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Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation

Author(s):Harris, J. William
Reviewer(s):Virts, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (April 2002)

J. William Harris, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in

the Age of Segregation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

xii + 454 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6563-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Virts, Department of Economics, California State

University, Northridge.

In Deep Souths, J. William Harris writes a ground-level history of

three southern regions, the Mississippi Delta, the Georgia Piedmont and the Sea

Island Region of the Georgia coast, from reconstruction to World War II. The

book is divided into three sections, each of which covers a twenty-year period.

Each section has a chapter each on economic development, culture and politics.

There are many similarities among these regions. The economies of all three

were dependent on plantation agriculture and had a majority black population

before the Civil War. After the Civil War each struggled to revive the

plantation economy in a capitalist system with free labor and to deal with the

rise of African American political power. In all three regions the result was a

new era of segregation and consolidation of white power. One of the most

important points made is that this consolidation was never complete because of

the resistance of African Americans. In spite of the similarities among these

regions, however, Harris’s careful research into plantation records, county

records and the personal histories of diverse groups of individual citizens

shows that the economic, political and cultural development of these regions

also differed in important ways.

In the Sea Island region, initial attempts to grow rice on large plantations

were unsuccessful. Former slaves became landowning peasants who continued many

traditional practices that died out elsewhere. Harris does a good job of

describing both this unique culture and attempts to preserve it by African

American middle-class reformers. The rates of black land ownership were higher

in this region than elsewhere, and as a result blacks were more likely to hold

public office and mob violence against blacks was less common than in the other

two regions. However, as the old plantations either receded into the swamps or

became vacation destinations for wealthy northerners, opportunity for black

economic advancement stagnated.

The plantations of the Piedmont region, worked with black and white tenant

labor, survived after the Civil War but were in decline by the 1930s. Harris

shows that even in this region the number of black landowners increased,

although the number of black tenants increased faster. The presence of a large

number of small farmers, both white and black, made this area the center of the

Populist movement. Harris shows how the Populists initially attempted to unite

both white and black farmers on the grounds of economic interests, but were

ultimately unsuccessful.

In the Delta region, this was an era of expansion. Huge public work projects

along the Mississippi brought a large amount of new land into cultivation. The

scale of these new plantations was much larger than most slave plantations,

even though they were worked with tenant labor. Labor migrated to the region

from all over the South. These large plantations were well financed and well

managed. Although many were able to withstand natural disasters such a floods

and drought, the boll weevil and the variable price of cotton, there were also

those that did not. Harris makes clear that the planter elite was firmly

committed to the idea of white supremacy. The number of lynchings in the Delta

was higher than in any other region. Even here African Americans actively

pushed the color line. The need for a stable plantation labor force caused some

whites to protest the most shocking examples of racial violence. It was also a

place of African American creativity, which gave rise to a new musical form,

the blues.

One of the strengths of the book is the use Harris makes of the personal

stories of individuals of these regions. The individuals described are a

diverse lot including white planters, African American sharecroppers, and

middle class African American reformers, as well as Charley Patton the “king”

of the Delta Blues and Arthur Raper, a white sociologist who was prosecuted in

Georgia for referring to his African American co-workers as “Mrs.” and “Mr.”.

Their stories illustrate the varied reactions of both whites and black to


The government played an important role in this story in all three regions.

American entry into World War I challenged the racial code of the South in

important ways. The increased demand for labor resulted in increased migration

of African Americans to the North. African American soldiers in uniform were a

direct challenge to existing social norms. The New Deal also brought change to

the South, but African Americans continued to struggle against the color line.

The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of both the

origins and the evolution of segregation in the South. Harris is able to see

the broad similarities in economic, political and cultural developments in

these three regions. However, his effective use of primary source material also

allows him to highlight the differences as well. Although plantation

agriculture dominated all three regions before the Civil War, by the 1940s it

remained important only in the Delta region. Traditional African American

practices were preserved in the Sea Island region, while the Delta gave birth

to a new musical form, the blues. The stories of the many different people

Harris describes make the book compelling reading.

Nancy Virts’ publications include “The Efficiency of Southern Tenant

Plantations, 1900-1945,” Journal of Economic History, June 1991 and

(with Kenneth Ng) “The Black-White Income Gap in 1880,” Agricultural

History, Winter 1993.

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