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  • The Social Origins of the Urban South: Race, Gender, and Migration in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, 1890–1930
  • Lisa C. Tolbert
The Social Origins of the Urban South: Race, Gender, and Migration in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, 1890–1930. By Louis M. Kyriakoudes ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 226 pp.).

The Social Origins of the Urban South opens with a brief cultural history evaluating the tensions between modernity and tradition embodied in the business development and show content of the early Grand Ole Opry. "The experience of rural southerners migrating to the region's cities" Kyriakoudes argues, "paralleled the development of the Opry." (p. 18) Both the migrants and the show, he reasons, combined a country folk patina with aspects of the new modern urban dweller. This first chapter is somewhat misleading. Though Kyriakoudes argues [End Page 825] that the Opry acted as both an agent and a product of modernization in the countryside, the book does not fully develop these themes. Instead, Kyriakoudes takes a straightforward social history approach to evaluate migration patterns in Middle Tennessee in order to understand the connections between urbanization and agricultural change. His most important sources are not the songs and advertisements of the Grand Old Opry, but the demographic data provided by state and federal documents, and surveys of new social science professionals in the early twentieth century. Manuscripts, newspapers, and a few oral histories provide clues about the motivations and experiences of migrants themselves.

The primary focus of the book is on migration as an economic and social process, and the interconnectedness between city and countryside as farming gave way to urbanization and industrialization within the region at the turn of the twentieth century. Eight chapters cover the rise of the Grand Ole Opry; the economic development of Nashville from the perspective of city boosters; the decline of diversified agriculture from the 1890s to the 1920s, and the responding migration patterns of farm families, particularly their migrations into Nashville; the impact of migrants on the city—including their support for labor unions and the experience of white female migrants who represented the majority in the 1920s.

While the title emphasizes a broad regional perspective, the focus is squarely on Middle Tennessee, which followed a somewhat distinctive path toward modernization. As Kyriakoudes explains, the urban development of Nashville does not fit the pattern of typical New South industrialization. Unlike the diffuse pattern of textile mill villages created in the piedmont of North Carolina and upcountry Georgia, industrialization in Middle Tennessee was highly centralized in Nashville itself. Not textiles, but railroads, publishing, and a developing service economy fueled industrial development in Nashville and shaped rural migration patterns. Job opportunities in the city shaped the choices of migrants. White men and African Americans increasingly had to move on to other places in order to find work. By 1917, nevertheless, the majority of young adult men living in Nashville were migrants to the city. During this same period, Kyriakoudes clearly shows an escalation of union activity and labor unrest that peaked in 1919. Kyriakoudes reasons that these rural migrants must have helped to shape the labor unrest of the World War One era in the city by supporting labor unions as a pragmatic strategy for improving working conditions and wages. Nevertheless, sources do not allow Kyriakoudes to evaluate the particular roles of rural migrants in union activity with any precision.

One of the most important findings in the book is the gendered pattern of migration into Nashville. By the 1920s, Nashville attracted more women than men and more whites than blacks. Rural white women filled newly created clerical and retail positions that required a higher level of education than had traditionally been provided in rural schools. By 1920, six commercial training schools with a majority of female students were in operation in the city. Again, Kyriakoudes does a good job of explaining the limitations of his sources for evaluating the relative employment of rural migrants and native born women entering the city's workforce.

The book cannot ultimately explain the social origins of the urban South [End Page 826] for the region as a whole, but it does effectively show the...


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