The New South and the Problem of Race

“There was a South of slavery and secession,” Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady proclaimed in an 1886 speech to businessmen in New York. “That South is dead,” he said. Grady captured the sentiment of many white southern business and political leaders who imagined a New South that would embrace industrialization and diversified agriculture in order to bring the region back from the economic ruin that resulted from the Civil War. He highlighted the strengths of the people and the region as he promoted the possibilities for future prosperity for all through an alliance between northern capital and southern labor. Grady and other New South boosters hoped to shape the region’s economy to resemble that of the North, focusing not only on industry but on infrastructure as well. New South boosters were white, and they ensured that the innovations they sought conformed to the region’s racial status quo.

Kimball House Hotel The ambitions of Atlanta, seen in the construction of grand buildings like the Kimball House Hotel, reflect the larger regional aspirations to thrive in this so-called era of the “New South.” Photograph of the second Kimball House scanned from an 1890 book. Wikimedia.


The need for a New South after Reconstruction was obvious. Southern states had lost prestige, property, and wealth during their failed insurrection. Before the war, the South had held the presidency for all but thirteen years and had consistently held a majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court. The cotton South was home to the twelve wealthiest counties in the country before the war. But defeat left the region in a state of despair. Thousands had died and the scars of loss were everywhere. Moreover, four million enslaved Americans had thrown off their chains. Slaves had represented the wealth and power of the South, and now they were free. Emancipation unsettled the southern social order. When Reconstruction governments attempted to grant freedpeople full citizenship rights, anxious whites struck back. From their fear, anger, and resentment they lashed out, not only in organized terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, but in political corruption, economic control, and violent intimidation.

But just how new was the supposed New South? The reestablishment of white supremacy, and the “redemption” of the South from Reconstruction, paved the way for the construction of the New South. White Southerners took back control of state and local governments and used their reclaimed power to disfranchise African Americans and pass “Jim Crow” laws segregating schools, transportation, employment, and various public and private facilities. White Southerners also acted outside the law to terrorize black communities: the number of lynchings—the murder of individuals accused of a crime or of otherwise violating community standards by groups of people acting together without legal authority—exploded in the 1880s and 1890s, as whites used extreme violence to secure their hold over the region. Lynchings had occurred throughout American history, but after the Civil War southern blacks became the target of a new and long-lasting wave of violence. Whether for actual crimes or fabricated crimes or for no crimes at all, white mobs murdered roughly five thousand African Americans between the 1880s and the 1950s. Lynching not only killed its victims, it served as a symbolic act, an intimidation of some and a ritual for others.

Victims were not simply hanged, they were tortured. They were mutilated, burned alive, and shot. Lynchings could become carnivals, public spectacles attended by thousands of eager spectators. Rail lines ran special cars to accommodate the rush of participants. Vendors sold goods and keepsakes. Perpetrators posed for photos and collected mementos. And it was increasingly common. One notorious example occurred in Georgia in 1899. Accused of killing his white employer and raping the man’s wife, Sam Hose was captured by a mob and taken to the town of Newnan. Word of the impending lynching quickly spread, and specially chartered passenger trains brought some 4,000 visitors from Atlanta to witness the gruesome affair. Members of the mob tortured Hose for about an hour. They sliced off pieces of his body as he screamed in agony. Then they poured a can of kerosene over his body and burned him alive.

At at the barbaric height of southern lynching, in the last years of the nineteenth century, southerners lynched two to three African Americans every week. In general, lynchings were most frequent in the Cotton Belt of the Lower South, where southern blacks were congregated and the majority worked as tenant farmers and field hands on the cotton farms of white land owners. The states of Mississippi and Georgia had the greatest number of recorded lynchings. From 1880 to 1930, over five hundred African Americans were killed by Mississippi lynch mobs; Georgia mobs murdered more than four hundred.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of prominent southerners openly supported lynching, arguing that it was a necessary evil to punish black rapists and deter others. In the late 1890s, Georgia newspaper columnist and noted women’s rights activist Rebecca Latimer Felton—who would later become the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate—endorsed such extrajudicial killings. She said, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.” When opponents argued that lynching violated victims’ constitutional right, South Carolina Governor Coleman Blease angrily responded, “Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of South Carolina, I say to hell with the Constitution.”

A photograph of a crowd of people standing on a bridge, from which two dead black people are dangling. This photograph shows the lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson on May 25, 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma. One of thousands of lynchings throughout the South in the late nineteenth and century twentieth centuries, this particular case of the lynching of a mother and son garnered national attention. In response, the local white newspaper in Okemah simply wrote, “while the general sentiment is adverse to the method, it is generally thought that the negroes got what would have been due them under due process of law." (The Okemah Ledger, May 4, 1911) George H. Farnum (photographer), Photograph, May 25, 1911. Wikimedia.


Black activists and white allies worked to outlaw lynching. A pioneer in the fight was Ida B. Wells, an African American woman born in the last years of slavery who in 1892 lost three friends to a lynch mob in Memphis, Tennessee. Later that year, Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, a groundbreaking work that documented the South’s lynching culture and notably exposed the myth of the black rapist. The Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP both compiled and publicized lists of every reported lynching in the United States, and the American Society of Women for the Prevention of Lynching encouraged white southern women to speak up against the violence so often perpetrated in their name. In 1918, Representative Leonidas Dyer of Missouri introduced federal anti-lynching legislation that would have made local counties where lynchings took place legally liable for such killings. Throughout the early 1920s, the Dyer Bill was the subject of heated political debate but, fiercely opposed by southern congressmen and unable to win enough northern champions, the proposed bill was never enacted.

Lynching was only the violent worst of the South’s racial world. Discrimination in employment and housing and the legal segregation of public and private life reflected the rise of a new Jim Crow South. So-called Jim Crow laws legalized what custom had long dictated. Southern states and municipalities began proscribing racial segregation in public places and private lives. Separate coach laws were some of the first such laws to appear, beginning in Tennessee in the 1880s. Soon, schools, stores, theaters, restaurants, bathrooms, and nearly every other part of public life were segregated. So too were social lives. The sin of racial mixing, critics said, had to be heavily guarded against. Marriage laws regulated against interracial couples and white men, ever anxious of relationships between black men and white women, passed miscegenation laws and justified lynching as an appropriate extra-legal tool to police the racial divide.

In politics, de facto limitations of black voting had suppressed black voters since Reconstruction.  Whites stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated black voters with physical and economic threats, or bribed them with money and alcohol. And then, from roughly 1890-1908, southern states implemented de jure disfranchisement. States began passing laws that required voters to pass literacy tests (which were often judged arbitrarily) and pay poll taxes (which hit poor whites as well as poor blacks), effectively denying black men the franchise that was supposed to have been guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment. Those responsible for such laws posed as reformers and justified voting restrictions as for the public good, a way to clean up politics by purging corrupt African Americans from the voting rolls.

With white supremacy ever more secure, New South boosters looked outward. Many prominent white Southerners hoped to rebuild the South’s economy and psychology, to confront post-Reconstruction uncertainties, and to convince the nation that the South could be more than an economically backward, race-obsessed backwater. As they did, however, they began to retell the history of the recent past. A kind of civic religion known as the “Lost Cause” glorified the Confederacy and romanticized the Old South. White southerners looked forward while hearkening back to an imagined past inhabited by contented and loyal slaves, benevolent and generous masters, chivalric and honorable men, and pure and faithful southern belles. Secession, they said, had little to do with the institution of slavery, and soldiers fought only for home and honor, not the continued ownership of human beings. The New South, then, would be built physically with new technologies, new investments, and new industries, but undergirded by political and social custom. Grady might have declared the Confederate South dead, but its memory pervaded the thoughts and actions of white southerners.

Lost Cause champions overtook the South. Women’s groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy along with war veterans played an important role in preserving Confederate memory through Memorial Day celebrations and the construction of monuments. Across the South towns erected statues of General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals. By the turn of the twentieth century, the idealized Lost Cause past was entrenched not only in the South but throughout the country. In 1905, for instance, North Carolinian Thomas F. Dixon published a novel, The Clansman, which depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of the South against the corruption of black and carpetbagger rule during Reconstruction. In 1915 acclaimed film director David W. Griffith adapted Dixon’s novel into the blockbuster, groundbreaking feature film, Birth of a Nation. The film almost singlehandedly rejuvenated the Ku Klux Klan. This romanticized vision of the antebellum South and the corrupt era of Reconstruction held sway in the popular imagination until a new generation of historians successfully challenged it after about 1950.

While Lost Cause defenders mythologized their past, New South boosters struggled to wrench the South into the modern world. The railroads became their focus. The region had lagged behind the North in the railroad building boom of the mid-nineteenth century and postwar expansion facilitated connections between the most rural segments of the population with the region’s rising urban areas. Boosters campaigned for the construction new hard-surfaced roads as well, arguing that improved roads would further increase the flow of goods and people and entice northern businesses to relocate to the region. The rising popularity of the automobile after the turn of the century only increased pressure for the construction of reliable roads between cities, towns, county seats, and the vast farmlands of the South.

Along with new transportation networks, New South boosters continued to promote industrial growth. The region witnessed the rise of various manufacturing industries, predominately textiles, tobacco, furniture, and steel. While agriculture—cotton in particular—remained the mainstay of the region’s economy, these new industries provided new wealth for owners, new investments for the region, and new opportunities for the exploding number of landless farmers to finally flee the land. Industries offered low-paying jobs but also opportunity for those rural poor who could no longer sustain themselves through subsistence farming. Men, women, and children all moved into wage work. At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly one-fourth of southern mill workers were children aged six to sixteen.

In most cases, as in most aspects of life in the New South, new factory jobs were racially segregated. Better-paying jobs were reserved for whites, while the most dangerous, labor-intensive, dirtiest, and lowest-paying positions were relegated to African Americans. African American women, shut out of most industries, found employment most often as domestic help for white families. As poor as white southern mill workers were, southern blacks were poorer, and many mill workers could afford to pay for domestic help in caring for young children, cleaning houses, doing laundry, cooking meals, and then leaving. Mill villages that grew up alongside factories were whites-only, and African American families were pushed to the outer perimeter of the settlements.

That a New South emerged in the decades between Reconstruction and World War I is debatable. If measured by industrial output and railroad construction, the New South was certainly a reality, if, relative the rest of the nation, a limited one. If measured in terms of racial discrimination, however, the New South looked much like the Old. Boosters like Henry Grady argued the South was done with racial questions, but lynching and segregation and the institutionalization of Jim Crow exposed the South’s lingering racial obsessions. Moreover, most southerners still toiled in agriculture and still lived in poverty. Industrial development and expanding infrastructure therefore coexisted easily with white supremacy and an impoverished agricultural economy. The trains came, factories were built, capital was invested, but the region was still mired in poverty and racial apartheid. Much of the New South, then, was anything but.

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