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The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South

Author(s):Holley, Donald
Reviewer(s):Heinicke, Craig

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

Donald Holley, The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker,

Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South. Fayetteville, AR:

University of Arkansas Press, 2000. xvi + 284 pp. $36 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Craig Heinicke, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace

College, Berea, Ohio.

At the end of World War II, the southern United States stood at a turning

point — would the region continue to catch up with the rest of the nation with

respect to wages, education levels and other economic indicators or return to

its separate path of labor-intensive agriculture, paternalism, racial strife,

underemployment, and lagging wages? Without the mechanical cotton picker there

is no doubt that the former would have been delayed; with it by the late 1960s

the South lost much of its regional character. How important can any one

implement or invention be in bringing about social and economic change?

Although Donald Holley (Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at

Monticello) does not show that the mechanical harvester was indispensable for

the South’s transformation (more on this below), he builds a good case that

this machine was more important than any other since the cotton gin in

transforming the region. By the author’s account, the cotton picker

“emancipated” both southern farmers and black workers from among the most

arduous forms of “stoop” labor, and with it from perpetual misery, inadequate

education, low standards of living and the tedium of unchanging expectations.

Donald Holley’s thoroughness in addressing the associated questions that arise

suggests that this book will be a lasting reference for those interested in

this subject.

After setting out the context in the early chapters, Holley documents how the

mechanical cotton picker came to be mass produced and marketed, beginning with

how its promoters struggled with cotton’s exasperating resistance to machine

techniques, the hallmark of American agricultural advance for much of the

twentieth century. Every aspect of the somewhat familiar story of the Rust

brothers’ inventive activity is examined (chapter three), along with the Rusts’

consciousness of the potential social upheaval that mechanization of the

harvest could unleash (chapter five). The fears of other contemporaries are

documented at length; one particularly striking comment was published amid the

Depression’s high unemployment, when the Rusts’ experiments seemed poised for a

final breakthrough: “The machine is said to be quite practical … That being

true, it should be driven right out of the cotton fields and sunk into the

Mississippi River” (p. 77, quoting The Jackson Daily News, August 31,

1936). The fears of the Rusts and others were for the unemployed themselves,

but the hesitancy of some was mixed with white paranoia: “Imagine, if you can,

500,000 Negroes in Mississippi just now lolling around on cabin galleries or

loafing on the streets” (p. 78). Ten years after that editorial, when the

mechanical harvester was on the verge of becoming a commercial reality, more

fears were expressed, but many also foresaw that the picker would solve the

problem of labor scarcity (chapter eight). Holley’s strength is documenting the

extremes as well as the middle ground, revealing that the harvester was neither

savior nor “Frankenstein’s monster.”

Part of the cotton picker story includes an account of how each major

manufacturer (not only International Harvester, but also John Deere,

Allis-Chalmers, and Ben Pearson) made a bid in the “cotton harvester

sweepstakes.” Among the most interesting passages are those that lay out

International Harvester’s marketing studies (chapter six), and two “case

studies” of cotton producers using the new machinery (chapter seven). While

past accounts have implied only the wealthy used the mechanical harvester in

its early stages, one of Holley’s cases involves a small landowner.

How did it come about that after years of tinkering, doubts, and anxiety about

the consequences, the International Harvester committed itself to regular

production of the “spindle” (so-called, due to the rotating “spindles” that

pulled lint from the cotton boll) picker? In late 1942 Fowler McCormick of

International Harvester announced that a viable picker was perfected —

although scheduled production awaited the year 1948. It is plausible that

war-time migration and the resulting labor scarcity would have increased the

anticipated value of the machine. Still, 1942 was relatively early in the

process; we know only in retrospect of the sustained rise in harvesting wages.

If the experience of World War I had been repeated, however, might not southern

landowners have expected a return to pre-war wages in the future? How much

different would the timing have been without the war?

The above questions are worth pondering, and are indeed to some extent

suggested by the text. The issue involves to what extent changes outside the

cotton and southern labor markets influenced the timing of the cotton picker’s

commercial production. What else was going on at the boardrooms and

decision-making units of the major farm implement makers? Knowing this, would

help us understand exactly how much of the move toward marketing this machine

was due to changes peculiar to the South, and how much of the move was

exogenously determined. Cotton was certainly a key commodity and machinery

makers would no doubt have been aware of the breadth of the potential market.

Still, other trends in the implement industry may well have influenced the

timing of the major manufacturers’ entries into this market. Despite leaving us

to ponder these questions, the book provides extensive documentation of

southern developments and makes a solid contribution to our understanding of

how a production “bottleneck,” a machine invented to fill that need, and the

social consequences that followed, shaped other major demographic and social


Related to the timing of the picker’s production is a well-documented debate

over whether the picker would “push” workers from the field or replace those

who had been “pulled” to better jobs in the cities (chapters eight and nine).

The book extensively surveys the range of contemporary and scholarly views. The

documentation is rich in its breadth of viewpoints; the author, however, also

forwards a statistical assessment of whether the “push” of workers from the

fields was greater than the “pull.” He finds that the latter dominated,

although not by much. The author’s labor supply and demand estimation is

perhaps too uncritical of the existing data series — for instance the “piece

rates” paid to hand pickers omit important expenses for hand labor — and his

county level regressions are somewhat unconvincing on the matter of causality,

while omitting important variables. The exercise, however, does provide another

angle from which to view the relevant questions. The documentary evidence,

thoroughly presented, will form a highly valued reference from which to assess

these important questions.

Government crop programs of the New Deal era are also important (chapter four)

in the overall process. The author takes the unconventional view that the

Agricultural Adjustment Act was less a cause of tenant “displacement” than

economic trends themselves, and argues that the AAA had positive effects in

helping to rid the South of rural overpopulation. It is not that Holley is

unsympathetic to the plight of the displaced. He recognizes, like those writing

a half century ago, that the poverty of South could not be abated with too many

people on the land. He also appreciates the limited alternatives that existed

in a place and time where the aftermath of slavery still held its loathsome


The book is convincing that the mechanical cotton picker was important beyond

its value to southern farmers, and thus that we can learn much from examining

the forces which brought it about and those which delayed its arrival. The

author goes one step further, arguing that the cotton picker was

“indispensable” for both the success of the Civil Rights Movement (p. 195), and

for the “transition from the pre-World War II South of overpopulation, poverty,

and sharecropping to the postwar, modern South” (p. 185). Reminiscent of the

“axiom of indispensability” in another context, this is an intriguing idea, but

not one that is tested directly. To show that momentous events (themselves

difficult to measure in any conventional sense) would not have taken

place absent a particular invention is indeed a demanding standard. A problem

with the cotton picker as “indispensable,” is that in part it was an

intermediary between other large demographic and economic shifts and their

results for southern markets and society. These include the effects of World

War II, the New Deal, and the internal evolution of southern society and

economy among others. These observations do not necessarily imply the cotton

picker was dispensable, but they certainly provide perspective on the idea. In

this case — as with railroads, economic growth and the question of

indispensability — the substitutes for the picker from the landowner’s

perspective may have been less attractive, but they were substitutes

nonetheless. Among those that could have relieved the southern plantation

sector’s thirst for a large docile labor force were abandonment of the cotton

“mono-culture” or capital movement to the cities and other industries. On the

labor supply side, there was also migration to the cities.

A slightly different point involves the degree to which the mechanical cotton

picker “emancipated” the southern farmer and African-American. For the latter,

the analogy is laced with meaning. We should note that if the harvester

“emancipated” blacks, then there was also a good deal of self “emancipation”

that preceded it. African-Americans chose to leave the South in large numbers

for three decades prior to 1948, before the first commercially marketed cotton

harvester entered the fields. In fact, that is part of the story the author

forwards, and why it was that many contemporaries thought the harvester mainly

“replaced” those who left the fields rather than kicking workers off the land.

By 1950 when the mechanical picker first became a viable alternative for hand

picking, the percentage of black workers in the South employed in agriculture

was 31 percent. Southern African-Americans were doing other things in addition

to picking cotton. The busses of Montgomery and lunch counters of Greensboro

were more than a step away from the fields.

Perhaps the term “emancipation” is used by the author to counter some of the

“bad press” that labor saving machines, including this one, have attracted over

the years; but we must be careful of overstatement on the other side. Still, we

can agree that on balance the cotton picker represented a positive step,

despite the fact that it brought with it ambiguities and pain for those workers

with few alternatives. It is certainly true that the changes in racial and

economic relationships associated with mechanical harvesting took place


It is difficult to get a handle on exactly how much one should attribute social

and economic change to any one any invention, and this case is no exception. A

great value of the book is that Donald Holley draws attention to the mechanical

cotton picker as among the most consequential inventions for the South in over

two centuries of history. It also was among the more important in

twentieth-century American agriculture, even if it was not indispensable for

the major social changes that followed it. In part, the cotton picker was

important because the demographic and social changes with which it was

entangled were so consequential; Holley is aware of this at every step, and in

the end provides the balance and completeness of documentation that should

assure the longevity of his work as a reference.

Craig Heinicke, Associate Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace College,

has authored, “Driven from the Fields or Enticed to the City? The Cotton

Picking Machine and the Great Migration from the Cotton Belt, 1949-1964,” with

Wayne Grove (Syracuse University), Allied Social Sciences Association Annual

Meeting, Cliometric Society Sessions, 2002; and “African-American Migration and

Mechanized Cotton Harvesting, 1950-60,” Explorations in Economic History

1994, 31: 501-520.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII