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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 350-352

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Book Review

The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South

The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. By Donald Holley. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000. Pp. xvi+274. $36.

The South was better off without its poor, its blacks, and its small cotton farmers, argues historian Donald Holley in his study of the impact of the mechanical cotton picker on the twentieth-century South. The picker did not push these people out; rather, wartime factory jobs in the West and North pulled them away. Bereft of human pickers, planters turned to the machine. Its adoption ended the cotton economy "created" by Eli Whitney's gin in 1793 and inaugurated a second emancipation. Unlike the first, which freed the slaves, this one freed the planters, enabling them to consolidate [End Page 350] their holdings, buy capital-intensive harvesting equipment, and modernize. Modernization, here synonymous with mechanization, was an unalloyed good, according to Holley. It ended the South's dependence on "cheap labor and its corollaries, labor control and Jim Crow repression" (p. 194). Now the poor no longer perform "stoop labor" and tenants are wealthy contract farmers who own mechanical pickers.

Holley joins a cohort of scholars who have tried to reconcile southern out-migration and farm mechanization with economic development and sociopolitical change. These scholars have questioned the nature of the ante- and postbellum cotton culture, its associated labor force and institutions, and the nature and rate of mechanization. To these considerations they also added the role of the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act and the work alternatives that wartime production promised. They agree that southerners were overly dependent on cotton monoculture and that unscrupulous landowners through the crop lien system victimized black and white alike.

Laying the foundation for the thesis that adoption of the mechanical picker was the consequence of low-quality labor and out-migration, Holley builds his case against southerners and southern institutions. Unconsciously invoking John Ford Rhodes, he blames Whitney's cotton gin for having "created the Old South," "revitalized slavery," and "contributed to the Civil War." Swayed by New South polemicists, Holley insists that growing cotton "required little or no skill." That was why "slaves, sharecroppers, and poor whites" grew it successfully and why "an economy that rested on ignorance, intimidation and coercion" emerged by 1880 (pp. 2-3, 25). Accordingly, cotton and the gin shared blame for southern economic underdevelopment and institutional failure.

Contradictions plague Holley's book and make it difficult for the reader to follow his arguments. Characterizations of African-Americans serve as an example. According to views Holley reprints and possibly agrees with, they were "superfluous" (p. 159) and "warped by poverty and ignorance" (p. 121). A 1936 political cartoon shows an African American man, hat in hand, cotton sack on shoulder, shuffling past a Rust Brothers Cotton Picker Trial crying, "Ef'n It Doose Mah Wuk, Whose Wuk I Gwine Do?" Nobody's work, according to Holley, who elsewhere argues that black migrants filled northern welfare rolls, not factory payrolls. Contradicting his thesis here in suggesting that the harvester pushed out this class, Holley also contradicts his stereotypes with the story of a college-bound African-American man from Mississippi. Like him, Holley writes, most of the seven million who left the rural South were "typically literate and from southern cities" (p. 163).

Stubbornly clinging to the past, cotton planters, like cotton plants, refused to submit to mechanization. According to Holley, planters would not adapt "existing agricultural machines to their advantage" because "cotton plants could not be combined" like wheat (p. 35). Failing to appreciate [End Page 351] the differences between the crops, Holley also fails to appreciate their similarities. Adoption of mechanical harvesting for both was an incremental process paced by exogenous as much as by endogenous factors. Believing that the reaper "filled an immediate need" (p. 12), Holley misses a perfect...


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