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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 179-198
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Lower-Order Urbanization and Territorial Monopoly in the Southern Furnishing Trade
Louis M. Kyriakoudes
Sometime during World War I, Ned Cobb, an African American sharecropper better known to us by his pseudonym Nate Shaw, journeyed from the Tallapoosa County, Alabama, farm where he was sharecropping to Opelika, a small market town about 12 miles away, to buy cotton seed hulls for his mules, meal for his family, and shoes for his children. At Mr. Sadler's general store, Cobb had a chilling encounter with one Henry Chase, a crippled white store clerk. Chase, resentful that Cobb had been served by one of the store's white female [End Page 179] clerks, tried to provoke a fight with Cobb and then accused Cobb of threatening him with a pistol. Cobb wisely refused to be goaded, but he was arrested anyway when Chase brought his complaint to the sheriff. Cobb only escaped trouble with the law and more trouble with Chase and his gang because of the intercession of influential white merchants who knew Cobb from earlier business in town (Rosengarten 1974: 162–72).
Cobb's account of his troubles in town is testimony to the power of racism over black southerners. Cobb's story also tells us something significant about the economic geography of the cotton South under the sharecropping regime. This drama unfolds in town. It is in town where Cobb does his trading, and it is in town where he is able to rely on his good name and reputation built up over years of trading with its merchants. Opelika had been an important market town serving the cotton districts of west central Alabama since the 1870s (Doster 1952: 185–86). In 1871 the town was home to over 60 businesses, of which 14 were general stores. By 1890, a quarter century before Cobb's encounter with Chase, Opelika claimed 13 general stores among its 94 firms (R. G. Dun & Co. 1871, 1890).
Opelika owed its existence to the reordering of commercial relationships in the southern cotton economy in the 25 years after the Civil War. As sharecropping became the dominant means of organizing cotton production and as railroads were the primary means of transporting the crop, general store firms spread throughout the inland cotton districts and usurped the credit, supply, and marketing functions that were once the sole reserve of coastal, port city factors. These furnishing merchants located in small market towns that constituted the very foundation of the emerging urban hierarchy in the postbellum cotton South.
The rise of inland merchants and the development of market towns after the Civil War has figured prominently in the historiography of the southern economy. Thomas D. Clark (1944: 11, 19–33) stressed that general stores were a new feature of the postbellum South and that they "frequently marked the beginnings of towns." Harold Woodman (1968: 326–29) characterized postbellum furnishing merchants as a fundamental component of a new, "urban-oriented" middle class. Philip Groth (1977) and Kenneth Weiher (1977) argued separately that the cotton South engendered limited but significant urbanization in the late nineteenth century.
Two influential studies have shaped our understanding of the role of merchants and mercantile firms in the postbellum South. Roger Ransom and [End Page 180] Richard Sutch (1977) argued that the spatial distribution of general stores in the postbellum cotton-growing South supported a pattern of localized territorial monopolies for each firm. Thus insulated from effective competition, merchants could engage in monopoly pricing, charging sharecroppers above-market prices and interest charges. Ransom and Sutch conclude that market imperfections, not racism, lay behind the marketing inefficiencies and high credit costs that contributed to the low incomes of the sharecropping regime. Jonathan Wiener (1978), focusing on Alabama, casts the political economy of the postbellum South as a struggle between an incipient mercantile bourgeoisie and a planter elite that was struggling to maintain its hegemony in the new sharecropping regime. Black Belt planters sought to hinder the growing economic...