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  • Marginal Southerners
  • Stephen Berry (bio)
Jeff Forret. Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. ix + 269 pp. Tables, bibliography, and index. $45.00.

In 1850, while traveling the rural rim of Spring Dale, Mississippi, a country doctor named Elijah Walker stopped in for a "fine mess of melons" at a homestead belonging to Thomas Addington. "Here I beheld what I was astonished at," Walker later noted in his diary. "All the little children were allowed a seat along with the adult company, each one (there were about seven) as dirty as the earth could make them and the smallest ones with their dressing tucked up behind, exposing the posteriors, [each] with a swarm of gnats after it." Staring into the face of Southern poverty, Walker was agog. And it wasn't just the Addingtons. On court day and election day, the "strong-lung[ed]" sovereigns poured in from the forests on their broken-backed nags, and Walker's sleepy village became a maelstrom of drunkenness and commerce, camaraderie and pugilism. Who were these people, Walker sometimes wondered. "Thus live thousands," he marveled, "and as happy as queens and Kings."1

A century and a half later, historians are still asking Walker's question: who were the poor whites of the antebellum South? Were they proud plain-folk, subsisting in an agrarian democracy (Owsley)? Were they a nomadic underclass of tenants and day-laborers crushed by the slave regime (Bolton)? Were they a tribe of warrior-herdsmen, living out a Celtic tradition as old as the Scottish hills (McWhiney)?2

In his new book, Jeff Forret is surely right that Walker's question needs to be broken down. The historiography on slaves (which reached maturity well before that of poor whites) proceeded in just such a fashion: grand interpretations—from Phillips to Elkins to Genovese—yielded to particular and telling micro-studies. The historiography took a great leap forward when we turned from how slaves related to their masters and enslavement to how they related to their spouses and children, their pets, their God, their honor, and their humanity.

Forret's particular concern is how poor whites related to slaves in the Carolinas and Virginia between 1820 and 1860. In an early chapter, he surveys the [End Page 380] "points of social contact" between the two groups: poor whites worked with slaves in gold and coal mines, textile and turpentine plants, canal and railroad projects. In plantation districts, poor whites might work as overseers, patrollers, or slave catchers, or toil beside slaves as hired hands. Forret isn't especially interested in any of these points of contact, however. He is interested in race relations at the margins—away from the towns, away from the black belt, aside from work—at the rural grog shops, over midnight exchanges of stolen goods, amid a "masculine subculture of violence" and inter-racial sex.

The glimpse Forret provides of the rural grog shop whets the thirst; here surely is an institution that warrants a harder look. According to one witness, the Southern countryside was "overspread" with such dens of "vice and immorality." Indeed, wherever two well-traveled roads ran together, they (like as not) met at a "reeking groggery," "dram-shop," or "rum-hole." Serving "knock-'em-stiff," "bust-head," and the "blue-ruin," these establishments occasionally catered to black and white alike; and in their inebriated states, patrons might put color aside in favor of cards or conversation.

Such places were also hubs of the "underground economy," the traffic between poor whites and slaves in stolen goods. Forret is at his best in this important chapter. Having surveyed the hundred instances of "illicit trading" that appear in Carolina court records between 1845 and 1860, he concludes that slaves did most of the stealing and poor whites most of the fencing; slaves were most interested in trading for alcohol and poor whites in trading for food. However reprehensible the system that bound them, slaves were either adequately fed by their masters or eked out a subsistence by their own initiative as hunters, farmers, and poachers. When it came to trade, then...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 380-384
Launched on MUSE
2007-10-09
Open Access
No
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