Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War

By Lockhart, Matthew A. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War


Lockhart, Matthew A., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Hunting and Fishing in the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War. By Scott E. Giltner. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 126th ser. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 231; $55, hardcover.)

Scott E. Giltner's broadly researched and boldly argued book Hunting and Fishing in the New South is nothing if not original. According to Giltner, who is a history professor at Culver-Stockton College, racial discrimination was behind the emergence of organized wildlife conservation in the Black Belt region in the early twentieth century. Black southerners had hunted and fished for generations as slaves, but always in a subordinate role to their masters. After the Civil War, freedmen expanded these "long-cherished customary rights" as a means to attaining economic self-sufficiency, much to the chagrin of their former owners, who wanted to retain a dependent, docile agricultural labor force (p. 11). The nascent sporting tourism industry needed willing black laborers too, not only to serve as attendants for visiting hunting and fishing parties but also to create the "authentic" southern experience that tourists expected (p. 7). Giltner contends that the earliest organized conservationists in the South were a coalition of agricultural employers, tourism investors, large landowners, and sportsmen frustrated by labor problems and wildlife depletion at the hands of unrestrained African American hunters and fishermen. This group set out to put blacks back to work and preserve the dwindling supply of fish and game " for whites only" through sweeping legislative reforms (p. 7). Changes to hunting and fishing laws during the Progressive Era, the author asserts, reflected the conservationists' desire to return to "that bygone era" prior to emancipation, before "the loss of the racial subordination and labor control that anchored elite whites' vision of the Old South" (pp. 46, 59). Wildlife conservation in the New South, then, was really a campaign of "racial conservation" (p. 140).

Was racism a factor in the regulation of hunting and fishing in the postbellum South? Without a doubt, and Giltner deserves a great deal of credit for bringing this overlooked aspect of Jim Crow race relations to bear. But was protecting white supremacy as much of a factor in the regional conservation movement as he claims? Probably not. Despite being almost exclusively upper class and white, southern conservationists were a diverse group with complex motives. Take the state Audubon Societies, for instance. Concerning efforts to restrict hunting and fishing, Giltner writes that "fish and game clubs and state and local wildlife protection associations, organizations comprised of frustrated sportsmen, angry landowners, and eager investors, led the crusade. Among these groups, the Audubon Society became the most famous, and perhaps the most active, in the fight for fish and game legislation aimed at African Americans" (p. 150). He identifies "the South Carolina chapter" as "a standard bearer for confronting the 'Negro problem' " and "a good case study of the way race became a larger part of such organizations' appeals in the early twentieth century" (p. 159). However, Giltner evidently does not realize that there were two Audubon Societies in South Carolina, and each looked and acted quite differently. The older one, the South Carolina Audubon Society (SCAS), was formed independently in 1900, based in Charleston, and led mostly by women. The newer one, the Audubon Society of South Carolina (ASSC), was set up by North Carolinian T. Gilbert Pearson, an agent of the National Association of Audubon Societies, in 1905. Two years later, Pearson successfully lobbied the South Carolina General Assembly to incorporate the ASSC as a quasi-public fish and game commission with law-enforcement powers. The ASSC was headquartered in Columbia, and its officers and directors were exclusively men. Giltner is under the impression that James Henry Rice Jr. …

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