- Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation
In 1985, J. William Harris published Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society: White Liberty and Black Slavery in Augusta’s Hinterlands.1 With great skill and insight, Harris untangled the complex webs of antebellum Southern community life to explain why nonslaveholding whites followed slaveholders into a war to protect slavery. Plain Folk and Gentry was a notable monograph—fresh in both method and argument. It continues to be a model for those interested in Southern community studies. In Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation, Harris relies upon many of the same methods of historical inquiry that made Plain Folk and Gentry such a splendid work. As in the first work, Harris tries to provide a “ground-level view” of the complex relationships that shaped the post-Civil War South. But this time, his intent is more ambitious—a comparative analysis of three Southern locales—the Georgia Sea Islands, the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, and the Georgia Piedmont—from the close of Reconstruction to the advent of World War II. The result is an impressive analysis that refutes the popular conception that the Jim Crow South was unchanging and monolithic.
Harris largely eschews a single narrative. Instead, Deep Souths offers three distinct stories of three distinct regions. The stories diverge as often as they connect. As Harris warns, broad generalizations obscure regional differences. In the Sea Islands cotton planters were unable to restore their plantations and abandoned the region. African Americans took advantage of land availability to buy small plots of land. These they used for subsistence farming, supplementing their produce with wages from part-time labor on the neighboring rice plantations. Largely insulated from events on the mainland, they were able to retain [End Page 806] considerable control over their labor, their culture, and their communities. Well into the twentieth century, large numbers of African Americans owned their own land, voted in political elections, and used community networks to protect themselves from the worst features of the Jim Crow era. African Americans in the Piedmont were not as fortunate. When Southern whites reestablished their cotton plantations, most African Americans had little choice but to become tenants or sharecroppers. Few acquiesced quietly. During the late 1890s, large numbers of African Americans joined the Populist Party. When the party failed and land prices continued to rise, large numbers left the region for Southern cities and the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta. Those that remained were sometimes able to negotiate better terms for their labor. Even so, the overwhelming majority remained impoverished.
The Mississippi-Yazoo Delta also revived plantation cotton but on a scale much greater than anyone envisioned during slavery. Large landholders dominated the region because they had the necessary capital to clear and drain the land. The African Americans who did the actual labor often lived a meager existence as sharecroppers and tenants. Once again, however, Harris emphasizes African Americans’ resiliency. Largely disfranchised, they were unable to organize politically like their counterparts in the Piedmont, so they relied upon the “weapons of the weak” (80). They feigned laziness, stole tools, livestock, and produce, committed arson, carried concealed weapons for defense and intimidation, and they created the blues, a radically new cultural form. As Harris shows, the blues expressed black Delta farmers’ longing for greater stability, their disdain for middle-class standards of propriety, and their deeply felt anguish.
One of Deep South’s many strengths is the care in which Harris examines the many outside forces that shaped the Jim Crow South. Harris shows that Southern Conservatives could not completely control the region because they could not completely control the ideas, technologies, political movements, and people that influenced the region. European and Northern investors entered the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta and tried to rationalize cotton production. Record producers scoured the region for fresh talent. Wealthy Northerners bought up Sea Island properties so that they could recreate the lives...