The Legacies of the Southern Saga

Booker T. Washington Has a New Charlottesville Connection ...

Episode 24: The Legacies of the Southern Saga

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

As Ayers states in this final lecture, the main purpose of his course A New History of the American South is to dispel erroneous generalizations and stereotypes that trivialize the South.

He begins by describing the gradual integration of southern culture into overall US culture that began in the 1880s and 1890s. In his view, this was most evident in the embrace of sports as the symbol of everything wholesome and nourishing in modern American life.

First learning about baseball during the Civil War, southerners took it home with them as the war ended. The football craze, in contrast, began after the war in northern universities and spread first to southern universities and later to southern high schools. By 1900 college football had become a major southern institution.

in 1908, the son of former slaves Jack Johnson became the world heavy weight boxing champion.

Growing numbers of Black college graduates also facilitated the integration of northern and southern culture. One African graduate, Booker T Washington, supported what he called “the Atlantic Compromise.” From his perspective, free Black men had a better chance of achieving equality by starting successful southern business than by agitating for social equality. To his credit, Washington openly attacked racial segregation of the railroads and encouraged boycotts of segregated southern streetcars.

In 1897 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal so long as Black people had access to equal facilities.

According to Ayers, the Spanish-American War provided the best opportunity to reconcile North-South differences. Washington himself committed to recruiting 10,000 Black soldiers for the war (arguing this was the best opportunity demonstrate their patriotism and right to legal equality). Other African American scholars argued Blacks were better served by fighting for equality at home.

Meanwhile the Cult of the Lost Cause opposed every aspect of life in the “New South.” By 1889, around one-third of former Confederate soldiers belonged to United Confederate Veterans. In 1895, the United Daughters of the Confederacy formed to celebrate Decoration Day (by visiting Confederate tombs – see The Incredible Tragedy of the Civil War) and raise funds for Confederate monuments.*

Similar organizations formed in the North: the Daughters of the American Revolution** in 1890 and the Grand Army of the Republic (originally formed in 1866, its membership included half of all Union veterans by the 1890s). Ayers attributes the rise of similar organizations in both North and South to the Gilded Age (1870-1900), a period in which roughly six million Americans belonged to roughly 200 social clubs and organizations.

*Which, according to Ayers, was a profitable growth industry prior to the recent monuments controversy.

**The DAR is a lineage-based membership service organization for women who are directly descended from personnel involved in the US War of Independence.

George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life

George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life

PBS (2020)

Film Review

This is an intriguing documentary about the highly controversial African American George Washington Carver. The latter has come under heavy criticism from anti-Jim Crow activists (starting with W.E.B Dubois 1868-1963) for his failure to challenge the institution of racism.

I should note that two of the corporate financial interests that sponsored the making of this film (DuPont and Alliance Energy) have appalling record when it comes to acknowledging any kind of racial or social justice. Thus I suspect the history they portray may be somewhat “sanitized.”

IĀ  myself knew almost nothing about Carver’s life prior to watching this film. Born into slavery in 1864, Carver and his mother were illegally abducted when he was only a few months old and resold to an Arkansas plantation owner. The family’s former slave master Moses Carver traveled to Arkansas to retrieve the family.

Because George Washington’s mother had disappeared, Moses and his wife raised him and his older brother as their own children. The brother helped Moses around the farm, and George Washington, who was sickly, stayed in the house and learned cooking, knitting, sewing, and other womanly skills.

At 12, a Black family adopted him to enable him to attend a black school eight miles away. His adoptive mother was a midwife and folk healer.

After high school, he applied to Simpson College in Indianola Ohio to study painting. Concerned Carver couldn’t make a living as an artist, his art teacher encouraged him to transfer to Iowa StateĀ  Agricultural College. After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degree, he became the first African American on the faculty of Iowa State University. While there, he became close friends with three successive US Secretaries of Agriculture, including Henry Wallace, who served as Vice President under Roosevelt.

In 1896 Booker T Washington (also attacked by DuBois for being an accommodationist) invited him to start a department of agriculture at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Despite a substantial pay cut, Carver, hoping to improve the miserable lives of Alabama’s black sharecroppers, accepted.

In addition to working in his chemistry lab and teaching classes, Carver assisted thousands of Black sharecropper to improve their yields. Because only 1/5 of 5 million sharecroppers owned their on land, sharecropping and tenant farming were essentially an extension of slavery. (See Sharecropping: The Hidden History)

The biggest contribution Carver made was to teach sharecroppers to diversity away from cotton, which was depleting their soil. He also taught them to replenish their soil with organic fertilizers and with crop rotation involving legumes and sweet potatoes. He particularly encouraged them to grow peanuts, a legume with extremely high nutritional value.

During his lifetime, Carver discovered 300 products farmers could make from peanuts, including peanut butter.

Never marrying, Carver (who counted Henry Ford, FDR and Edison among his circle of friends) lived alone in a dorm room and rarely socialized.