- From Yeoman to Redneck in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1850–1915
To explain why clean-up efforts on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Ike had been delayed, a fema official reported, “You can’t work too many people because it’s just too dangerous. And you can’t just put Bubba or Skeeter out here on a dozer.”1 By referring to “Bubba” and [End Page 460] “Skeeter,” the official evoked the image of the southern redneck and all that that moniker connotes. But, where did the term redneck originate, and what does it mean? In Yeoman to Redneck, West draws from the historical experience of the South Carolina upcountry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to answer such questions.
Fundamentally, this book is about social class and its ramifications in this location and during this time period. In the antebellum period, the primary class divisions were between the landed and the landless and between slaveowners and non-slaveowners. Slaveowners could be distinguished further by the number of slaves owned, but that measure was of secondary importance. According to West, a family’s place in this stratification system influenced its response to the abolitionist message and movement, its enthusiasm for joining “Minute Men” vigilante groups, and even its commitment to the Confederate cause. Yeomen were those economically and politically independent farmers who owned land and possibly a few slaves. Although they did not necessarily support the political and social agendas of the landed elite, for whom slaves were a major source of wealth, they were not viewed pejoratively by their richer neighbors.
Class arrangements in the South Carolina upcountry changed after the Civil War. Ownership of land remained an important dimension of stratification in the countryside, but tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural wage laborers replaced slaves as the primary workforce on large plantations. Changes in the nature of the agricultural economy, and the overwhelming emphasis on cotton as a cash crop, made the yeoman farmer a relic of the past. Expansion of the railroads, coupled with emerging banking and merchant sectors, fueled the growth of towns and cities, as well as the development of a new urban class. Discouraged and displaced rural people sought economic refuge in the mill towns that were associated with new textile factories. West argues that this altered class structure gave rise to new tensions that shaped politics and social arrangements in the upcountry and, ultimately, gave birth to the term redneck, which originally referred to the sunburned necks of farmers but eventually broadened to include non-farmers.
Rednecks comprised two major groups in the upcountry—poor, landless, rural whites and textile mill workers. According to West, the town class viewed both groups with disdain and contempt. The rednecks’ economic distress and lack of education made them vulnerable to demagogues like “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and Cole Blease who exploited the class differences for political gain. The town class also grew concerned over the levels of lawlessness, including lynching, because they were a blemish on a region that grew increasingly interested in, and dependent upon, interregional and international connections.
West relies on a variety of sources for evidence to support his thesis. In addition to the obligatory primary and secondary ones, he makes use of original census enumerators’ manuscripts from the late nineteenth century. Most innovative is his execution of intercensal record linkages to trace individuals over time, thereby enabling him to examine changes [End Page 461] in “slaveholder” status between 1850 and 1860, and linkages between individual census records and membership lists to profile the Minute Men groups. These methodological approaches are among the many strengths of West’s book. The only possible weakness is the relatively low profile of African Americans in West’s story. But, whites, not blacks, are the focus of this book.
West concludes by wondering whether the term redneck will disappear from the American lexicon, as yeoman has. The word may become less common in the future, but its spirit will probably endure. Just as Vance observed in the...