Southern Cultures 11.1 (2005) 101-103
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One of the biggest stories in the South of a century ago was the mass migration from farms to cities. The movement had begun with the creation of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, maturing into a full-fledged network by the 1890s. Rail junctions became hotbeds of economic opportunity, and the Old South of farmers began to transform into the New South of city-dwellers—the South we inhabit today.
Louis Kyriakoudes, a young demographer and historian trained at Vanderbilt [End Page 101] University and the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina, seeks to quantify that migration and also to show its human face. It is a welcome effort. Scholars have given us countless books about the Great Migration from the South to the North, but little on the even more massive population shift within the South itself. Kyriakoudes chooses Nashville as his case-study, opening a window on the urbanization experience throughout the South.
The book begins with a glimpse of two migrants, both of whom arrived in Nashville in 1923 while still in their early twenties. Robert Penn Warren, well-to-do college student and aspiring poet, and Sidney Harkreader, factory hand and fiddle player, help us understand the diverse stories embedded within the broad demographic shift, and also the conflicted emotions that the transformation inspired. Robert Penn Warren became a leader of the Agrarians, intellectuals who urged the South to return to its rural roots. Harkreader became a star of the Grand Ole Opry, which used urban tools—radio, underwritten by a corporation that sold life insurance across the region—to celebrate rural culture but also to poke fun at "hillbillies" who clung too tightly to the past. Kyriakoudes's work on the Opry has appeared as an article in Southern Cultures (Spring 2004) and deserves to be reprinted in anthologies aimed at students of disciplines ranging from sociology to American studies.
After a look at Nashville's burgeoning economy, the book takes us out into the hinterland to ask why families were leaving the soil. Population growth, which was outstripping the capacity of middle Tennessee farmland, made rural folk eager for alternatives to old-fashioned subsistence agriculture: "Rather than being oppressed by the cash economy, middle Tennessee farm families took advantage of the new market linkages between Nashville and the countryside to bolster their livelihoods, especially after 1900."
Young men already had a tradition of moving to seek work. They had long gone off to labor as loggers or hired farmhands before settling down on their own land to raise their families. The new opportunities in the city simply stretched that pattern. People moved to Nashville to earn cash, came home to farm, headed back and forth whenever times got tight, and in the process often ended up staying in the city.
"By the 1920s, migration from middle Tennessee had become an exodus," Kyriakoudes writes. He devotes a chapter to the stories of women, now joining the migration stream, and a chapter to the growing number of people departing for cities up North. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the early twentieth century can be better understood when seen as a subset of larger trends. So can the shifting fortunes of Nashville's labor unions, bolstered by the newcomers, but sapped by the circular migration habits that took workers back to the farm in times of economic crisis, rather than staying to fight on the factory floor. The massive rural exodus also underlay the frenzied attempts by [End Page 102] Southern Progressives, especially during the 1910s and 1920s, to build country schools, teach better farming methods, improve rural health, and construct farm-to-market highways. The countryside seemed to be emptying. The Nashville Tennessean worried in...