Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside

Article excerpt

Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside. By Jeff Ferret. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Pp. ix, 269. Acknowledgments, abbreviations, tables, bibliography, index. $45.00.)

This study adds to a small but growing body of recent work on the poor whites of the antebellum South. Jeff Forret seeks to discount the "myth"originated by contemporaries and perpetuated by historians-of "unwavering slave-poor white animosity" in order to present a more complex understanding of the relations between them (p. 20). Interpretively, that approach owes a great deal to Eugene Genovese's 1977 essay, "'Rather Be a Nigger than a Poor White Man': Slave Perceptions of Southern Yeomen and Poor Whites." Forret readily acknowledges the debt and contributes to that interpretation in two ways: by providing a wider base of evidence through research in slave narratives, court records, and other government archives for the Carolinas and Virginia; and by examining those social interactions from the perspective not only of slaves but of poor whites as well. Contact between the two groups, Forret argues, was characterized by cooperation and sympathy as well as friction and animosity. But throughout, poor whites were guided largely by selfish motives, and even friendly relations with slaves almost never inspired ideological opposition to slavery as a system.

The book is organized chiefly as a series of topical chapters about the interaction of poor whites and slaves in various settings. Workplace relations get some of Forret's first-although also briefest-attention. Particularly in areas of middling to high slave ownership, many poor whites worked at least occasionally with slaves in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. Poor whites sometimes mistreated slaves under their charge or resented the competition and perceived debasement of working alongside them. Nonetheless, Forret argues, members of the two groups could also develop a "fraternity" grounded in their similar "material conditions and their subordinate positions in relation to the master" (p. 71). Forret devotes a chapter to economic exchange between poor whites and slaves. For some time, historians have studied the so-called "internal economy," in which slaves produced and marketed goods for their own benefit. Forret explores the motives of poor whites who, according to irate masters, conducted an active illicit trade with such slaves. Some acted out of resentment toward individual slaveowners, but most were motivated by the material gains to be had in an unequal trade relation.

Liquor was a staple of that illegal commerce and an essential part of an underworld of drinking and gambling that brought poor white and slave men together. …

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