The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction

The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction

The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction

The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction

Synopsis

At a public picnic in the South in the 1890s, a young man paid five cents for his first chance to hear the revolutionary Edison talking machine. He eagerly listened as the soundman placed the needle down, only to find that through the tubes he held to his ears came the chilling sounds of a lynching. In this story, with its blend of new technology and old hatreds, genteel picnic and mob violence, Edward Ayers captures the history of the South in the years between Reconstruction and the turn of the century--a combination of progress and reaction that defined the contradictory promise of the New South. Ranging from the Georgia coast to the Tennessee mountains, from the power brokers to tenant farmers, Ayers depicts a land of startling contrasts--a time of progress and repression, of new industries and old ways. Ayers takes us from remote Southern towns, revolutionized by the spread of the railroads, to the statehouses where Democratic "Redeemers" swept away the legacy of Reconstruction; from the small farmers, trapped into growing nothing but cotton, to the new industries of Birmingham; from abuse and intimacy in the family to tumultuous public meetings of the prohibitionists. He explores every aspect of society, politics, and the economy, detailing the importance of each in the emerging New South. Here is the local Baptist congregation, the country store, the tobacco-stained second-class railroad car, the rise of Populism: the teeming, nineteenth-century South comes to life in these pages. And central to the entire story is the role of race relations, from alliances and friendships between blacks and whites to the spread of Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement. Ayers weaves all these details into the contradictory story of the New South, showing how the region developed the patterns it was to follow for the next fifty years. When Edward Ayers published Vengeance and Justice, a landmark study of crime and punishment in the nineteenth-century South, he received wide acclaim. Now he provides an unforgettable account of the New South--a land with one foot in the future and the other in the past.

Excerpt

The Southern landscape of 1880 bore the signs of the preceding twenty years. Symmetrical rows of slave cabins had been knocked into a jumble of tenant shacks. Fields grew wild because it did not pay to farm them. Children came upon bones and rusting weapons when they played in the woods. Former slaveowners and their sons decided which tenants would farm the best land and which tenants would have to move on. Confederate veterans at the court house or the general store bore empty sleeves and blank stares. Black people bitterly recalled the broken promises of land from the Yankees and broken promises of help from their former masters and mistresses. Everyone labored under the burdens of the depression that had hobbled the 1870s. Men talked of the bloodshed that had brought Reconstruction to an end a few years before.

Signs of a new South appeared as well, shoved up against the signs of the old. At every crossroad, it seemed, merchants put up stores of precut lumber. Hundreds of new towns proudly displayed raw red brick buildings and at least a block or two of wooden sidewalks. Investors began to put money into sawmills, textile factories, and coal mines. Young people of both races set out for places where they could make a better living. Railroads connected the landscape, cutting into clay banks, running across long sandy and swampy stretches, winding their way through wet mountain forests. Enthusiastic young editors talked of a "New South."

Shifting borders surrounded this South. Southern accents echoed into Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio; Northerners moved across the Kentucky and Arkansas lines; immigrants came to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi; Southern farmers produced for Northern markets up the coastline or across the river. Despite these porous boundaries, it seemed clear to most people that the South included the eleven states of the former Confederacy, that Kentucky was a Southern state in spite of its Civil War experience, and that the Southern mountains harbored a . . .

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