The Invention of the New South? An Interview with William A. Link

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

William Link
Bill Link. Image courtesy of the University of Florida.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with William A. Link, the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida. Link’s publications include: A Hard Country and a Lonely Place: Schooling, Society, and Reform in Rural Virginia, 1870-1920 (UNC Press, 1986), The Paradox of Southern Progressivism 1880-1920 (UNC Press, 1992), Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (UNC Press, 2002), and most recently, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

CWI:  What were the defining elements of the New South?  What were some of the major forces and players who helped to create the New South?

LINK: Henry W. Grady, newspaper editor and publicist, perhaps became best known for popularizing the concept of the New South. In 1886, speaking before a distinguished group of northerners in New York City—which included Gen. William T. Sherman—Grady explained how a New South arose following the end of the Civil War. “We have let economy take root and spread among us as rank as the crabgrass which sprang from Sherman’s cavalry camps,” he declared, “until we are ready to lay odds on the Georgia Yankee, as he manufactures relics of the battlefield in a one-story shanty and squeezes pure olive oil out of his cotton-seed, against any downeaster that ever swapped wooden nutmegs for flannel sausages in the valleys of Vermont.” The New South, a term in common usage during the period after Reconstruction up until the early 20th century, became both an ideological construct and a social movement. It was a device, above all, serving to describe how the region was open for business to northern investors. According to Grady’s New South, adopted in what amounted to a social movement by promoters and boosters to define the South differently, the region was no longer dependent on slavery, fully reconciled to the Union, but also fully invested in the principle of white supremacy.

CWI: How did contested visions for the post-war South ultimately shape what we call the New South?

LINK: The “New South” represented one version of what the reconstructed South should become. It was connected to a wider phenomenon that attempted to define the Civil War and its memory. The concept struck at the root of what the Civil War and its carnage meant. Was the South defeated? If so, what did that mean? Most importantly, how could the boosters behind the New South movement explain the re-imposition of white supremacy to northern capitalists? Other versions of what the Civil War meant competed with the New South version—and especially its construction of the demise of slavery. African Americans insisted on the centrality of emancipation as central to the war’s meaning, and they articulated a very different understanding of the future. Through the rituals of commemorations such as Emancipation Day, across the urban South, black people were reminded of the war’s meaning and the importance of sacrifice. By the 1890s, moreover, the black scholar and public intellectual W.E. B. Du Bois added a powerful voice that undermined the New South vision and redefined the South’s connection to the past.

Sparta cotton mill (Link)
Sparta Cotton Mill, Spartanburg, SC, 1909. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

CWI: In what ways was the New South radically different from the Old South? In what ways was it similar?   How did the New South evolve over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What are its contemporary legacies for the “modern” South and the nation as a whole?

LINK: I would prefer to abandon the distinction between Old and New South, as these terms that are heavily laden with cultural and ideological baggage. As southern historian C. Vann Woodward described the term, “New South” was “an anachronism” because of the “connotations the phrase had acquired in the past, the slogan-like usage and the optimistic faith it implied.”

Still, there were continuities and discontinuities before and after the Civil War. The most important difference between the South before and after the Civil War was the end of chattel slavery and emancipation of four million enslaved African Americans. With the end of slavery came the destruction of the slave-based plantation system. The Old South was thoroughly incorporated into world capitalism: the cotton economy depended on trade, transportation, and capital. After the war, the extension of market-based agriculture, the growth of railroads, the expansion of industrialized manufacturing, and the spread of urbanism, all represented discontinuities. Yet there were many ways in the Old South survived – new racial hierarchies and new methods of racial oppression replaced slavery, for example.

It’s important to remember that we live with the legacies of the Civil War and how it affected the South. We can’t understand modern America without understanding—and confronting—the war’s legacy and what it meant to southerners and Americans.

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