OXFORD – The history of race in America, says Mississippi native and Yale-educated historian Gene Dattel, is largely the history of cotton.
Dattel spoke Thursday at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, reading from his book, “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.”
Slavery was a sticky issue when the United States was born, Dattel said.
“The founding fathers had an ugly choice – a nation with slavery or no nation without slavery,” he said.
Slavery opponents accepted the compromise, hoping ownership of humans would become obsolete on its own.
Six years after the Constitution, however, came Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin.
“The founding fathers were blindsided by the economic tornado called cotton,” Dattel said. “The power of cotton in the 19th century was comparable to if not greater than the power of oil today.”
Slave-owning cotton planters were far from being the only ones to treat blacks as less than human. Northern states routinely had laws in the late 1700s and early 1800s that excluded blacks from residence.
“Illinois, Indiana and Ohio had black exclusion laws,” Dattel said. “In 1813, Illinois imposed 39 lashes for free blacks who did not leave the state within two weeks. “Oregon had all of 100 black residents in 1857 but passed a law against their presence. Dattel said Northern leaders executed an acknowledged “containment policy … to keep black people in the South.”
Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the famously antislavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” financed a cotton-plantation venture in Florida, Dattel said, and turned down Frederick Douglass’ request for help with a school for blacks.
“You could be both antislavery and anti-black,” he said.
Cotton continued to shape race in America even after the Civil War, first by sharecropping and then, as agriculture became increasing mechanized, by encouraging black migration.
For some, the move resulted in drastically improved circumstances, but for many others, only a different form of poverty.
“The civil rights movement has completely liberated educated African-Americans,” Dattel said “… but we have an intractable African-American underclass.”
Otis Sanford, journalism professor and former opinion editor, joined Dattel. The son of a Delta small farmer, Sanford agreed cotton colors race at every turn.
“Cotton was the impetus for my family’s education. The cotton we raised supported our education; it was also the impetus for getting an education. My mother and father told us, ‘If you don’t want to do this all your life, get an education,’” Sanford said.
Cotton is no longer king in America or even the South, but the most painful part of its legacy remains.
“Race is still the most sensitive issue we deal with in America today,” Dattel said.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal