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article number 223
article date 04-04-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The South in Black and White
by Preston William Slosson

From the 1930 book, The Great Crusade and After. 1914 -1928.

THE fact that during these years, sectional differences were less clearly defined than in any earlier period was due only in part to the integrating effect of the war. Even more potent, because more constant, was the influence of industrialism. Land is local; capital is cosmopolitan. The Yankee farmer and the Georgia planter in an agricultural age differed as the factory operative of Boston cannot differ from his fellow workman of Atlanta.

Men still spoke of “the West,” but they could no longer draw its boundary on the map, for Michigan and Illinois were now as industrialized as Connecticut. The automobile, as we have seen, transplanted large numbers of the agricultural Middle West to urban and suburban Los Angeles, and brought a colony of wealthy business men from the Northeast to southernmost Florida. The growing habit of travel mitigated provincial differences, and the standardization of goods made all parts of the country more and more alike in dress and manner of life. In the main, this leveling process, at least on its economic side, was a leveling upwards, tending to bring to all sections the standards of the most prosperous communities; but it robbed the United States of much picturesque local variety and subjected it to the reproach of being a land of interchangeable citizens whose minds were as alike as the money they used.

Of all the sections of the nation, the South was the most persistent in maintaining its collective individuality. The process of standardization was at work here as elsewhere, perhaps more than elsewhere, but the original differences were greater. For over a century, ever since the cotton plantation became the norm of economic life, the South had felt a consciousness of kind wider than the state and narrower than the nation, a regionalism comparable perhaps to that of Catalonia in Spain or Scotland in Great Britain.

In each decade since 1865, journalists had repeated the discovery of a “New South,” and doubtless, each time they were right, for the growth of industrial wealth and educational opportunity had been fairly continuous. The period after 1914 did not change the direction, but it certainly accelerated its momentum. The war played a part by merging sectional with national effort; the boll weevil, as we have seen, diminished the relative importance of cotton. At the same time the textile factories of the piedmont multiplied, the oil wells of Oklahoma and Texas brought a new influx of capital, tourist travel and winter golf became important, the Negro population tended townward and northward as the munition factories enticed them from the plantations, illiteracy became rare, and new forces were astir in politics.

Besides work at munitions factories, many joined the service.

Yet with all these changes, the South still differed collectively from other parts of the Union in several important particulars. As a section it continued to be distinguished by large numbers of the Negro, the relative absence of the recent European immigrant, its still mainly agricultural economy, the great influence of the Protestant clergy, its emphasis on kinship, its reluctance to embark on radical social or economic reforms, and its jealous conservation of the older American traditions. The political support which the South gave generally to the prohibition amendment may seem out of harmony with its essential character, but this particular reform stood in a special position, enlisting the active support of the clergy and appealing to the dread of the effects of drunkenness upon the Negro population.

The race situation was certainly one distinguishing mark of the Southern tradition. “It is a land with a unity despite its diversity,” wrote Professor Ulrich B. Phillips in 1928, “with a people having common joys and common sorrows, and, above all, as to the white folk, a people with a common resolve indomitably maintained—that it shall be and remain a white man’s country.” Because of the adaptation of race to climate over so many centuries it may be questioned whether the majority of Negroes in America will ever consent to live in the states with cold winters. Nevertheless, during these years, the race “problem” showed signs of becoming less sectional and more national.

From 1915 to 1928 about one million two hundred thousand Negroes moved from South to North, although many made but a temporary stay. The census of 1920, though covering but the first phase of this northward migration, showed a proportionate decrease of colored population to the whole in almost all sections of the South, and in a few cases this decline was absolute as well as relative. From 1910 to 1920 Michigan’s Negro population increased from seventeen to sixty thousand, while during the same period Mississippi showed a loss of more than seventy-four thousand.

Factory jobs in the North shifted the population.

The townward movement of the race was even more striking than the northward trek, as it affected all sections of the country. The Northern cities made by far the most rapid and striking gains, but it is worth noting that Southern cities also attracted Negroes from the farms. Nearly 235,000 moved from country to city in the census decade in the South Atlantic states, and in the South Central states, east of the Mississippi, “although each state lost Negro population, this loss was wholly rural, for the urban Negro population in the entire division increased over 62,000, or 12 per cent.”

This townward movement was accompanied by a lesser rate of increase for the Negro population as a whole. In some cities, where climatic or sanitary conditions were unfavorable, deaths actually exceeded births. Professor Walter F. Willcox of Cornell, analyzing the census returns of 1920, predicted a steady decrease in the proportion of Negro population to the white in the United States. “It also seems reasonable to anticipate that the Negroes, who at the census of 1790 were over 19 per cent, or nearly one-fifth, of the population of the country and are now one-tenth, are likely by the end of the century to be not more than one-twentieth.” The white South, relieved of its former fear of being overwhelmed by an alien race, came to view the whole problem more calmly.

The northward movement of the Negro was not to be explained wholly by any single cause. One of the most important factors was the location of the great munition centers in the Northeastern states. The shutting off of European immigration by the war at the very time when cheap labor was most in demand caused manufacturers to look towards Dixie. The Negro field band might be unaccustomed to factory labor, but he was physically strong, docile by temperament, inexpensive, and hitherto remote from Socialist and trade-union agitation.

After the war, stricter immigration laws and the revival of general industry following a period of depression brought a new demand for labor in 1923, and in the first three months of that year a single Pittsburgh concern imported colored workmen at the rate of a thousand a month. Alarmed at the activity of these recruiters, the white South discouraged labor agents by fines, levied on various pretexts, and by counterpropaganda. In December, 1923, a Mississippi planter went to Chicago scattering handbills urging Negroes to return to the South and sent out a wagon plastered with signs describing the charms of the cotton fields. The expansion of industry coincided with a decline of cotton planting in districts ravaged by the boll weevil. Said one Southern planter, “It was a billion-dollar bug that got behind the Southern Negro and chased him across Mason and Dixon’s line.”

Harlem in the 1920s.

Certain long-standing grievances of the Southern Negro made him more willing to listen to the labor agents. These were of three kinds: unequal treatment before the law, mob terrorism and social discrimination. Legal discrimination, to be sure, did not always operate to the disadvantage of the colored man, as, following an old tradition, Southern white men often viewed with indulgence, disorders among the Negroes which they would not have tolerated among their own kind. But in Georgia and certain other states, the county and police officials were compensated by a fee for their services, which meant they were paid so much a head for every man they arrested. The effect was to render these officials overzealous in rounding up Negroes for gambling, drinking and other petty infractions of the law. As punishment for such offenses, Negroes were usually sentenced to work on the county roads. When more serious offenses were brought to book, especially offenses against the whites, the sentences imposed were often disproportionately heavy.

Purely political discriminations seem to have weighed less than these judicial partialities. The issue of the franchise was not very widely agitated during this period; the Fifteenth Amendment remained in the Constitution, which seemed to satisfy Northern sentiment, and it was quietly disregarded throughout the black belt, which seemed to meet the desires of the white South. The federal courts disallowed the “grandfather” test when the issue was raised, and declared unconstitutional the Texas “white-primary” law of 1924 which drew a racial line in party primary elections. But literacy tests, ability to “interpret” the state constitution, the payment of a pole tax and other similar devices, long in use and in form not discriminatory, were tolerated however unequally they might be administered. On the other hand, in the North where Negro suffrage was a reality, the colored vote, thanks to the great migration, became far more influential than ever before, especially in such urban centers as Chicago which elected a Negro congressman in 1928.

Other grievances that seem to have counted with many Negroes were local acts of mob violence—it is significant that many emigrants came from the particular localities where such outrages had taken place—inferior school accommodations, injustice in sharing farm profits between tenant and landlord or between borrower and creditor, discrimination on common carriers, the denial of courtesy titles (such as mister, doctor, etc.) to educated Negroes, and the lack of opportunity for employment in certain “white” trades. Such incidents as the murder of eleven Negroes on a Georgia plantation to keep indebted peons in subjection, had wide repercussions.

Several Southern white editors, while asserting that the Negro ought to remain south of Mason and Dixon’s line, both for his own good and for that of his section, pointed out that he could not be expected to do so unless he met better treatment. Thus in South Carolina the ‘Columbia State’ declared on December 2, 1916, “If the Southern people would have the Negroes remain, they must treat the Negroes justly,” and the ‘Memphis Commercial Appeal’ in Tennessee urged on October 15 of the same year, “The South needs every able-bodied Negro that is now south of the line, and every Negro who remains south of the line will in the end do better than he will do in the North.”

On the other hand, while the South valued the Negro’s services more as he threatened to leave the section, many Northern newspapers expressed much apprehension as the race “problem” appeared in their midst. White laborers resented the competition of the cheap and docile black workingmen and out of this resentment grew serious riots. In East St. Louis, Illinois, where Negro strike breakers had been imported by the meat packers in 1916, the trade unions in vain protested to the city authorities against their coming.

In July, 1917, a disastrous riot took place on a scale quite as large as any that had ever occurred farther south. Over a hundred Negroes were killed or wounded, five thousand were made homeless, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property destroyed. Similar but lesser riots took place in factory towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the same year, and in Chicago, Omaha and Washington, D. C., in 1919. Thus unhappy proof was given of the truth of the old contention of the white South, that race violence was national and not sectional and that if the Negro moved northward race riots would follow in his wake.

Scene from a 1919 Chicago race riot. Beaten person lies on the ground.

By a curious anomaly, in spite of the prevalence of race riots in the hectic postwar days and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the old American custom of lynch law fell into almost complete disuse. In the first four months of 1928 there was not a single recorded lynching, a record without parallel since exact statistics on the subject began to be kept. For the decade 1914-1923 inclusive, the average number was fifty-seven annually, a much better record than that of previous years but still discreditably high. Though the proposed Dyer anti-lynching bill, which would have given the federal courts jurisdiction in cases of mob violence, failed of action in the Senate after passing the House of Representatives in 1922, it stirred the local authorities to vindicate state rights by greater zeal in law enforcement.

There were only sixteen lynchings in 1924 as compared with thirty-three in the previous year, seventeen in 1925, thirty in 1926, sixteen in 1927, eleven in 1928 and ten in 1929. It became the exception instead of the rule for a mob to meet with no effective opposition from the constituted authorities. A notable instance of civic courage was the personal rescue of a Negro from a mob at Murray, Kentucky, in 1917, by the governor of the state, A. 0. Stanley. Noteworthy also was the denunciation of lynching by a committee of white women associated with the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in Louisiana: “We hold that no circumstances can ever justify such violent disregard for law and that in no instance is it an exhibition of chivalric consideration and honor of womanhood.” Similar resolutions were passed in many other states.*

* In the period 1914-1928, as in previous periods, only from a fifth to a fourth of all lynchings were for rape or attempted rape. The usual accusation was murder. One interesting phenomenon of the period was that in all years, the number of white persons lynched was small, and in three or four tears, none. During the nineteenth century, the lynchings of white persons were but little less numerous than the lynchings of Negroes. So the passing of frontier conditions, as well as improvement in racial relationships, helps explain the remarkable decline of what many criminologists have termed “The American Crime.”

The Negro reacted in various ways to his unfavorable position in the United States. Some became ashamed of their race and tried to tone down its characteristics as much as possible, and fortunes were made in hair-straightening devices, the reverse process to the white girl’s “wave.” Others, in increasing numbers, became race conscious and took pride in their African blood. These race-conscious Afro-Americans were, however, divided in policy. Those who followed the tradition of Booker T. Washington, whose work at Tuskegee was ably continued by Robert R. Moton, sought first of all, a solid economic position for the race, as educated, trained, property-owning farmers and artisans, for whom the whites would feel a respect which would eventually bring with it political re-enfranchisement. To more fiery and impatient spirits this program seemed too slow, and as a result there had arisen in the early years of the century, a second type of racial leader, typified by W. B. B. Du Bois, editor of the ‘Crisis,’ and associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who demanded the immediate grant of equal civil and political rights.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an early civil rights activist and published the Crisis magazine.

After the war and the return of Negro regiments from France (where racial discriminations do not follow the American tradition) much was heard of the “New Negro” who would no longer, cap in hand, submit to injustice, but “when the mob moves, meet it with bricks and clubs and guns.” One tiny, picturesque group did indeed carry Negro nationalism far beyond the simple demand of Du Bois for equal rights in America. These were the followers of Marcus Garvey, president of the newly formed Universal Negro Improvement Association, who dreamed of nothing less than the re-conquest of Africa as a black man’s republic—a sort of African Zionism. “The hour has come,” he declared, “when the whole continent of Africa shall be reclaimed and redeemed as the home of the black peoples.” He projected a “Black Star Line” of steamers for transporting the American Negro back to his ancestral homeland, there to erect a racial empire under the banner of black, red and green to the strains of:

Ethiopia, thou land of our fathers, Thou land where the gods loved to be,
As storm cloud at night sudden gathers Our armies come rushing to thee!

Garvey was later prosecuted and imprisoned for swindling, and nothing came of his enterprise, too vast and vague for a world of solid realities, but at least his movement was a sign that, to many Negroes, their race had become a pride rather than a humiliation.

On the whole, the economic situation of the American Negro improved during and after the World War. Though due in part to the competitive bidding of field and factory for his services, the improvement came even more from the spread of education which qualified him for better positions. From 1917 to 1927 the number of institutions for the higher education of the Negro more than doubled, and enrollment in them increased more than sixfold. A larger proportion of the race also attended Northern and Western institutions open to all races.

The number employed by the federal government rose from 22,540 in 1910 to 51,882 in 1928. More Negro high schools were built in the South from 1918 to 1928 than in the entire past. In spite of the boll weevil and a bad credit situation, the majority of those who stuck to the farm found themselves better off. William S. Scarborough, former president of Wilberforce University, testified in 1925, “The Virginia Negro farmers may be said to belong to a thrifty group. Virtually all are members of a church and of one or another of the many fraternal societies. . . . Most of the Negroes have automobiles and many own Victrolas.”


Probably the most successful, certainly the most famous, of the colored urban communities was the Harlem district in New York City. By 1928 the Negro population of New York City was estimated at 250,000, of whom 170,000 lived in Harlem. Not all came from the Southern states, for the West Indies contributed perhaps 40,000. Many races and nationalities in Manhattan’s cosmopolitan flux were swept aside by the oncoming tide. Steadily the colored merchants and shopkeepers drove the whites out of business. “A Negro millinery shop offers ‘a variety of styles in the latest Parisian shapes created by expert Negro designers.’ A Negro apothecary advertises, ‘Why not go to our own drugstores? They employ all colored men.’” There was a thriving trade in black doll babies, advertised “Why should a Negro child play with a white doll?”

Here, one saw the crude beginnings of race pride and race culture; the Garveyite movement was largely fostered in Harlem. The colored artist was also taking himself more seriously; he had long been a favorite in the lighter arts, vaudeville and minstrel-show song and dance, but the dramatic power of such actors as Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, the musical art of Roland Hayes, the famous tenor, and the poetry of Countee Cullen rivaled the art of the European races in their own chosen fields.

The general economic progress of the South was even more rapid than that of most parts of the North and West, and this, quite apart from such local booms as the oil fields of Oklahoma or the winter-vacation colony of tropic Florida. If we take the section as a whole in its broadest sense, the population of the South increased by about a quarter from 1910 to 1927; and the aggregate value of its property doubled from 1912 to 1925. Cotton spinning shifted increasingly near to the region of cotton planting.

In 1910 about a third of the active looms and spindles of the nation were in the South; in 1927 approximately one half. Seven barrels of petroleum were produced in the South in 1927 to each barrel in 1910. Coal production in the same period more than doubled. The rate of increase in the use of electricity for the decade 1913-1923 was over 212 per cent, while the increase for the remainder of the country was less than 148 per cent. The increasing utilization of water power in manufactures was, indeed, a major explanation of the industrial expansion of the Southern highlands. Alabama, Tennessee, and especially North Carolina showed the most marked effects of the new sectional industrial revolution; states possessing little water power, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, showed far less alteration.

The cotton mills of the piedmont reached out their tentacles and increasingly swept into urban life the most isolated rural communities in America, the Southern highlanders, where the purest English stock in the nation had stagnated for generations on rocky hillside farms in poverty and ignorance. Lowlanders also of the poor-white class came to the factories. The Negro did not come, or came only as an outdoor laborer for odd jobs of carpentry and the like.


The actual textile operatives were almost exclusively of the white race; as in earlier years, many of them were women and children. The issue of child labor thus raised was much debated. Advocates of national action contended that Southern laws as to age of employment, hours of labor and working conditions were below the standard of other sections. Opponents pointed out that Southern mill owners did so much welfare work among their employees, that their health, education and social opportunities were better secured than if they had remained on the farm, and that many had passed through the mill door to a future of wealth and community leadership.*

* From Marjorie Potwin’s 1927 study, “Cotton Mill People of the Piedmont.” This careful and interesting study, mainly of South Carolina mills, stresses the philanthropic work of the mill owners, is favorable to the expansion of industry, and conservative on the child-labor question. Frank Tannenbaum’s 1924 book, “Darker Phases of the South,” chapter ii, “The South Buries its Anglo-Saxons,” points out the drawbacks of mill life under the benevolent feudalism of the manufacturers. In 1929, serious labor riots took place at Gastonia and Marion, North Carolina.

Curious indeed were the contrasts presented by the advance of the textile industry in the South. A people possessing a strong individualistic tradition were brought under a paternalism almost feudal in character, for in some mill villages, the manufacturer owned or controlled all the land, the homes, the shops and the places of recreation. City ways were quickly copied by the younger generation, while their elders held to mountain customs. As a recent student has pointed out, the mill village “is the link between poverty and prosperity; it is the meeting place of old and new. Granny wears a sunbonnet and came to the mill in a farm wagon, the young‘uns wear georgette and silk hose and own a Ford car. . . .”

Similar transitions to the industrial epoch might be observed in northern Alabama where the Birmingham iron district was rapidly becoming another Pittsburgh.

North Carolina was perhaps the outstanding example of rapid economic progress in the South. In the days of the great plantations, North Carolina was rather overshadowed by the importance of her immediate neighbors, Virginia and South Carolina. Much of her territory was too rugged for the most profitable forms of agriculture, her mineral wealth was not outstanding, her manufactures unimportant. An industrial revival which began early in the new century did not begin to bear full fruit until after the war. The state’s manufactures, valued at $216,000,000 in 1910, rose to more than a billion in 1927. In the same period, the cotton mills more than doubled their capacity; and the tobacco crop increased over three-fold in quantity and about nine-fold in value. Owing to agricultural schools and such excellent rural journals as Clarence Poe’s ‘Progressive Farmer,’ the quality of farming improved almost beyond recognition. Expenditures on highways increased from $5,000,000 a year in 1914 to $47,000,000 in 1926.

North Carolina turned her mud roads into boulevards.

But the greatest triumphs of North Carolina were in the field of education. North Carolina carried into modern times a staggering burden of illiteracy, but from 1910 to 1920 the rate fell from eighteen and a half to thirteen per cent. Public-school expenditures increased tenfold from 1910 to 1926. Several other Southern states were equally successful in developing elementary education, but perhaps no other made such progress in higher education. Aside from some small colleges, like Wake Forest which made an excellent record under President W. L. Poteat, this activity centered in two large institutions, the State University at Chapel Hill and Duke University (formerly Trinity College), heavily endowed by the millionaire tobacco merchant James B. Duke.

The University of North Carolina was nicknamed in academic circles the “Wisconsin of the South,” and the phrase was a compliment to both institutions. The wholesome rivalry between the State University and Duke caused both to strengthen their faculties and equipment. Durham, the seat of Duke University, was also much commended for its racial tolerance. Said Booker T. Washington, “Of all the Southern cities I have visited, I found here, the sanest attitude of the white people toward the black.” In no other city of similar size did he find “so many prosperous carpenters, brickmasons, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, cotton mill operatives, and tobacco factory workers” of his own race.

Virginia had a notable agricultural development, with a great extension of agricultural education and the building of a network of fine highways in place of the muddy roads which had discouraged motorists in the past. Much of this improvement came under the administration of Harry Flood Byrd, elected governor in 1926, brother of the even more famous aviator and explorer of both poles, Richard B. Byrd. In less than two years of Byrd’s administration, a quarter of a billion dollars was invested in the industrial development of the state, mainly by capitalists from the North.

Cheap power, cheap labor and cheap materials bought industry into the upland south … more like the north.

In greater or less degree, the economic and educational advance of North Carolina and Virginia could be paralleled in the development of the Gulf States, even apart from the exceptional case of Florida. There were, however, heavy arrears of the past to make good. As Horace M. Bond put it in a sympathetic article in the ‘Nation’, “The Southern states are now spending as much money for education as many Northern states, if we take basic taxable wealth as a criterion of effort.” But, he added, “considering the double burden of poverty and excess ratio of children, it is just as unfair to expect Mississippi to maintain a system of education equal to that of California as it would have been in the time of Horace Mann to expect a district in rural Massachusetts to maintain a school . . . equal in efficiency to that supported by a tax on the property of the [wealthiest] district in Boston.”

Many Southerners continued to complain that to make a real career—as Woodrow Wilson and Walter Hines Page did—the Southerner must leave his section and that “We measure our professional folk by the extent to which they hold degrees from Northern and Western universities, albeit often complaining of the “bad influence of those universities upon us.” But the justification for such complaints lay mainly in the past, though the fact that they were freely voiced, that a spirit of self-criticism was abroad in the South, was the best of omens for the future.

The political change in the South was even more dramatic, though probably of less real importance, than its economic and intellectual evolution. The fact that a president of Southern birth, with a cabinet half Southern in personnel and a Congress led in both branches by Southern Democrats as chairmen of important committees, held power during the World War, did much to restore the self-confidence of a section which had counted for little in national or international affairs since 1860. As one loyal North Carolinian wrote, “it seemed almost a miracle to see that aged taunt of the Republicans—‘The Democrats will put the South in the saddle’— turned into a proud fact at the most crucial moment of modern history.” The disastrous rout of the Democratic party at the polls in 1920, 1924 and 1928 did not undo the growing political influence of the section. On the contrary, the Republicans saw an opportunity for winning the South from its Democratic allegiance and more than ever courted its support.

Woodrow Wilson, the son of a slave owner; The south finally had a man of southern blood at the top of politics.

The growing industrialization of the South tended to modify its attitude towards the one fairly consistent test of American party allegiance, the tariff. “Today one sees the Solid South crumbling a bit in its attitude toward the tariff . . . ,“ wrote one observer. “Cotton mills that rival or exceed those of New England; iron factories, comparable in many ways to those of Pennsylvania; phosphate mines, and petroleum wells, not to mention Louisiana’s acre after acre of sugar cane, not only are not averse to protection, but are actually seen clamoring for it!”

Other factors, such as the immigration of many Northern voters, especially to southern Florida, the lessening stress of the race question, the equal disregard of both parties when in office for the principle of state rights, divisions of opinion on the Wilsonian foreign policy, the gradual fading of historic antagonisms and the prevalent prosperity, gave the Republicans many victories in the border states and even won ex-Confederate Tennessee in 1920. But in general the Solid South remained un-melted until 1928.

In that year the Democratic party strained the loyalty of the South to the breaking point by the nomination of Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York, a man of unquestionable ability but bearing the fourfold handicap of being a Northerner, an official of Tammany Hall, an enemy of prohibition and a Roman Catholic. Not even the nomination for vice-president of Senator J. T. Robinson of Arkansas—the first nomination of an actual Southern resident on a major national ticket since the Civil War—quieted the resentment of the section.

The result was that all of the border states, together with Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Texas among the old Confederate states, went for Herbert Hoover and against Governor Smith, that Alabama was saved by a narrow margin, and a heavy Republican vote was cast in Arkansas and Georgia. Only Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina had anything like normal Democratic majorities. The same election placed in the Democratic column Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Though perhaps with other candidates some of these overturns would not have taken place, the fact that they could happen under any circumstances proved that American politics, North and South alike, was no longer the mere by-product of sectional tradition that it had been since 1856.

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