Center for Regional History and Culture Kennesaw State University

 
"C. Vann Woodward
and the Idea of a New South"


Friday, October 6, 2000
Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia

Sponsored by
The Historical Society
KSU's Center for Regional History & Culture
and The Consortium for Georgia History
 

Origins of the New South by C. Vann Woodward The Historical Society's Georgia-Florida Region and the Center for Regional History & Culture sponsored a mini-conference on "C. Vann Woodward and the Idea of a New South" for its fall meeting. The conference was a retrospective on a classic in American history--C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. It is also a conference about the very idea of a "New South." From its coining in the 1880s by Atlanta's Henry Grady through the cotton mill-building crusade that Grady helped inspire; through the Southern Renaissance and the rise of the Sunbelt; right down to today--a local car dealership now advertises itself as "the truck stop of the New South."

All three authors of the post-World War II volumes of the prestigious LSU History of the South Series used the phrase in their titles: Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913; Tindall, Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945; and Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980. Indeed, we now often refer to Woodward's period as the "first" New South, in recognition of the multitude of definitions--and lack of definition--of the term. But while some "New Souths" may have been creations of academics looking backward, the New South of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was more than that. The idea of a New South--rising from the ashes of defeat in the Civil War to pursue industrial and commercial development with as much vigor as the region once pursued secession and defended its peculiar institution of slavery--was a conscious creation of journalists, business leaders, and other promoters who sought to create an industrial South out of the ruins of the agrarian South.

C. Vann Woodward Woodward, the best-known historian of the American South, died in December 1999. His passing inspired our members to reassess his seminal work, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Origins appeared in 1951 as a volume in the prestigious History of the South series published by Louisiana State University Press. The book, and Woodward's body of work generally, shaped much of the scholarship on the post-Civil War South for a generation. Woodward argued that the South's political and economic leadership changed dramatically as planters declined and a nascent bourgeoisie (allied with northern capital) emerged, marking a sharp discontinuity. Woodward was highly critical of the so-called New South movement and its leaders, who in his view sold the South into colonial servitude. The new leaders beat back a challenge from progressive farmers led by the protagonist of an earlier Woodward volume, Populist Tom Watson. Watson's farmers briefly put together a biracial coalition for economic justice, but lost out to racist appeals and fraud. The South's conservative Democratic leaders entered into a virtual alliance with northeastern capital that frustrated the hopes of small farmers and workers, black and white.

The four speakers reassessed Woodward's Origins and offered their perspectives on the emergence of a "New South" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The morning session featured George B. Tindall, Professor Emeritus from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who followed Woodward's volume in the LSU series in 1967 with his The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945; and David Carlton, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, a Woodward graduate student, and author of the influential Mill and Town in South Carolina.

Dr. George B. Tindall
Dr. George B. Tindall addresses the audience at the seminar held on the campus of Kennesaw State University.
Appropriately, Tindall opened the conference by "rereading" Origins of the New South. As Tindall observed, he hadn't actually read the book in its entirety since his first encounter with it when it appeared in 1951. Tindall offered a series of observations on the validity of Woodward's arguments in light of recent scholarship. He also offered a sort of intellectual genealogy--describing Woodward's background, his odyssey from Emory to Chapel Hill, and his mentor, Howard Beale.
David Carlton followed with a thoughtful reappraisal of Woodward's colonial economy thesis. Carlton observed that Woodward, like many historians, tended to view economic issues through the lens of politics. Woodward's writing, Carlton argued, strongly suggested that the South's economic problems could be solved through political action. Economic historians have amassed a mountain of data since Woodward's book appeared that suggests the South's economic distinctiveness resulted from much more than political deals among powerbrokers.

After a lunch break, Leroy Davis of Emory University, author of A Clashing of the Soul: John Hope and the Dilemma of African-American Leadership, and Robert McMath of the Georgia Institute of Technology, author of American Populism: A Social History (among many others), addressed the conference. Davis looked at the question of what was new about the New South from the perspective of John Hope, the first African-American president of both Morehouse and Atlanta University. John Hope's story confirmed key elements of Woodward's narrative of southern race relations. Davis's presentation made clear, however, that the story of African-American leaders was complex. Hope's "clashing of the soul" referred to his dual responsibilities of fighting against segregation while building up black educational institutions. This seeming contradiction made for difficult decisions for Hope and other black leaders.

The Audience

Robert McMath focused on Woodward's view of southern Populism. McMath argued that Woodward had established a Populist ideal, based on commitment to principles, that ignored the thousands of relationships and cooperative ventures that spawned the agrarian movement. Even though local Farmers Alliance and Populist organizations might pursue different goals in different locales, it was these cooperative efforts themselves that defined the populist persuasion. Woodward had written of "the burden of southern history" later in his career, arguing that the South's experiences with defeat and poverty gave southerners a special perspective on American history. Ironically, McMath contended, Woodward had in some measure created a "burden of southern Populism" that had weighed heavily on subsequent scholarship.

A crowd of about fifty participated in the discussion. The national office of The Historical Society helped make this conference possible. The Historical Society and its Georgia Florida Region would like to thank Kennesaw State University and the Center for Regional History & Culture for hosting and co-sponsoring the program.

 
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