So you think you know all about American history? Try your hand at the following questions: What state led the nation in slave trade profits from 1860 to 1865? Who in 1860 said that African-Americans “were a foreign and feeble element … incapable of assimilation” and should be denied voting rights if freed? Which states in the 1850s and 1860s denied free blacks the vote, made great efforts to colonize them back to Africa, passed exclusion laws to prevent their entry into these states, and refused black access to juries and public schools?
If you said (a) Mississippi, (b) Jefferson Davis, and (c) Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, you guessed wrong. The answers, according to New York historian, former managing director of Morgan Stanley and Saloman Brothers and author of “Cotton and Race in the Making of America,” Gene Dattel, are (a) New York, (b) Lincoln’s radical cabinet member and outspoken abolitionist William Seward, and (c) Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.
For all the frustrated Southerners (and Southern historians) who have endured northern hypocrisy for the past century and a half and take the blame for slavery, the Civil War and post-bellum segregation and racism, this is certainly the book for you.
Although nowhere excusing the South for its part in the above wrongs, Dattel utilizes exhaustive research into American political and economic history to demonstrate that slaves and free blacks had no chance to escape the cotton-dominated South because northern whites were determined to either colonize them to Africa or Haiti, relegate them to Northern ghettos or bar them from the North altogether.
Taking each state in turn, Dattel demonstrates that, despite having a black population of between 1 and 3 percent, these northern states were determined not to allow blacks entry before or after the Civil War. Quoting abolitionist politicians (like Seward, Lincoln and Harvard historian Albert Bushnell Hart) and newspaper editorials (including those from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune), Dattel reveals a hatred of blacks by northern whites that, as black authors such as Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright duly noted, exceeded that expressed by all but the worst Southern white supremacists.
Spread the blame around
Dattel also makes a convincing argument that slavery was about to fade away when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and the hardy fiber suddenly became America’s dominant product and export from the 1830s through the 1930s. And while a few Southerners got rich growing cotton, the northern bankers, financiers, factors, exporters and slave traders, especially those in New York, profited the most, and deserve as much blame for the cotton boom and the resulting Civil War as did Southern planters and farmers. To say nothing of British industrialists who profited from the cotton trade no less than the Americans.
The second half of “Cotton and Race” details life for African-Americans north and south from emancipation through the 20th Century. This tragic yet fascinating story includes Jefferson and Joseph Davis’s efforts to help their former slaves in Mississippi achieve a degree of economic independence, Isaiah Montgomery’s efforts to establish an economically viable free black town of Mound Bayou, Miss., the rise of King Cotton in Mississippi’s Delta after the 1890s, and efforts of the Klan to keep blacks in their place. Dattel makes the controversial claims, always supporting his arguments with on-point numbers, facts and tables, that the north had no real choice (from an economic standpoint) but to prevent Southern secession, and that the Southern sharecropping system was, despite its critics, an economically inevitable 20th Century process from which there was no workable alternative.
The main point Dattel argues, however, is that American blacks had no hope of political or economic independence in the post-bellum South, could not establish their own economic self-sufficiency independent of white society (as noted in the failures of Mound Bayou and other such doomed experiments) and were denied equality, justice and jobs in the north until WWI brought new employment opportunities, and even then they endured palpable white antipathy and relegation to second class status or worse.
King Cotton transformed the American economy north and south, Dattel relates, but His Majesty’s scepter weighed heavily on the backs of innocent African-Americans, slave and free. At every step of the way, white America pursued wealth and profit to the exclusion of morality and human decency.
“The economic world of cotton needed a workforce,” Dattel concludes, and whites “designated blacks for the role. America no longer needs cotton, but it still bears cotton’s human legacy.”
Jim Fraiser is a federal administrative law judge in Tupelo. He is the author of 13 books, including the forthcoming short story collection, “Your Love is Wicked and Other Stories,” set primarily in Greenwood, Tupelo and Bay St. Louis