popular product as alcohol, distributed illegally on a large scale, had to attract the attention of law-enforcement. And certainly it did, but police officers and Sheriff’s and District Attorneys liked to drink too. The “Good ol boy,” system prevailed. A local alcohol distributor, ‘playing by the rules,’ and willing to make donations to Sheriffs and District Attorney re-election campaigns, and willing to hand out a few bottles of, “Good stuff,” to police officers and deputies ran very little chance of ever being arrested. If church leaders  or business executives started raising a fuss there could be a “Seizure,” arranged – perhaps a stolen car or truck loaded with illegal booze would be located. A newspaper article accompanied by photos would praise the intrepid police work that took hundreds of bottles, “off the streets.” For the bootleggers it was just part of the cost of doing business. This system of corruption held sway for decades.

     The atmosphere of pervasive corruption in Oklahoma law-enforcement was cited as a rationale by progressive lawmakers to legalize alcohol. If Oklahoma was going to be a modern state, fully integrated into the industrial economy the local police in cities and towns had to be professionalized. And that could not happen as long as the vast majority of them were looking the other way to avoid seeing alcohol distribution or even actively involved in such trafficking.

     By several accounts over one thousand bootleggers became unemployed the day the liquor laws changed. Often they had gotten used to living tax and guilt free. Many entered the legitimate world of workaday concern, but some did not. More than a few had seen the end of prohibition coming and had already started venturing into new gray or black market enterprises. Multiple sources report the network of bootleggers around the Tulsa area began morphing into a multi-faceted organized crime organization almost immediately after the end of prohibition.  I would expect they had begun branching out into prostitution rings and gambling enterprises long before 1959, and obviously they had been cooperating with individuals in law-enforcement for decades. But in 1960 the first “crime crews” associated with what would come to be known as the “Dixie Mafia,” were being formed. These crews lacked formality, sometimes overlapping and sharing members, sometimes combining forces and then splitting apart into individual criminal activity and operating independently for months or even years at a time. In Tulsa, a “sphere of influence” that included the surrounding area, especially Sapulpa and Tahlequah , some of the names associated with these crews were Albert McDonald, Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, Leroy MacManaman, Rubie Jenkins, “Fat Jerry” James, Wayne Padgett, Thomas Lester Pugh and others. Their hangouts were bars on Old Sapulpa Road, a ‘private club’ in Sperry and “dope dens” on Tulsa’s north side. The FBI  noticed a string of seemingly professional, unusually lucrative bank robberies began occurring all over Oklahoma. Burglary was noticed to be becoming professional and organized, and between 1959 to 1961 property crime losses doubled in Tulsa County. Arkansas and Louisiana also experienced suspicious large increases in robbery and theft and Kansas was struck especially hard. The McManahan Gang, or “Northside crew,” stole untold hundreds of vehicles out of Kansas as well as tractors, implements and farm and oil field equipment. Simultaneously Kansas experienced a bank robbery surge that was unprecedented. In the midst of a cyclical agricultural boom Kansas farmers were buying new equipment and vehicles and putting money in their local banks. According to FBI reports the “Tulsa related” bank robberies  were characterized by the use of such exotica as submachine guns, walky-talkys, and souped up modified vehicles. Inevitably the robbers would disregard the cash in the teller drawers and go directly to the safe. Small banks in isolated prairie towns were easy and safe pickings. Sometimes local police would be distracted by arsons or bombings.The investigations languished, unsolved, as previously rare jewelry store heists and safecracking crimes began proliferating in Oklahoma and bordering states.

      It is widely suspected the Italian mafia families in Kansas City and St. Louis were utilized to ‘fence,’ all this stolen merchandise and that these families soon  began employing these Oklahoma outlaws for “off the books,” contract murders. As an intimidation tactic for shaking down bars or recalitarant drug dealers or maybe as a method of impressing an overly ethical District Attorney, or even as a murder weapon, the bomb became a Dixie Mafia signature. Other Tulsa mobsters were gunsmiths, building functional submachine guns out of parts kits as well as firearms suppressors. When car bombs and suppressors began being used in Chicago and New Orleans mafia murders it was assumed the Okies were either there, working personally or had sold the munitions to those cities traditional mafia families.

     All this activity did not go unnoticed. Kansas law-enforcement officials would press on the FBI for answers and learn that gangs were proliferating in Tulsa, but their close-knit and shadowy culture  made gathering evidence difficult. Vernon Glenn, who worked as an OSBI agent in those years, later stated his office began seeing activity that was new to Tulsa and Oklahoma. It was not just that specific crimes had significantly increased. There were obvious patterns. And such patterns indicated organization. Of course there had always been burglary and robbery teams in Tulsa, as well as prostitution rings, gambling and drug dealing. But the OSBI and FBI began seeing signs of organized criminal racketeering – a group or group seeking to gain a monopoly on the drug trade, or local prostitution or gambling. Deciding who could steal what, when and where. This was how the traditional mafia families in New York and the east coast operated. It was something new to Tulsa. Agent Glenn and his peers could tell ‘something new was happening,’ But It took years to figure out who was who in the new Tulsa underground. They were trying to play catch up and the crime crews were moving very fast

     According to numerous sources, rumors of a major murder contract began circulating in 1964. The target would be Martin Luther King and the price was said to be one hundred thousand dollars. This offer was brought to Tulsa and at least some of the locals began taking it seriously. Others were skeptical as no one seemed to know who was guaranteeing the money, and however hated and feared he might be –  King was considered a civilian in the criminal underworld and a very high-visibility target. Reflecting their social background in Oklahoma agriculture or the oil fields almost all these professional criminals were “blue dog” southern Democrats. If for no other reason than it was commonly believed Democratic politicians were easier to bribe or make a deal with. The Republican party in Oklahoma was more associated with the urban managerial and banking elite. In other words, their social betters and traditional antagonists. One notable exception was Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, a former rodeo bronc rider, he was a vocal follower of the John Birch Society and an extreme anti-communist Republican. One associate remembered Sparks, “Looked like a cowboy, he smelled like a cowboy, he was very polite unless drinking. He was a killer.” Sparks was attracted to the idea of killing King and he and Leroy MacManaman packed a variety of weapons into the trunk of a Cadillac and drove to the southeastern states to stalk the civil rights icon,  They spent more than a month trying to locate and get close to their target but to no avail. King’s movements were unpredictable, the informal security around him was wary and fairly efficient. The would-be assassins were not familiar with the southern cities and had no connections in the local police departments. Unbeknownst to the pair, they were being quietly shadowed by FBI agents, who assumed they were scouting banks to rob. While staying at a hotel in Mobile, Alabama, Sparks and MacManahan were visited by a man claiming to be a representative of a Klu Klux Klan sect. They told him they were planning to abandon the attempt on King’s life and he offered them a thirteen thousand dollar “front,” to continue the effort. They declined the offer and drove back to Oklahoma. Decades later records would be declassified that showed the hotel room had been bugged by the FBI and KKK leader’s conversation with the Tulsans was recorded but never used in any prosecution.

     The robberies, murders and rackateering continued apace for years. Between 1960 and 1970 property and violent crime rates grew six times faster than the population in Tulsa and surrounding counties. A comprehensive list of “Tulsa Dixie Mob,” activity is of course impossible to compile, but examples can be gleaned from local newspapers and OSBI/FBI reports – An old-time bootlegger turned heroin dealer was found in a shallow grave in Chelsea,OK, an FBI informant fingered “Two Jumps” Sparks but there was not evidence.  Bars were blown apart by explosions in Bartlesville and Tahlequah. When the Tahlequah newspaper reported “organized crime” was active in the area the newspaper building was bombed. A triple murder in New Orleans was said to be linked to “Tulsa area criminals,” but that investigation, like so many others, went no where. A bar in Dewey was bombed. An associate of the northside crew was found in a ditch with a bullet in his head. It was believed he was talking too much. Independent burglars and small-time drug dealers began “disappearing.”  Well-known old-school Tulsa thief and writer Bobby Bluejacket said of these racketeers, “They changed the rules overnight. If you didn’t like it, you could be in trouble. People were dying.” Bluejacket and other veteran Tulsa criminals  just left town. An auto dealership office was bombed.  Federal drug agents reported the quality of heroin and dexedrine had increased and the availability of these drugs was consistent on Tulsa streets.

     The looting of cars and agricultural machinery out of Kansas never ended. Cattle were also being rustled, on an industrial scale of  unknown thousands per year. Frustrated by his state’s inability to successfully investigate the usual Tulsa suspects, the Kansas Attorney General commissioned a report in 1970 based on FBI files and intelligence reports. Titled “The Dixie Mafia Intelligence Report,” it explained how “A loose confederation of professional criminals operated in cities scattered throughout the south.” This report explained there seemed to be no formal hierarchy or even membership yet the organization functioned, “Controlling vice rackets, murder for hire and robbery, in a manner most similar to the more familar traditional Italian mafia families.” The report named Biloxi, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma as the cities with the most active and dangerous organizations and where large-scale racketeering was ongoing. This report received regional and national news coverage. The Report was mostly a compendium of sensational crimes, and figures showing how bank robbery and commercial theft had gained year over year in 1960s Kansas. The invention of the  “Dixie Mafia,” label apparently begins here. In Tulsa, crime crews were named after their leader, “The James Gang,” or “McDonald’s Guys,” or were referred to using geography, “The Northside Crew,” or “Westside Guys.” No one had ever heard of the Dixie Mafia. But local outlaws read the newspapers like everyone else and were happy to adopt the usage. It was (and is) usually slightly modified in Tulsa street language to “Lil Dixie Mafia,” or “Dixie Mob.” There seemed to be an apparent paradox – is a non hierarchical organization an organization at all? How could a loose network conduct large-scale racketeering operations? It was not explained in the report and it has never been explained since. Yet by all accounts that is what was happening. By 1970, the bootleggers forced out of business in 1959 had reinvented themselves and the Tulsa underworld. They were controlling the narcotics traffic, the sex trade and gambling. They had a national reputation for producing contract killers. They had severely compromised the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa Sheriff’s Office. If and when apparent members were arrested it seemed to have no effect on the organization (or lack thereof) at all. With no head to decapitate, the FBI did not know a successful method of attack. Groups of individuals with familial or friendship ties going back decades are very hard to infiltrate.

     In downtown Tulsa a de facto “Red Light District,” was flourishing. Brothels stood side by side in red brick buildings along East First Street, anchored by the decade’s old “Mays Room” on the corner. Operated by Pauline Lambert, she had apparently negotiated an “arrangement,” with the Dixie Mob, and her place was more luxurious and expensive than those the “good ol boys” owned. A newsstand and coffee shop on ground floors provided a discreet place to buy marijuana, benzedrine or heroin. Other retail drug outlets existed at Greenwood and Archer and scattered throughout the city, sometimes these spaces would also have a card room with games going twenty-four hours a day. All operated quietly but without any fear of police interference. A joke stated the only time you would see a police car on East First Street was when one of the department’s administrators was looking to enjoy a long lunch.

     Once known as “The Queen of Tulsa Bootleggers,” Cleo Epps had provided alcohol to the “best families,” in Tulsa for decades. She counted oil-money heirs and politicians (and police officers) as personal friends. When prohibition ended she purchased a motor court on the west side of Tulsa and cooled her heels on a large ranch illegal booze had purchased for her. By some accounts she did a bit of fencing of women’s clothing and accessories and bought and sold stolen jewelry, but mostly she was retired. The Dixie Mob was a boy’s club and she was an older woman.  Reportedly she was troubled by her former associates’ activity. She knew they were trafficking narcotics and ‘involved with the Italians’ and killing people and she didn’t want anything to do with all that.

     Epps might have faded into obscurity, quietly disapproving of the new era of Tulsa racketeering, but on August 25, 1970 a tremendous explosion rocked an exclusive midtown neighborhood. District Judge Nelson started his car to go to work and the vehicle blew up around him. He was shattered and disemboweled but miraculously still alive. The city was shocked. Who would bomb a district judge? Well, okay, there was only one possible non organizational candidate. But why? Where was the motive? Nelson had just announced his candidacy for District Attorney, and his opponent was to be a well known criminal defense lawyer and Dixie Mob fixer named Charles Pope. Was the attempted murder just to assure the “Dixie Mob connected” candidate, (a Democrat of course), won? It seemed painfully obvious. Except the Democratic nominee almost always won anyway. Was a District Attorney election worth a high-profile attempted murder? Conspiracists said the Dixie Mob had been into Nelson for years and he had tried to renege on a deal. Some wags said Albert McDonald had a new bomb reciepe he wanted to test and one Republican politican was as good as any other for that purpose. Nelson would live, barely. But his career was finished.

     Cleo Epps was thinking the same thing a lot of people were thinking – this had gone too far. She had been friendly with the Nelson family for years. She had been in their home. Attempting to assassinate a district judge in broad daylight in front of his wife and kids? She was mortified. People who would do that would do anything. Epps knew a grand jury was convening downtown to investigate local organized crime. There was one convened every few years and nothing ever came of it.  She called an old friend, a Tulsa Police detective and told him she would be willing to testify in front of the grand jury. She wanted to keep it as secret as possible though. Weeks later she entered the grand jury chambers wearing a wig and ridiculous disguise. Half the people in the room knew her personally. It was a pitiful farcical attempt. Several Dixie Mob figures were in the room and when she entered and they got up and walked out. Perhaps as much out of sadness as disgust. It was widely assumed she had just signed her own death warrant. It would be a case of suicide by Dixie Mob. On the witness stand she told a barely credible tale about seeing Albert McDonald and Lester Pugh stealing dynamite out of a shack on her property. She explained she kept dynamite to blow stumps out of the ground. Many minds were sceptical, Surely Dixie Mobsters had better sources for explosives than stealing an old woman’s landscaping stash. And still no motive was established. FBI agents and newspaper reporters in the Grand Jury room were almost as disappointed as the mobsters who had walked out of the room. Epps was testifying under oath, why hadn’t the D.A. asked her about this murky “Dixie Mafia,” organization? If anyone knew the players she did, but the D.A. had limited his questions to a dynamite theft. Was there a reason?

     The job was offered to two brothers, cowboys from Sperry, but they were hesitant to murder an old woman in cold blood. But Albert McDonald and Tom Pugh had no such qualms. McDonald had known Epps  since he was a teenager and thought she would trust him enough to meet up. Amazingly Epps somehow believed that her disguise had worked, that her testimony in downtown Tulsa would not leave the room. That despite Dixie Mobsters, newspaper reporters and concerned citizens in the grand jury room hearing her implicate McDonald and Pugh that such information would not get back to them. McDonald called Epps saying he had a shipment of untaxed whiskey to get rid of. They arranged to meet in a parking lot off 51st Street.  When she pulled up to McDonald’s Cadillac Pugh got out of the passenger side of the vehicle and held the door open for her to sit in the front next to McDonald. She settled into the seat and Pugh opened the car’s back passenger side door and slid in behind her.  She was shot in the back of the head with a suppressed .22 and they leaned her body over in the seat and wrapped a blanket around her head to hold in the blood. With the warm corpse in the front seat they drove out to the country to hide the evidence. A few weeks later McDonald and Pugh were indicted for bombing Judge Nelson. But there was no evidence, and the only ‘witness,’ (to dynamite possession) was missing and presumed dead. The charges were dropped.

     Nineteen-seventy turned to 1971 with indications that a “Dixie Mob offensive” was underway. An associate of the Kansas City Civella Crime Family  was found in a field by the Tulsa airport with a bullet in his head. A bar on the west side was bombed. The District Attorney in Tahlequah was crippled in a car bomb blast. A previously bombed bar in Sapulpa had been rebuilt and was bombed again. Days later its co-owner was shotgunned to death in his driveway. In February 1971 the Tahlequah Police Chief’s wife asked to borrow his personal car to run errands. When she turned the key the vehicle was blown to pieces. Parts of her body were found on the rooftops of houses down the block from the blast site. Tulsa newspapers reported and editorialized in shocked tones of outrage. They were murdering Police Chief’s wives now, something had to be done. FBI agents flew into the city to bolster the local field office and investigate the multitudinous crimes and a special FBI team was pulled out of the east coast and sent to Tulsa to set up shop with the latest in eavesdropping technology. They soon learned the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa County Sheriff’s office were none too cooperative. The FBI surmised, (almost certainly correct) that both organizations were severely compromised.

     Albert McDonald was thrown out of a bar in Bartlesville and (as the tale is told) went back after closing time and leveled the building with a bomb. Minutes after the explosion he was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. The FBI rushed to search and vehicle and it was covered inside and out with bomb making residue but he wouldn’t confess, inisisting the residue must be left over from the vehicle’s previous owner. The search warrrant obtained for his residence was more useful – no bombs were found but evidence indicated his ownership of numerous “Chop shops,” in north and west Tulsa where stolen vehicles were broken down into parts. The FBI claimed he had been involved in the theft of, “More than five-hundred cars and trucks out of Kansas.” Eventually he would be indicted for “Interstate Transportation of Stolen Vehicles.”  While involved in legal procedings regarding the vehicle theft ring  McDonald ( with Pugh as triggerman) apparently murdered Epps. There was no evidence in that case either, But as months dragged by informants were located who would testify that McDonald and Pugh had casually mentioned the murder in conversation.  Eventually they would be arrested and charged with that murder and go to trial. Moments before opening statements were to begin on the trial’s first day an unoccupied service station was blown up across the street from the courthouse. Windows were rattled and cracked and people fell out of their seats from shock, fear and the concussion. Pandemonium reigned in the courtroom as one can easily imagine. The next day a car bomb went off down the street from the courthouse. Downtown Tulsa was placed under a security blanket of police, Sheriff’s Deputies and federal agents the likes of which had never been seen before. A few days into the trial a bomb threat was called into the courthouse and the entire building was evacuated and searched. No bombs were found and local wise acres said it was a juvenile hoax. Everyone knew the Dixie Mob didn’t call in threats. They just set off bombs. Out on bail and on trial for their lives McDonald and Pugh allegedly went on a murder spree of ‘hitting’ those who might provide hearsay testimony next. In short order Tulsa Dixie Mob associates Delbert “Big’n” Self, and Martin “Boots,” Edwards would die via gunshots. Eventually McDonald and Pugh would be convicted of the Epps murder on the basis of circumstantial and hearsay evidence.

     The corruption-busting District Attorney Buddy Fallis had made known while campaigning he would indict corrupt cops and deputies and ‘Fight serious crime!’ And he coyly admitted he was willing to ‘Bend the rules,’ to do that. Charismatic with a rich sense of humor Fallis would go on to have a long career as Tulsa District Attorney. Initially unloved and referred to as ‘Little Caeser,’ (and much worse) in the courthouse and police department, Fallis would wear a bulletproof vest everywhere he went, for years. By 1978 the de facto “red light district,” along East First Street would be shut down. Organized crime cannot thrive without law-enforcement collusion and Fallis would keep his campaign promise by showing no queasiness about charging police officers and Sheriff’s deputies with felonies and misdemeanors. By 1980 the heydey of the Dixie Mob was over. Prostitution was driven completly underground and biker gangs were cutting in on their narcotics traffic. Tulsa was too small a city and Kansas too small a state to make a long career in robbery and commercial theft. The participants began dying, going to prison, retiring or drifting away to greener, more populous pastures. Two (very nonItalian) Tulsa mobsters joined the “Chicago Outfit,” as formal Cosa Nostra “associates.” Others permanently relocated to Los Angeles. Buddy Fallis spoke of several suspected “Murder for Hire,” homicides with probable Dixie Mob participation circa 1979/1980, including one at the then prestigous high-rise University Club apartments. These murders remain unsolved.  As late as the mid-90s relatively large-scale bookmaking enterprises still existed in Tulsa, and debts could be settled in the traditional manner. And “Money was on the street,” in the form of unofficial, no-paperwork, high-interest “vig loans.”  These relatively gentlemanly forms of criminal racketeering were probably the last examples of organized Dixie Mob activity in Tulsa.

Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholders’ Democracy

By Eugene Genovese

Posted March 18, 2022

In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casual­ties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent histori­ans, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the non­slaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.

Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)

The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristoc­racy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were in­competent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideo­logical circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, some­one else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for them­selves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.

The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter ses­sion in consciousness-raising.

The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the non­slaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has re­cently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and intro­duced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herren­volk thesis.

First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruff­ner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.

The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was pre­cisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.

For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is pre­cisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.

To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeo­men of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verifica­tion. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often be­came a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and oppo­sition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)

Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plan­tation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the de­lineation of a discrete way of life.

In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and espe­cially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly op­posed extremist and anti-Union measures.

Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.

At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.

This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.

On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared per­fectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a quali­tatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.

In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be per­ceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)

The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ig­norance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to pro­mote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding oc­casional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.

The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and war­time desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political stan­dards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic con­nection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)

Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the non­slaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.

Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas through­out the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.

Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their atti­tude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were moti­vated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be ex­pected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.

As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democrati­zation. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.

And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberal­ism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plan­tation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not them­selves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.

This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportion­ment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men re­quired new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.

The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeo­manry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not under­stand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw them­selves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.

It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such argu­ments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.

How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guaran­tee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.

Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.

One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.

1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democ­racy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.

2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.

3. Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).

5. John Price, “Slavery in Winn Parish,” Louisiana History 8:2 (1967): 137-48.

6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Per­spective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).

7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nation­alist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).

8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.

 10.  Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).

(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)

The Poisoning of a Black Southern Town

Wall Triana Road

By Curtis Price

February 4, 2022


I’m at the public housing projects in Triana, a tiny, nearly all-black town of about 400 on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Triana ends at the dark, heaving waters of the Tennessee River. On the other side of the river begins the off-limits Redstone Arsenal, bigger than the city of Huntsville itself, and choked in impenetrable barbwire.  Sometimes you can hear the muffled boom! of weapons testing from Redstone echoing. Sometimes, gators crawl across the road from the fetid swamps a quarter-mile upwind.

My acquaintance has lived here for about a year. He likes the peace of living in the country. The projects themselves are older, one-story apartments. They feel vaguely Spanish, a stucco-pastel of washed-out ochre.  There’s lots of green and a small symphony of katydids buzz and hum. I can’t help but compare them to projects in the North, which look either like army barracks or small-scale prisons.

Triana housing projects

Back in the early 1800s, Triana was a commercial center in Alabama, its proximity to the river making it an ideal site for trade. Those days are long gone, but going to the Tennessee down Record Road, you can see at this wide juncture in the river’s bend how a natural harbor formed. If you hang around long enough, barges will silently appear and then whirl away, disappearing like river ghosts, carrying grain to poultry farms farther north.

Today, people come to picnic and boat.  Upscale whites from the new luxury complexes sprouting up on the outskirts of Triana are displacing black working-class residents using this stretch of the riverfront for barbecues and picnics.

For generations, the river fed Triana’s poor and working class. It was a free source of fish, the catfish, and bass that filled the Tennessee. Everyone fished or knew someone who fished to put food on the table. Until, 1979, that is.

In 1979, the then-Mayor of Triana, Clyde Foster, an Equal Opportunity officer for Redstone Arsenal and son of a Birmingham steel worker, found out from an anonymous phone call from a journalist that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had discovered elevated DDT levels in local fish, forty times the recommended level. When Foster asked “For how long?,” the reporter hung up. No government official had ever bothered to tell Triana.

The source of the DDT was traced to a factory on the far-flung fringes of Redstone Arsenal that had been leased to an outside corporation to make mustard gas and other chemical weapons in 1943. After the war, the plant changed hands and began producing  DDT. The Army documented plummeting bird numbers in the species that used the nearby Wheeler Refuge in the 1950s and finally, shut the plant down in the early 1970s as a result of the growing backlash against DDT and the blot of several fish kills in Spring Branch Creek, which fed into the Tennessee River.

Spring Branch Creek

The Olin Corporation, the last owner, had leeched four thousand tons of DDT into the river’s bottom soil. Foster went to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), which declined to get involved saying no research indicated that DDT was a health hazard to humans. One doctor at ADPH said he would just as soon sprinkle DDT as sugar on his morning cereal, since both carried the same level of harm.

Undeterred, Foster, a degreed engineer who had helped marshal Redstone Arsenal into the Civil Rights era, managed to interest a CDC doctor in Atlanta. She came to Triana and tested. What she found were high levels of DDT in blood, two to three times the national average. One elderly resident, a retired farmer, had the highest level of DDT ever recorded in a human at 3,300 parts per billion (the U.S. average is 16.5).

The headlines screamed a “Southern Love Canal” and labeled Triana “the unhealthiest town in America.” But it was the South. It was Alabama. And it was isolated, tiny, poor Triana, so interest quickly died and the New York journalists quickly turned their attention elsewhere, as New Yorkers often do when it comes to the South, back to Hollywood starlet scandals, Wall Street gyrations, and Andy Warhol’s latest soup cans, but with Triana briefly having its Warholian turn in the sun of fifteen fleeting minutes of fame.

However, outside of the media gaze, Mayor Clyde Foster fought tenaciously to make sure Triana wasn’t forgotten. Through his efforts and the resulting lawsuits, Olin Corporation was finally forced to pony up a substantial settlement. Triana became an EPA Superfund site, making it eligible for federal dollars. For a couple decades afterward, the river was dredged and the contaminated mud hauled off. Foster wanted a portion of the settlement monies to be funneled into a community clinic that would last for generations. Some accounts of the Triana disaster mention a community clinic set up by Foster.

I asked my friend where he thought the clinic could have been located. He thought it might have been in an abandoned building up from the Dollar General that he said a group of white crack heads was now squatting in. He also whispered darkly that since he moved to Triana, he noticed all long-term Triana residents have yellowed eyes from the DDT, a feature that’s managed to escape me in all my trips there.

I imagined Foster’s clinic would have been in the old log cabin shack down from the Triana library that in the early part of the twentieth century served as one of the few medical clinics for North Alabama’s black community. The clinic was run for decades by a single dedicated doctor and nurse and had been long abandoned. It would be fitting that Foster’s vision of free health care for all Triana residents would continue the work of earlier generations, the original clinic as a tree that would continue sprouting fruit.

Old Triana Clinic

But it turns out, that contrary to some published accounts, the permanent clinic was never built. At a memorial meeting sponsored by the Triana Historical Association, Foster’s daughter told me Triana residents wanted individual pay-outs and couldn’t see the long-term benefits of an embedded community clinic. So the settlement money flooded in and quickly went out again, as it always does in poor and working-class communities, which end up just being conduits of monies into other, fatter pockets, and Triana was never fortuned with its own clinic.

However, the other clinic, that old, weather-beaten, one-room shack, is now, after decades of being left to the elements, being restored as a historical site, a long-overdue recognition of its role in Alabama black history. (1)

As I left Triana, driving along Zerit Road, on a finger-like peninsula jutting into the muddy Tennessee waters, I noticed a solitary figure silhouetted against the grey sky, holding a fishing rod. I don’t think personally I would have enough faith in soothing government reports that everything was cleaned up and fish fit to eat.

Tennessee River, near Triana

But the biggest threat to Triana’s future may not come from the river but from the land. The area surrounding Triana is being gobbled up by developers building fancy, cookie-cutter townhouse complexes with faux Olde English names like The Greens at Eastwick. And who knows, considering the never-ending, voracious demand for housing in Huntsville’s metastasizing upscale suburbs, if Triana will slowly get whittled away out of existence in a few decades?

Notes

1. For an overview of Alabama’s larger black hospital movement, see http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2410

Reverend Black’s Blues

By Curtis Price

Posted December 18, 2021

In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casual­ties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent histori­ans, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the non­slaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.

Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)

The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristoc­racy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were in­competent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideo­logical circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, some­one else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for them­selves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.

The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter ses­sion in consciousness-raising.

The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the non­slaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has re­cently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and intro­duced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herren­volk thesis.

First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruff­ner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.

The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was pre­cisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.

For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is pre­cisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.

To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeo­men of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verifica­tion. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often be­came a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and oppo­sition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)

Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plan­tation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the de­lineation of a discrete way of life.

In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and espe­cially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly op­posed extremist and anti-Union measures.

Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.

At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.

This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.

On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared per­fectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a quali­tatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.

In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be per­ceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)

The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ig­norance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to pro­mote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding oc­casional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.

The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and war­time desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political stan­dards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic con­nection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)

Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the non­slaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.

Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas through­out the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.

Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their atti­tude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were moti­vated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be ex­pected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.

As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democrati­zation. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.

And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberal­ism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plan­tation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not them­selves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.

This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportion­ment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men re­quired new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.

The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeo­manry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not under­stand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw them­selves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.

It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such argu­ments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.

How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guaran­tee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.

Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.

One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.

1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democ­racy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.

2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.

3. Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).

5. John Price, “Slavery in Winn Parish,” Louisiana History 8:2 (1967): 137-48.

6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Per­spective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).

7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nation­alist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).

8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.

 10.  Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).

(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)

I am sitting in a North Alabama conference room, furnished in Deep South church-basement Deco. The walls are pale cream, as are the tiles, with only the brown chairs and tables offsetting the wan interior. It’s the Volunteer Christmas Party at a local community services agency. The crowd is divided roughly fifty-fifty between black and white, all older women with only two men, me and one other. This overwhelming sex imbalance reflects the nature of volunteering, where it is women more so than men who get involved with community issues, including visiting the frail, shut-in elderly and tending to the sick.

Speaking of the small, black church nurse corps – where women who do this work of unpaid caring for others – Noel Ignatiev once wrote that this mutual aid and non-professional caring was the essence of socialism. Perhaps it is. But also probable as a scenario is the same church group driving out an unmarried mother by whispering and shunning because of her “sin.” The two sides go hand in hand. The Southern church can both envelop in non-commodified compassion or it can become a boa constrictor wielded against the outcasts and non-conformists, suffocating the different.

I strike a conversation with an elderly black woman sitting next to me. We slip into an easy informality. I gather from her conversation she must be in her seventies, even if she looks much younger. Her story is that of many working-class Southern women, black and white. Taking care of children and one set of dying relatives after another, from parents to spouses. Unlike the professional middle-class, who can wall themselves off by having the coins to hire outside help to provide caring so they can pursue their precious careers in the market place, working class women are confronted life-long with a double-burden of care and employment.

The inspirational speaker, the improbably named Reverend Equator Black,  strides in with a broad smile, a tall string bean of a man with a long, sad face like an itinerant Delta blues singer and dressed to the nines in a pinstriped suit. The Reverend is 96 years old, and still works every day farming. He tells snatches of his life story: bootlegging as a child during the Depression, “whore-mongering” across the South before he got “The Word,” a stint working in steel up north in Pittsburgh, truck driving – he’s done it all. He then performs a brief shimmy that’s a cross between a Chuck Berry cakewalk and a Limbo, to audible gasps in the room, showing how limber he is nearing 100 and of course, “thanks to the Lord.”

He starts preaching, citing Bible quotes and then putting the microphone in front of one of the audience to complete the Bible passage. But to me, as a non-believer, it strikes me as sometimes forced and formulaic, which in fact it is. Call and repetition, however, strikes a chord with this group. Yet, like much of today’s religion in the United States, it comes off as self-centered. God is an insurance policy, for people that don’t have insurance policies. The Lord is all-powerful and has time, in His busy schedule, to personally oversee every act of His flock. I don’t hear much social aspect, that this type of religion makes you better so you can help others.

But at the same time it counsels waiting for Divine Intervention or blessings, it holds out a distorted, but real vision, of a better future, nourishing hopes in barren grounds. Yet this is the same privatized religious impulse that can swiftly change under the right social conditions to become a critique of the powerful and a demand for justice on earth, such as happened in the Southern Civil Rights movement. It is also a shield against dissipation in the wider world, a talisman burnished against the siren-song slop of consumer culture. However rigid and narrow it can seem to outsiders, you don’t find  in it the corroding dissatisfaction that cripples so many other American lives, even if the “Gospel of Prosperity” and its  snake-oil peddlers such as Reverend T.J. Jakes are steadily whittling away at these rich, older rural South traditions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Resistance To Slavery

George M. Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch

Posted November 12

The issues involved in the study of “resistance” to slavery are badly in need of clarification. The problem, one would suppose, is not whether the plantation slave was happy with his lot but whether he actively resisted it. But even this initial clarification does not come easily. Too many writers have assumed that the problem of resistance consists mainly of deciding whether slaves were docile or discontented and whether their masters were cruel or kind. In this respect and in others, as Stanley Elkins noted several years ago, the discussion of slavery has locked itself into the terms of an old debate. (1) The pro-slavery stereotype of the contented slave, which was taken over without much conceptual refinement by U. B. Phillips and others, has been attacked by recent historians in language much the same as that employed by the abolitionists more than a hundred years ago, according to which slaves hated bondage and longed to be free. “That they had no understanding of freedom,” Kenneth Stampp argues, “… is hard to believe.” A few pages later, and without any intervening evidence, Stampp progresses from this cautious thought to a fullblown statement of the case for “resistance.” “Slave resistance, whether bold and persistent or mild and sporadic, created for all slaveholders a serious problem of discipline.” He concludes, in a burst of rhetoric, that “the record of slave resistance forms a chapter in the story of the end-less struggle to give dignity to human life.”(2)

It should be apparent that the traditional terms of reference, on either side of the dispute, are not sufficiently precise to serve as instruments of analysis. One of the faults of Phillips’ work is his consistent failure to distinguish between cruelty and coercion. By compiling instances of the kindness and benevolence of masters, Phillips proved to his own satisfaction that slavery was a mild and permissive institution, the primary function of which was not so much to produce a marketable surplus as to ease the accommodation of the lower race into the culture of the higher. The critics of Phillips have tried to meet him on his own ground. Where he compiled lists of indulgences and benefactions, they have assembled lists of atrocities. Both methods suffer from the same defect: they attempt to solve a conceptual problem—what did slavery do to the slave—by accumulating quantitative evidence. Both methods assert that plantations conformed to one of two patterns, terror or indulgence, and then seek to prove these assertions by accumulating evidence from plantation diaries, manuals of discipline, letters and other traditional sources for the study of slavery. But for every instance of physical cruelty on the one side an enterprising historian can find an instance of indulgence on the other. The only conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this debate is that great variations in treatment existed from plantation to plantation. (But as we shall see, this conclusion, barren in itself, can be made to yield important results if one knows how to use it.)

Even if we could make valid generalizations about the severity of the regime, these statements would not automatically answer the question of whether or not widespread resistance took place. If we are to accept the testimony of Frederick Douglass, resistance was more likely to result from indulgence and rising expectations than from brutalizing severity. (3) A recent study of the geographical distribution of authentic slave revolts shows that most of them occurred in cities and in areas of slavebreeding and diversified agriculture, where, according to all accounts, the regime was more indulgent than in the productive plantation districts of the Cotton Kingdom. (4) Open resistance cannot be inferred from the extreme physical cruelty of the slave system, even if the system’s cruelty could be demonstrated statistically.

II

There is the further question of what constitutes resistance. When Kenneth Stampp uses the term he means much more than open and flagrant defiance of the system. To him resistance is all noncooperation on the part of the slaves. And it cannot be denied that the annals of slavery abound in examples of this kind of behavior. Slaves avoided work by pretending to be sick or by inventing a hundred other plausible pretexts. They worked so inefficiently as to give rise to the sus-picion that they were deliberately sabotaging the crop. They stole from their masters without compunction, a fact which gave rise to the complaint that slaves had no moral sense, but which is better interpreted as evidence of a double standard—cheating the master while dealing honorably with other slaves. Nor was this all. Their grievances or frustrations led at times to the willful destruction of the master’s property by destroying tools, mistreating animals, and setting fire to plantation buildings. Less frequently, they took the ultimate step of violent attack on the master himself. Perhaps the most common form of obvious noncooperation was running away; every large plantation had its share of fugitives.(5)

The question which inevitably arises, as Stampp piles up incident after incident in order to show that slaves were “a troublesome property,” is whether this pattern of noncooperation constitutes resistance.

Resistance is a political concept. Political activity, in the strictest sense, is organized collective action which aims at affecting the distribution of power in a community; more broadly, it might be said to consist of any activity, either of individuals or of groups, which is designed to create a consciousness of collective interest, such consciousness being the prerequisite for effective action in the realm of power. Organized resistance is of course only one form of political action. Others include interest-group politics; coalitions of interest groups organized as factions or parties; reform movements; or, at an international level, diplomacy and war. In total institutions, however, conventional politics are necessarily nonexistent. (6) Politics, if they exist at all, must take the form of resistance: collective action designed to subvert the system, to facilitate and regularize escape from it; or, at the very least, to force important changes in it.

Among despised and downtrodden people in general, the most rudimentary form of political action is violence; sporadic and usually short-lived outbursts of destruction, based on a common sense of out-rage and sometimes inspired by a millennialistic ideology. Peasant revolts all over the world, have usually conformed to this type. (7) In total institutions, prison riots are perhaps the nearest equivalent. In American slavery, the few documented slave rebellions fall into the same pattern. (8) What makes these upheavals political at all is that they rest on some sense, however primitive, of collective victimization. They require, moreover, at least a minimum of organization and planning. What makes them rudimentary is that they do not aim so much at changing the balance of power as at giving expression on the one hand to apocalyptic visions of retribution, and on the other to an immediate thirst for vengeance directed more at particular individuals than at larger systems of authority. In the one case, the sense of grievance finds an outlet in indiscriminate violence ( as against Jews ) ; in the other, it attaches itself to a particular embodiment of authority (as in prisons, where a specific departure from established routine may set off a strike or riot demanding the authority’s dismissal and a return to the previous regime). But in neither case does collective action rest on a realistic perception of the institutional structure as a whole and the collective interest of its victims in subverting it. That explains why such outbreaks of violence tend to subside very quick-ly, leaving the exploitive structure intact. Underground resistance to the Nazis in western Europe, on the other hand, precisely because it expressed itself in an organized underground instead of in futile outbreaks of indiscriminate violence, had a continuous existence which testifies to the highly political character of its objectives.

It is easy to show that Negro slaves did not always cooperate with the system of slavery. It is another matter to prove that noncooperation amounted to political resistance. Malingering may have reflected no more than a disinclination to work, especially when the rewards were so meager. Likewise, what is taken for sabotage may have originated in apathy and indifference. Acts of violence are subject to varying interpretations. If there is something undeniably political about an organized, premeditated rebellion, an isolated act of violence could arise from a purely personal grievance. Even the motive of flight is obscure: was it an impulse, prompted by some special and immediate affront, or was it desertion, a sort of separate peace?

These acts in themselves tell us very little. We begin to understand them only when we understand the conceptual distinction between resistance and noncooperation; and even then, we still feel the need of a more general set of conceptions, derived from recorded experience, to which slavery—an unrecorded experience, except from the masters’ point of view—can be compared; some general model which will enable us to grasp imaginatively the system as a whole.

III

Only the testimony of the slaves could tell us, once and for all, whether slaves resisted slavery. In the absence of their testimony, it is tempting to resort to analogies. Indeed it is almost impossible to avoid them. Those who condemn analogies, pretending to argue from the documentary evidence alone, delude themselves. Resistance to slavery cannot be established (any more than any other general conception of the institution can be established) without making an implicit analogy between Negro slavery and the struggles of free men, in our own time, “to give dignity to human life” by resisting oppression. The question, in the case of slavery, is not whether historians should argue from analogy but whether they are willing to make their analogies explicit.

Stanley Elkins compares slavery to the Nazi concentration camps and concludes that the effect of slavery was to break down the slave adult personality and to reduce him to a state of infantile dependence, comparable to the condition observed by survivors of the concentration camps. In evaluating this particular analogy, we are entitled to ask how well it explains what we actually know about slavery. In one respect, it explains too much. It explains the fact that there were no slave rebellions in the United States comparable to those which took place in Latin America, but it also rules out the possibility of noncooperation. Elkins’ analogy suggests a state of internalized dependency that does not fit the facts of widespread intransigence, insubordination, and mischief-making. Stampp may not adequately explain this pattern of behavior, but he convinces us that it existed. Elkins is open to criticism on empirical grounds for failing to take into account a vast amount of evidence that does not fit his theory of slave behavior. Many of Elkins’ critics, however, have not concerned themselves with the substance of his analogy. Raising neither empirical nor theoretical objections against it, they have seized on its mere existence as a means of discrediting Elkins’ work. He should rather be congratulated for having made the analogy explicit, thereby introducing into the study of slavery the lands of questions that modem studies of total institutions have dealt with far more systematically than conventional studies of slavery.

Elkins was careful to emphasize the limits of the comparison. He did not argue that the plantation resembled a concentration camp with respect to intentions or motives; “even ‘cruelty,’ ” he added, “was not indispensable as an item in my equation.” His “essentially limited purpose” in bringing the two institutions together was to show the psychological effects of closed systems of control; and the objections to the analogy may after all derive not from the analogy itself but from a tendency, among Elkins’ critics, to take it too literally. As Elkins observes, the “very vividness and particularity [of analogies] are coercive: they are almost too concrete. One’s impulse is thus to reach for extremes. The thing is either taken whole hog . . .; or it is rejected out of hand on the ground that not all of the parts fit.”

It is precisely because all the parts don’t fit that an analogy is an analogy rather than a literal correspondence, and it ought to be enough, therefore, if just one of the parts demonstrably fits.(9)

The real objection to Elkins’ analogy is not that analogies in themselves are pernicious but that there is no compelling theoretical reason, in this case, to stop with one. The concentration camp is only one of many total institutions with which slavery might have been compared; a total institution being defined, in Erving Goffman’s words, as “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.”(10) An excellent example—the one, indeed, that springs immediately to mind—is the prison, “providing,” Goffman says, that “we appreciate that what is prison-like about prisons is found in institutions whose members have broken no laws.”(11) In several respects, prisons, especially penitentiaries, are more analogous to plantation slavery than concentration camps. Prisons are not, like the concentration camps, designed as experiments in deliberate dehumanization, although they often have dehumanizing effects; in this respect the motive behind the system more nearly approximates that of slavery than of the concentration camp. More important, the problem of control is more nearly analogous. The disproportion between the authority of the guards and the impotence of the inmates is not absolute, as it was at Dachau and Buchenwald, but subject, as it seems to have been under slavery, to a number of variables—the temperament of the guard or master, the composition of the prisoners or slaves, the immediate history of the institutions involved.

Prison officials, like slaveowners and overseers, face a constant problem of noncooperation. “Far from being omnipotent rulers who have crushed all signs of rebellion against their regime, the custodians are engaged in a continuous struggle to maintain order—and it is a struggle in which the custodians frequently fail.” (12) This situation occurs, according to the sociologist Gresham Sykes, because although the custodians enjoy an absolute monopoly of the means of violence, their enormous power does not rest on authority; that is, on “a rightful or legitimate effort to exercise control,” which inspires in the governed an internalized sense of obligation to obey. In the absence of a sense of duty among the prisoners, the guards have to rely on a system of rewards, incentives, punishments, and coercion. But none of these methods can be carried too far without reaching dangerous extremes of laxity or demoralization. As in most total institutions—the concentration camp being a conspicuous exception—rigid standards of discipline tend to give way before the need to keep things running smooth-ly without undue effort on the part of the custodians. An absolute monopoly of violence can be used to achieve a state of total terror, but it cannot persuade men to work at their jobs or move “more than 1,200 inmates through the mess hall in a routine and orderly fashion.”(13)

The result, in the maximum-security prison, is a system of compromises, an uneasy give-and-take which gives prisoners a limited leverage within the system. To the extent that this adjustment limits the power of the guards, a corruption of authority takes place. (14)

Plantation literature produces numerous parallels. We can read the masters’ incessant and heartfelt complaints about the laziness, the inefficiency, and the intractibility of slaves; the difficulty of getting them to work; the difficulty of enlisting their cooperation in any activity that had to be sustained over a period of time. We can read about the system of rewards and punishments, spelled out by the master in such detail, the significance of which, we can now see, was that it had had to be resorted to precisely in the degree to which a sense of internalized obedience had failed. We see the same limitation on terror and physical coercion as has been observed in the prison; for even less than the prison authorities could the planter tolerate the demoralization resulting from an excess of violence. We can even see the same “corruption of authority” in the fact that illicit slave behavior, especially minor theft, was often tolerated by the masters in order to avoid unnecessary friction.

One of the most curious features of the “society of captives,” as described by Sykes is this: that while most of the prisoners recognize the legitimacy of their imprisonment and the controls to which they are subjected, they lack any internalized sense of obligation to obey them. “The bond between recognition of the legitimacy of control and the sense of duty has been tom apart.” (15) This fact about prisons makes it possible to understand a puzzling feature of the contemporary literature on slavery, which neither the model of submission nor that of resistance explains—the curious contradiction between the difficulty of discipline and the slaves’ professed devotion to their masters. Those who argue that the slaves resisted slavery have to explain away their devotion as pure hypocrisy. But it is possible to accept it as sincere without endorsing the opposite view—even in the sophisticated form in which it has been cast by Stanley Elkins—that slaves were children.

The sociology of total institutions provides a theory with which to reconcile the contradiction. “The custodial institution,” Sykes argues, “is valuable for a theory of human behavior because it makes us realize that men need not be motivated to conform to a regime which they define as rightful.” (16) It is theoretically possible, in short, that slaves could have accepted the legitimacy of their masters’ authority without feeling any sense of obligation to obey it. The evidence of the masters themselves makes this conclusion seem not only possible but highly probable. Logic, moreover, supports this view. For how could a system that rigorously defined the Negro slave not merely as an in-ferior but as an alien, a separate order of being, inspire him with the sense of belonging on which internalized obedience necessarily has to rest?

IV

It might be argued, however, that slaves developed a sense of obedience by default, having had no taste of life outside slavery which would have made them dissatisfied, by contrast, with their treatment as slaves. It might be argued that the convict’s dissatisfaction with prison conditions and the insubordination that results derives from his sense of the outside world and the satisfactions it normally provides; and that such a perspective must have been lacking on the plantation. Elkins, in denying the possibility of any sort of accommodation to slavery short of the complete assimilation of the master’s authority by the slave, contends that a consciously defensive posture could not exist, given the total authority of the master and the lack of “alternative forces for moral and psychological orientation.”17 This objection loses its force, however, if it can be shown that the slave did in fact have chances to develop independent standards of personal satisfaction and fair treatment within the system of slavery itself.

Such standards would have made possible a hedonistic strategy of accommodation, and in cases where such a strategy failed, strong feelings of personal grievance.

It is true that the plantation sealed itself off from the world, depriving the slave of nearly every influence that would have lifted him out of himself into a larger awareness of slavery as an oppressive social system which, by its very nature, denied him normal satisfaction. In order to understand why slaves did not, as Elkins suggests, become totally submissive and ready to accept any form of cruelty and humiliation, it is necessary to focus on an aspect of slavery which has been almost totally ignored in discussion of slave personality. The typical slave, although born into slavery, was not likely to spend his entire life, or indeed any considerable part of it, under a single regime. The slave child could anticipate many changes of situation. It would appear likely, from what we know of the extent of the slave trade, that most slaves changed hands at least once in their lives; slave narratives and recollections suggest that it was not at all uncommon for a single slave to belong to several masters in the course of his lifetime of servitude. In addition, the prevalence of slave-hiring, especially in the upper South, meant that many slaves experienced a temporary change of regime. Even if a slave remained on the same plantation, things could change drastically, as the result of death and the accession of an heir, or from a change of overseer (especially significant in cases of absentee ownership). (18) Given the wide variation in standards of treatment and management techniques—a variation which, we suggested earlier, seems the one inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the traditional scholarship on the management of slaves—we are left with a situation that must have had important psychological implications. An individual slave might—like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom—experience slavery both at its mildest and at its harshest. He might be sold from an indulgent master to a cruel one or vice versa. He might go from a farm where he maintained a close and intimate relationship with his master to a huge impersonal “factory in the fields,” where his actual master would be only a dim presence. These changes in situation led many slaves to develop standards of their own about how they ought to be treated and even to diffuse these standards among the stationary slave population. By comparing his less onerous lot under a previous master to his present hard one, a slave could develop a real sense of grievance and communicate it to others.(19) Similarly, slaves were quick to take advantage of any new leniency or laxity in control. (20) Hence it is quite possible to account for widespread noncooperation among slaves as resulting from a rudimentary sense of justice acquired entirely within the system of slavery itself. These standards would have served the same function as the standards convicts bring from the outside world into the prison. At the same time it is necessary to insist once again that they give rise to a pattern of intransigence which is hedonistic rather than political, accommodationist rather than revolutionary.

If this picture of slave motivation is less morally sublime than contemporary liberals and radicals would like, it should not be construed as constituting, in any sense, a moral judgment on the Negro slave.

Sporadic noncooperation within a broad framework of accommodation was the natural and inevitable response to plantation slavery. It should go without saying that white men born into the same system would have acted in the same way. Indeed, this is the way they have been observed to act in modern situations analogous to slavery. In total institutions, the conditions for sustained resistance are generally wanting—a fact that is insufficiently appreciated by those armchair moralists who like to make judgments at a safe distance about the possibilities of resistance to totalitarianism. Rebellions and mutinies “seem to be the exception,” Erving Goffman observes, “not the rule.”

Group loyalty is very tenuous, even though “the expectation that group loyalty should prevail forms part of the inmate culture and underlies the hostility accorded to those who break inmate solidarity.” (21)

Instead of banding together, inmates of total institutions typically pursue various personal strategies of accommodation. Goffman describes four lines of adaptation, but it is important to note that although these are analytically distinguishable, “the same inmate will employ different personal lines of adaptation at different phases in his moral career and may even alternate among different tacks at the same time.” “Situational withdrawal,” a fatalistic apathy, is the condition into which many inmates of concentration camps rapidly de-scended, with disastrous psychic consequences to themselves; it undoubtedly took its toll among slaves newly arrived from Africa during the colonial period. “Colonization,” which in some cases can be regarded as another type of institutional neurosis, rests on a conscious decision that life in the institution is preferable to life in the outside. . . There are no definite communal objectives. There is no consensus for a common goal. The inmates’ conflict with officialdom and opposition toward society is only slightly greater in degree than conflict and opposition among themselves. Trickery and dishonesty overshadow sympathy and cooperation. . . . It is a world of I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ rather than ‘ours/ ‘theirs, and his.’ “

Clemmer adds, p. 293: “Such collective action of protest as does arise, comes out of an immediate situation in which they themselves are involved, and not as protest to an idea.”

world. Colonization, in turn, must be distinguished from “conversion,” the inmate’s internalization of the view of himself held by those in power. In Negro slavery, this is the “Sambo” role and is accompanied, as in the concentration camp, by an infantile sense of dependence. Colonization, on the other hand, would apply to the very small number of slaves who agreed to reenslavement after a period as free Negroes. (22)

The fourth type of accommodation is “intransigence,” which should not be confused with resistance. The latter presupposes a sense of solidarity and an underground organization of inmates. Intransigence is a personal strategy of survival, and although it can sometimes help to sustain a high morale, it can just as easily lead to futile and even self-destructive acts of defiance. In slavery, there was a substantial minority who were written off by their masters as chronic trouble-makers, “bad niggers,” and an even larger group who indulged in occasional insubordination. It is precisely the pervasiveness of “intransigence” that made slaves, like convicts, so difficult to manage, lead-ing to the corruption of authority analyzed above. But as we have already tried to show, there is nothing about intransigence that precludes a partial acceptance of the values of the institution. In fact, Goffman observes that the most defiant of inmates are paradoxically those who are mostly completely caught up in the daily round of institutional life. “Sustained rejection of a total institution often requires sustained orientation to its formal organization, and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of involvement in the establishment.” (23)

The same immersion in the institutional routine that makes some inmates so easy to manage makes other peculiarly sensitive to disruptions of the routine, jealous of their “rights” under the system.

Indeed, periods of intransigence can alternate, in the same person, with colonization, conversion, and even with periods of withdrawal.

The concentration camp was unique among total institutions in confronting the typical prisoner with a choice between situational withdrawal, which meant death, and conversion, which, in the absence of alternatives, came to dominate the personality as a fully internalized role. In other total institutions, however, all four roles can be played to some extent, and “few inmates seem to pursue any one of them  very far. In most total institutions most inmates take the tack of what some of them call ‘playing it cool’ This involves a somewhat opportunistic combination of secondary adjustments, conversion, colonization, and loyalty to the inmate group, so that the inmate will have a maximum chance, in the particular circumstances, of eventually getting out physically and psychologically undamaged.” (24) The slave had no real prospect of “getting out,” but unless he was infantilized—a hypothesis that now seems quite untenable—he had a powerful stake in psychic survival. He had every reason to play it cool; and what is more, slavery gave him plenty of opportunities.

But the most compelling consideration in favor of this interpretation of slavery is that the very ways in which slavery differed from other total institutions would have actually reinforced and stabilized the pattern of opportunistic response that we have described. The most obvious objection to an analogy between slavery and the prison, the mental hospital, or any other institution of this kind is that slaves for the most part were born into slavery rather than coming in from the outside as adults; nor did most of them have any hope of getting out.

We have answered these objections in various ways, but before leaving the matter we should point out that there is, in fact, a class of people in modern asylums—a minority, to be sure—who spend the better part of their lives in institutions of one kind or another. “Lower class mental hospital patients,” for instance, “who have lived all their previous lives in orphanages, reformatories, and jails,” are people whose experience in this respect approximates the slave’s, especially the slave who served a series of masters. As a result of their continuous confinement, such patients have developed a kind of institutional personality. But they are not, as one might expect, Sambos—genuine con-erts to the institutional view of themselves. Quite the contrary; these people are the master-opportunists, for whom “no particular scheme of adaptation need be carried very far.” (25) They have “perfected their adaptive techniques,” experience having taught them a supreme versatility; and they are therefore likely to play it cool with more success than those brought in from the outside and incarcerated for the first time. These are the virtuosos of the system, neither docile nor rebellious, who spend their lives in skillful and somewhat cynical attempts to beat the system at its own game.

V

There is a passage in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative that suggests how difficult it was even for an ex-slave—an unusually perceptive observer, in this case—to understand his former victimization without resorting to categories derived from experiences quite alien to slavery, categories that reflected the consciousness not of the slaves themselves but, in one way or another, the consciousness of the master-class.

Douglass described how eagerly the slaves on Colonel Lloyd’s Maryland plantations vied for the privilege of running errands to the Great House Farm, the master’s residence and home plantation. The slaves “regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by the overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for. He was called the smartest and most trusty fellow, who had this honor conferred upon him the most frequently.”

Then follows a passage of unusual vividness and poignancy: The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. . . . They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:—

I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

But as these passages so clearly show, the “horrible character of slavery” did not he, as the abolitionists tended to think, in the deprivations to which the slaves were forcibly subjected—deprivations which, resenting, they resisted with whatever means came to hand-but in the degree to which the slaves (even in their “intransigence”) inevitably identified themselves with the system that bound and confined them, lending themselves to their own degradation. In vying for favors they “sought as diligently to please their overseers,” Douglass says, “as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people.” (28)

Even more revealing are the reflections that follow. “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” It was only from without that the slave songs revealed themselves as “the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish-anguish, it should be noted, which expressed itself disjointedly, “the most pathetic sentiment” being set to “the most rapturous tone.” It was only from without that the “dehumanizing character of slavery” showed itself precisely in the slave’s incapacity to resist; but this perception, once gained, immediately distorted the reality to which it was applied. Douglass slides imperceptibly from these unforgettable evocations of slavery to an abolitionist polemic. It is a great mistake, he argued, to listen to slaves’ songs “as evidence of their contentment and happiness.” On the contrary, “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Yet the slaves whose “wild songs” he has just described were those who were “peculiarly enthusiastic,” by his own account, to be sent to the Great House Farm, and who sang “exultingly” along the way. The ambiguity of the reality begins to fade when seen through the filter of liberal humanitarianism, and whereas the songs revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness,” in Douglass’ own words, as an abolitionist he feels it necessary to insist that “crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” (27)

If the abolitionist lens distorted the “horrible character” of slavery, the picture of the docile and apparently contented bondsman was no more faithful to the reality it purported to depict. But this should not surprise us. It is not often that men understand, or even truly see, those whom in charity they would uplift. How much less often do they understand those they exploit?

Notes

1 Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), Ch. I.

2 Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York, 1956), pp. 88, 91.

3 Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 132-133.

4 Martin D. de B. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon, XXV ( 1964), 179-183.

5. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, Ch. III.

6. Total institutions are distinguished not by the absolute power of the authorities—a definition which, as will become clear, prejudges an important issue—but by the fact that they are self-contained, so that every detail of life is regulated in accordance with the dominant purpose of the institution. Whether that purpose is defined as healing, punishment, forced labor, or (in the case of the concentration camps) terror, all total institutions are set up in such a way as to preclude any form of politics based on consent.

7. See E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1957).

8. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the only significant slave uprising in the period 1820-1860 that got beyond the plotting stage, would seem to be com parable to a millennialist peasants’ revolt. Turner was a preacher who, according to his own testimony, received the visitation of a spirit commanding him to “fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943), p. 296. See also Aptheker, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (New York, 1966).

9. Elkins, Slavery, pp. 104, 226.

10. Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, 1961; Chicago, 1962), p. xiii.

11. Ibid.

12. Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, 1958), p. 42.

13. Ibid., p. 49.

14. Ibid., pp. 52-58.

15. ibid., p. 46.

16 Ibid., p. 48.

17. Elkins, Slavery, p. 133n.

18.  Frederic Bancroft, in Slave Trading in the Old South (New York, 1959), concludes (pp. 382-406) that more than 700,000 slaves were transported from the upper South to the cotton kingdom in the years 1830-1860, and that most went by way of the slave trade. He also estimates (p. 405) that in the decade 1850-1860 an annual average of approximately 140,000 slaves were sold, inter-state or intrastate, or hired out by their masters. This meant that one slave in twenty-five changed his de facto master in a given year. When we add to these regular exchanges the informal transfers that went on within families, we get some idea of the instability which characterized the slave’s situation in an expansive and dynamic agricultural economy. The way slaves were sometimes shuttled about is reflected in several of the slave narratives, especially Frederick Douglass, Narrative; Solomon Northrop, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn, Buffalo, and London, 1853); and [Charles Ball] Fifty Years in Chains: Or the Life of an American Slave (New York, 1858).

19. Positive evidence of this development of internal standards and of the vacillation between contentment and dissatisfaction to which it gave rise is as difficult to find as evidence on any other aspect of slave psychology. As we have indicated, adequate records of personal slave response simply do not exist.

There is, however, some indication of this process in the slave narratives and recollections. One of the most revealing of the slave narratives is Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains. Ball’s account seems huer than most to the reality of slavery because, unlike most fugitives, he escaped from servitude at an age when it was difficult for him to acquire new habits of thought from his free status and association with abolitionists. Ball recounts the common experience of being sold from the upper South with its relatively mild and permissive regime into the more rigorous plantation slavery farther south. Upon his arrival on a large South Carolina cotton plantation, Ball, who was from Maryland, makes the acquaintance of a slave from northern Virginia who tells him what he can now expect. “He gave me such an account of the suffering of the slaves, on the cotton and indigo plantations—of whom I now regarded myself as one—that I was unable to sleep this night.” (pp. 103-104.) Later, he describes himself as “far from the place of my nativity, in a land of strangers, with no one to care for me beyond the care that a master bestows upon his ox . . .” (p. 115). The regime is indeed a harsh one, and he feels very dissatisfied, except on Sunday when he is taken up by the general hilarity that prevails in the slave quarters on the holiday. Eventually, however, he experiences a temporary improvement in his situation when he is given to his master’s new son-in-law, who seems kindly and permissive. In a remarkable description of slave hedonism, Ball recalls his state of mind. “I now felt assured that all my troubles in this world were ended, and that, in future, I might look forward to a life of happiness and ease, for I did not consider labor any hardship, if I was well provided with good food and clothes, and my other wants properly regarded.” (p. 266.) This is too good to last, however; and Ball’s new master dies, leaving him in the hands of another man, “of whom, when I considered the part of the country from whence he came, which had always been represented to me-as distinguished for the cruelty with which slaves were treated, I had no reason to expect much that was good.” (pp. 271-272.) His new master turns out to be much less harsh than anticipated, but the master’s wife, a woman with sadistic tendencies, takes a positive dislike to Ball and resents her husband’s paternal attitude toward him. When the master dies, Ball recognizes his situation as intolerable and resolves upon flight. ( p. 307. ) Ball’s narrative reveals the way in which a slave could evaluate his changes of condition by standards of comfort and accommodation derived from experience within the system itself. In desperate situations, this evaluation could lead to extreme forms of noncooperation.

Despite the fact that he was recalling his experience after having escaped from slavery and, presumably, after coming under the influence of northern antislavery sentiment, Ball’s general attitude remained remarkably accommodationist, at least in respect to slavery at its best. In a revealing passage, he notes that the typical slave lacks a real sense of identity of interest with his master, is jealous of his prerogatives, and steals from him without qualms. Yet, Ball concludes, there “is in fact, a mutual dependence between the master and his slave. The former could not acquire anything without the labor of the latter, and the latter would always remain in poverty without the judgment of the former in directing labor to a definite and profitable result.” (p. 219.)

20. See Stampp, Peculiar Institution, pp. 104-108.

21 Goffman, Asylums, pp. 18-19. Cf. Donald Clemmer, The Prison Community (New York, 1958), pp. 297-298: “The prisoner’s world is an atomized world. “

22. Colonization, while uncommon among slaves, is frequently encountered in prisons and particularly in mental institutions. The high rate of recidivism among convicts and the frequency with which mental patients are sent back to asylums reflect not simply a relapse into a former sickness which the institution did not cure, but in many cases, a sickness which the institution itself created—an institutional neurosis which has its own peculiar characteristics, the most outstanding of which is the inability to function outside systems of total control.

23. Goffman, Asylums, p. 62.

24.  Ibid., pp. 64-65.

25. Ibid., pp. 65-66.

26. Douglas, Narrative, pp. 35-37. 

27. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

(Civil War History, Volume 13, Number 4, December 1967, pp. 315-329 )