Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South
Keri Leigh Merritt
Cambridge University Press
Hardcover, 361 pages, $59.99 (paperback, $32.99)
There are two things that, above all, make an academic work of history especially relevant for discussion on a website such as this one. One is that the book changes our understanding of a particular event, phenonmenon, or time period. The other is that the book’s argument is relevant for contemporary politics or society. Masterless Men by Keri Leigh Merritt does both.
Merritt laid out her purpose in the introduction, citing historian Eric Foner—whose research on Reconstruction overturned decades of scholarship depicting that period in a way hardly distinguishable from Gone With the Wind or, in its worst forms, Birth of a Nation. Four decades ago Foner called for historians to study non-slaveholding, non-landowning whites, i.e., poor whites, which research indicates characterized about one-third of the white Southern population. Merritt aims to “answer Foner’s call for research by situating poor white Southerners into America’s broader political economy.”
The general impression I had of the pre-Civil War South was that the white population operated essentially as a single entity when it came to the system of slavery that dominated the economy, politics, and legal system of the region. I figured that just about all whites from top to bottom reaped the benefits of the so-called peculiar institution, even if those at the top received the lion’s share. Merritt has combed through the sources and found that this was not so in the last decades leading up to secession, in particular in the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi), but also all throughout the region where the evil of slavery reigned.
One thing that was surprising to read about was the deep antagonism between poor whites and the plantation owners, and the fact that the owners were deeply afraid that that antagonism could actually threaten their ability to maintain the system of slavery on which their wealth depended.
Merritt examines deep economic inequality among whites in the South, which grew after the Panic of 1837 and the cotton boom of the 1850s—both of which combined to allow the slave-owning planter class to consolidate its wealth, and which left behind landless whites in particular. Another factor contributing to this yawning gap was that after about 1840 all the land forcibly taken from native tribes in the Southeast had been distributed—the author discusses this “brutal elimination of Native Americans” in some detail. This shortage of land increased the price, making it harder for the landless to alter their situation. In 1860, 1,000 families had almost 50 percent of all wealth in the Deep South, while the poorest half of whites had only 5 percent. Additionally, the overall percentage of whites who owned slaves and who owned land dropped in the last decades before 1860.
Unskilled whites couldn’t get jobs because slaveowners preferred to use slave labor rather than pay a wage. However, the planters feared the growing discontent among these poor whites, or, as Merritt calls them “masterless men.” She notes that just before the Civil War began, “slaveholders were still jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder.” Prevailing scholarly opinion has held that the whipping of white men and the selling of their labor came to an end by the mid-1830s, but the author’s research showed that, in the Deep South, these practices did not end until the Civil War.
When poor whites became “more and more militant” in their demands for improvements to their economic situation, even threatening to “stop supporting slavery,” the planters whipped up racial anxiety—they “predicted an impending race war following emancipation”—to keep poor whites in line as they sought to preserve slavery through secession. “Everything changed,” according to Merritt, after the aborted anti-slavery uprising in 1859 led by John Brown. Afterward, all non-slaveholding whites were seen as “latent abolitionists.” The slaveowner-dominated Southern governments instituted intensifying censorship and violence toward opponents of slavery. “Wealthy masters had completely taken over southern society. Circumventing both the government and the criminal justice system, they effectively abolished due process and the right to trial.”
In the period just before and after secession, “affluent Southerners used an insidious form of racism to try to scare lower-class whites into supporting [it],” but some still poor whites refused to back the Confederacy, while others served unwillingly. Merritt added: “cases of lynchings and threatened jail time for desertion, treason, and vagrancy were widespread … most poor whites had little or no choice but to support the war effort.” Ultimately, desertion rates she characterized as “incredibly high,” along with “increasing numbers of small scale revolts by lay-about groups of non-slaveholders,” had a significant impact on the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat. She concluded: “secession, the Confederacy, and Civil War were all overwhelmingly the creations of one small class of Americans: wealthy southern slaveholders.”
The author’s work disproves the argument that poor whites supported slavery because they thought they could one day own slaves themselves. “By understanding that the lives of poor whites and blacks followed similar trajectories during the mid-nineteenth century, the far-reaching impact of slavery is finally revealed …. While the consequences were certainly far more severe and sustained for black Americans … the economic repercussions of slavery also greatly affected lower-class whites.” It’s important to note that Merritt takes care, despite her topic being the study of poor whites, to make very clear that the white South’s oppression of and violence toward African Americans and American Indians was profound, systematic, and incredibly harsh.
On how the slaveowners dealt with poor whites: “The master class had a long-established, effective, and well-planned system of social control. They kept the white poor uneducated and illiterate on purpose.” There was no public education, with public funds going to law enforcement and the prison system. Masters could thus “incarcerate (at will) whites who failed to follow their social dictates.” It was impossible to maintain slavery without “near-constant surveillance” that included “heavy-handed forms of social control” over poor whites.
Poor whites were, Merritt explained, “directly prevented from enjoying many of the privileges of whiteness,” and had a strong sense of “class consciousness.” They did attempt to organize labor associations or unions, but the slaveowners used harsh measures to suppress them. Although abolitionists tried to “forge feelings of common interest between slaves and poor white laborers,” these were generally unsuccessful, as censorship laws made it difficult to distribute anti-slavery materials, and almost all poor whites were illiterate. There was racial tension around labor, as poor whites resented slave labor that undercut their own ability to earn wages through agricultural work. Nonetheless, the author’s research found a significant degree of positive interaction across racial lines in the antebellum period, enough to counter “overarching assumptions that poor white racism was as violent and pervasive as it appeared to be after emancipation.”
This last point connects to Merritt’s argument about emancipation and the post-Civil War era. She details the benefits poor whites received from the end of slavery—as well as the harshness of post-emancipation life for former slaves. Without slavery, land values dropped and large landowners began selling and/or renting land, giving many more poor whites the opportunity to finally participate in the regular economy.
On a related note, the Homestead Act passed in 1862, while the Confederate states were in rebellion. It had been blocked for decades in Congress by those doing the bidding of plantation owners who wanted to keep land prices high and maintain a labor surplus in the South. This law helped many poor whites acquire land in the west, and although blacks had access to that land according to the law, they did not benefit as much as they should have proportionately speaking due to discrimination. There was also a Southern Homestead Act that gave away public land in that region, but very little of it went to blacks, while poor whites benefited disproportionately from it.
The end of slavery meant poor whites were no longer outside a system that felt threatened by their lack of investment in it. Emancipation meant that slaveowners no longer needed to protect their investment in human beings, and poor whites ceased being a threat to that control. Once Reconstruction ended and white supremacists retook control of government in the former slave states, they employed “the criminal justice system to target freedmen and freedwomen, returning them to a state of quasi-slavery.” Merritt noted that, in the antebellum years, those subjected to the formal criminal justice system were overwhelmingly white (as enslaved people were punished by their masters directly, not to mention without any justice, either formal or informal), and after emancipation they were overwhelmingly black.
Poor whites after emancipation finally began to fully experience the privileges of whiteness, as “racial lines hardened,” something I assumed had happened many decades earlier. Merritt continued: “as poor whites were slowly but steadily included in the privileges of whiteness, their anger toward blacks seemed to become more apparent and more vicious.” She noted “the significant change in social relations between poor whites and blacks,” who had “once shared similar class concerns.”
In her conclusion, the author brought the story up to the present day: “In certain tragic respects, the nineteenth century South offered ominous foreshadowings of twenty-first century America … the extreme inequality of wealth and privilege remains striking.” Just as poor whites couldn’t rise out of poverty then, few today born into poverty will rise, and the chances of rising is even “grimmer still” for poor African Americans. “Finally, the current crisis of the criminal justice system is a matter worthy of moral outrage, akin to the righteous indignation of the abolitionists. The tacit acceptance of most Americans concerning the blatant, systemic racism inherent in our legal system … proves that the violent legacies of the past are still painfully evident … Indeed for some Americans, the chains were never truly broken.”
What Merritt has done here is impressive scholarship. Her research is thorough, carefully documented, and, in terms of challenging existing interpretations, truly ground-breaking. Although she followed where the documents led her, she also clearly emphasized the idea that her depiction of the Old South undercuts the nostalgia many contemporary Southerners—including large numbers of lower-income whites—express for that period in general. That nostalgia belies the reality that the antebellum South was built on a slave system that was not only evil, but which also denied many of their ancestors basic rights and freedoms, and made it almost impossible for poor whites to rise out of the crushing poverty into which they were born.
Although this is a work of academic research, it is jargon-free and highly accessible to a general audience. It’s certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the antebellum South, but beyond that it is should be of great interest to those who want to learn more about how class-based and racial oppression in the U.S.—and the slave-owning South in particular—were (and are) intertwined.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).
P.S.: In addition to this review, I invite you to read the following interview Dr. Merritt gave last November to Robin Lindley at History News Network. I have permission from the interviewer and Dr. Merritt to reproduce it here and have done so (unedited). She provided answers to all the questions I would have asked her. I expect that the discussion of Trump, racism, and current politics will be of particular interest, and that takes place toward the end of the interview.
Additionally, she has agreed to be available in the comments below to answer your questions.
Robin Lindley: Before getting to your new book Dr. Merritt, I wanted to ask how you decided to study history and then specialize in the issues of slavery, labor, race, and economics in the American South of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’ve always been attracted to history. I’ve read history books since I was a young teenager. Growing up in the South and seeing the racism there drew me in even more.
I started studying poor whites and the nineteenth century South as an undergraduate and realized their story was largely untold. They were nearly always left out of history simply due to the fact that they were illiterate. I knew I wanted to go onto graduate school and study this topic, because I believe it adds a lot of nuance to how race and class interact – and how racism is perpetuated in America.
Robin Lindley: And you’ve brought in legal, social and economic history and other aspects of the story beyond the focus of many histories of the period.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. I think we miss a lot as historians by just staying within our discipline. For example, what economists have come up on the price of slaves in the last few years that changes the whole dynamics of how we think about the South and slavery. By using interdisciplinary methods and relying on other subjects, we inch closer to the reality of the situation.
Robin Lindley: You’ve done pioneering research on an overlooked aspect of race and slavery in the antebellum South. How would you briefly describe your new book Masterless Men to readers?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Masterless Men examines how black slavery - and subsequently, black freedom – affected poor whites in the Deep South. Basically, with the influx of slaves from the Upper to the Lower South in the mid-1800s, poor whites increasingly found themselves unemployed and underemployed, and became cyclically impoverished. While poor whites certainly never experienced anything close to the horrific brutality of slavery, they did suffer socio-economically because of the peculiar institution.
I document the ways in which poorer whites traded and socially interacted with the enslaved, and how the slaveholders were constantly trying to figure out how to achieve segregation between the groups.
I show how poor whites were exploited by slave owners, who used myriad ways, from keeping them ignorant and illiterate to policing and terrorizing them, to maintain an effective system of slavery.Conversely, I also argue that black emancipation “freed” poor whites in certain, very important ways, often at the expense of African Americans.
Robin Lindley: Was there an incident or a reading that sparked your research on poor whites?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I come from impoverished whites myself on my mother’s side. She grew up in an old mill village. My grandmother was only barely literate –she had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to work.
I still remember visiting my grandmother during the summers and seeing not only the poverty of the area but how it affected both whites and blacks in her area of town. All the rest of the town – the upper middle class and upper-class sections - was segregated. But the really poor area was completely integrated. That didn’t mean that the poor whites weren’t racist, but they still lived with black people. They worked with black people. They had an underground economy. It was a story you don’t see told in history—and an interaction of poor people that we don’t talk about.
I was always drawn to the nineteenth century because growing up in the Deep South there are vestiges of slavery wherever you go, especially in the rural areas as in the Mississippi Delta, for example. You feel like you’re back in plantation times.
I realized early on that all types of disparity, from wealth to education to income, were dependent on the fact that, once slavery ended, a whole class of people was freed with zero wealth.
I focus on this period as the genesis of so many of today’s problems.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate the original research you did for Masterless Men. As you write, most poor whites in the antebellum South were illiterate so they didn’t leave behind documentary evidence. What source material did you rely on in your research?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Any time we try to study illiterate people, it poses so many more challenges than people realize, so scholars of illiterate people must be more creative and find multiple different ways to figure out the lives of those people.
For me, luckily, I had all the WPA [Works Progress Administration] slave narratives to rely upon. A lot of the questions to these former slaves centered on class and what they thought about poor whites. So there was a lot of information there.
I also used the Tennessee Civil War Veterans questionnaires. While they were given to Tennesseans from 1914-1922, and there were many different southerners who lived in Tennessee then. They talked about the Deep South and slavery and the class issues.
I relied heavily on government records such as county court records and coroners’ reports. How people die tells you a lot about a society. And I also utilized newspapers, petitions to governors for pardons and petitions about labor unions or “associations,” as they were called then. Census records were essential in studying family structures and the mobility of people.
In short, I used any kind of document I could get my hands on to try to uncover the lives of these people.
Robin Lindley: A major theme of your book is that the slave-owning white aristocracy used racism to extend their wealth and power, and both slaves and poor whites were oppressed. Do you have a sense of the percentage of whites who were slave owners?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt:Yes. In the Deep South, the percentages are concentrated, with more slave owners in the Deep South than in the Upper South. The Deep South states I studied are South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. I don’t include Louisiana because it’s too different from a racial perspective and a legal perspective.
In these Deep South states in 1860, you have about one-third of white people who own slaves or live in families who own slaves. About one-third of white people could classify as middling class status –yeomen who owned land and not slaves, or the up-and-coming middle class of merchants, lawyers, and bankers, and then men who were overseers and hadn’t come into their inheritances yet. And the last third are poor whites.
Robin Lindley: I don’t think many people understand how expensive slaves were. What did you learn about the price of slaves then and what this means now?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The economists Samuel Williamson and Louis Cain came out with a paper called “Measuring Slavery.” They looked at the prices of slaves not just in terms of cash value but in terms of what kind of power and status it took to have this kind of cash, to make this kind of purchase. You weren’t just getting lines of credit anywhere.
So, just to have the power to purchase something (or someone) so expensive means that the buyer has to be incredibly wealthy. Williamson and Cain came up with a figure that purchasing a slave would cost something like $130,000 today. That’s a totally different figure than the cliometrician scholars were using in the 1970s to estimate slave prices.
Robin Lindley: Poor whites obviously could never own a slave. You stress that poor whites didn’t have steady incomes and didn’t have land and were illiterate, and the slave owning aristocracy kept them illiterate and impoverished. That may surprise some readers. Why did the slaveholders desire this result?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Most slaveholders looked at poor whites as nuisances—as impediments to slavery itself. Not masters, not slaves, they were essentially “masterless men and women” in a hierarchical world. But poor whites were also interacting on a social and economic level with the enslaved and had an underground economy in which they traded together. Primarily, slaves appropriated foodstuffs from plantations and often traded with poor whites for liquor and other goods – it was America’s original “black market.”
Slaveholders knew they had to control and manage poor whites to keep slavery viable and profitable, and to keep these sizable underclasses from banding together and doing anything about it.
By 1860, there were poor white labor associations (or unions) throughout the Deep South and the workers were protesting having to compete with slave labor. They went so far as to threaten to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to raise their wages.They literally could not compete with slavery and earn a living wage.
So what did planters do? Well, they used both the legal system and vigilante violence to control this potentially explosive population.
Robin Lindley: Why did the Southern elites feel so threatened by poor whites who seemed so powerless and degraded in this slave society?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Like I said, they’ve always been a nuisance. They’ve been trading with slaves and disrupting slavery in that way.
But they also interacted with the enslaved socially. Interracial relationships between the two groups were far from rare. In fact, poor white women had the power to create a race of free blacks because a child’s status was based on the race of the mother. So, if a poor white woman had a child with a black man, that child would be entitled to legal freedom, adding to the free black population. So they had the ability to disrupt the racial hierarchy as well.
And then you had the Irish famine in the 1840s and all of these poor white immigrants began pouring in, all over the Deep South, especially in port cities. In cities like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and even Mobile, the rates of white immigrants were exploding in the 1850s. So, you have a militant white labor force that was growing – and that was bucking against the system.
It’s no surprise that the push for secession started in Charleston because, while a sizable percentage of South Carolina’s enslaved laborers were being sold to western states like Mississippi and Texas, Charleston experienced a rapid increase in defiant white immigrant laborers. Poor white laborers’ ranks were growing – as was their militancy about not having to compete with unfree, brutalized labor.
Robin Lindley: How do you see the treatment of poor whites in this Southern caste system compared with the treatment of enslaved blacks?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There’s no comparison. Slaves were treated horribly. The extent of the violent abuse and rape they endured has still not been fully revealed – and may never be. It’s starting to be told by people like Ed Baptist and a new generation of historians who have published books in the last ten or fifteen years.
Certainly, some poor whites were forced laborers and bound laborers – legally their children could be taken from them and forced to work for other people. These unfree laborers seemingly frequently suffered abuse at the hands of their “masters,” but there was always an end date to their terms of bound labor. Never would I compare their plight to slavery.
Robin Lindley: You dispel the myth that virtually all poor whites in the antebellum South supported slavery.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, all of the slave owning class did and, I’d argue, the vast majority of the middling classes supported slavery unconditionally.
I think there was more dissent in the poor white classes. I’m sure most of them were racist, but they saw that slavery was detrimental to them on a socioeconomic level. They recognized that they couldn’t get a decent wage and couldn’t get jobs as slavery increasingly pushed them out of agriculture.
As the possibility of disunion became a reality, poor whites were not the ones pushing for secession. Some were Unionists, but in the Deep South most were anti-Confederates – they just wanted to be left alone. They didn’t want to fight for slaveholders and slaveholder profits. But I argue that they were basically forced to fight in many instances. Even before the Conscription Act of 1862, there are vigilante groups all throughout the region that literally forced poor white men – with the threat of death – to join the Confederate army.
Robin Lindley: So, the Civil War may be seen as a war sparked by the white southern aristocracy against democracy to assure the survival of slavery—and preserve its wealth and power.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. Scholars such as Manisha Sinha have written about how the leaders of the secession movement were oligarchs. They were aristocrats. I show evidence of this too – they simply didn’t believe in democracy. They didn’t want poor people voting regardless of color. They didn’t think impoverished people should be involved on a political level at all. In the 1840s and 50s,slaveholders were increasingly attempting to remove civil liberties from poor whites. Furthermore, if you look at the laws passed by the Confederacy, you see more evidence of distain for both poor whites and democracy itself.
Robin Lindley: And, as the war approached, secessionists were preaching against abolition and raising fears of race war and other horrors if slavery ended.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely - as the Civil War approached, there was an explosion of propaganda in Southern newspapers. And even though most poor whites were illiterate, they still heard newspapers being read in town squares and at other gathering places, so they had some access to news. But this propaganda was not only directed at them – it was also a warning to middling classes as well. The richer whites predicted an impending racial war, saying that slaves would slaughter whites by the thousands, and that slaveholders were rich enough to move out of the region but poorer whites would be left to suffer at the hands of the enslaved. They said that black people would takeover the South and rule the government; that poor whites would the slaves of blacks; that African American men would marry and rape their wives and daughters. It was just completely incendiary and vile, vicious racist language. I argue that you can see clearly here the beginnings of the vitriol of the Jim Crow era.
Robin Lindley: These poor whites, for the most part, were illiterate and otherwise uneducated. What was the state of public education in the South in the years before the Civil War?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt:There was essentially no public education in the Deep South. None of the states had anything close to public education. Of course, some of the problem was poverty: only the upper-middling and elite classesdidn’t need the labor of their children. And many poorer whites lived on the very margins of society, far from towns and schoolhouses.
I argue that elite whites didn’t want poor whites to learn how to read for several reasons – not only to prevent them from seeing what life was like outside of slave states or to read about workers’ rights, but they also didn’t want poor whites to be able to teach slaves to read. With the underground economy between the races, why couldn’t poor whites trade reading or writing lessons for a pound of corn or meat from the enslaved?
And there was also a zealous policing of any kind of information that entered the South. There was a huge culture of censorship, where slaveholders and their allies literally go through all the mail and any book that entered the region.
Interestingly, I did find that, after 1850, when a lot of politicians realized that secession or war was a possibility, they started talking about how to “educate” poor whites to become soldiers for the South. Their big idea was to indoctrinate the teachers, who were to be hand-picked southern-born men. Then slaveholders would send the teachers to Southern schools to indoctrinate them in Southern institutions –centered, of course, on the right to own slaves. These teachers would subsequently return home to teach the masses just enough to be decent soldiers.
Robin Lindley: I think people will be surprised by this lack of education combined with massive censorship. Who was doing the censoring?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt:It’s carried on at both the state and the local levels. It’s important to remember that all local offices were held by people connected to slaveholding, if they were not slaveholders themselves. A lot of the censoring occurred in post offices. But elite white Southerners also formed violent vigilante groups to hunt out “unauthorized” ideas and reading materials, and viciously punish anyone who dared to read something they didn’t approve of.
Robin Lindley: And I was surprised by the total lack of public education.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: And that’s one of the ways I argue that black emancipation actually freed poor whites. After the Thirteenth Amendment, and due mainly to the Freedman’s Bureau, there were finally actual public schools in the Deep South.
Robin Lindley: You also write about poor whites forming unions but they are challenged by the criminal justice system and violent vigilance committees. Did you find that worker advocates were lynched by these agents of the slave owning class?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Ihaven’t uncovered anything specific on the lynching of labor leaders. But definitely anybody who threatened the system in any way was liable to be lynched. And I should clarify: when I use “lynched,” I mean that in the antebellum sense, which was not always murder, buti ncluded torture, tarring and feathering, shaving someone’s head, riding them on a rail. It was meant to embarrass, degrade, and humiliate the person, who was often then banished from his or her community.
Robin Lindley: You detail some gruesome atrocities.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: It was an incredibly violent society because slavery is predicated on violence.
Robin Lindley: I was also struck by many of your findings such as the high suicide rate of white women who were mothers of mixed race children.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Using court reports and coroner’s inquests, I was able to uncover a good bit about the daily lives of some of these poor white women. Unquestionably, antebellum Southern suicide would be a great book topic, as would be the levels of infanticide. Both rates are seemingly very high. From the limited research I’ve done, the levels of infanticide by the formerly enslaved in the post-bellum era were seemingly common as well. That would be a fascinating study: Why were these women killing their babies?
Robin Lindley: What is your sense of this high rate of infanticide?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: For a white woman in the antebellum period, I think it was self-interest, quite frankly. Once they were found out, they were completely socially ostracized and banished from society. They could be met with violence and even death. Their children would have had horrible lives trying to live as free blacks outside of cities such as Charleston and New Orleans. There were actually very few free blacks in rural areas of the Deep South, especially as secession neared.
My guess is that these women were trying to survive themselves.Furthermore, a mixed-race child could be legally taken away from a mother in this society and bound out to another person for the child’s labor. That’s not slavery, of course, but it’s a form of short-term bondage. Binding out children was not exclusive to mixed-race children, though – any child of impoverished white people was at risk.
Robin Lindley: Could these mixed-race children also be enslaved?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I didn’t find any case of that, but in the late 1850s, there was a movement in the Deep South where the states were trying to re-enslave free blacks. They were forced to move out of these states or choose a master. There were fewer and fewer rights for free blacks as the era approached the Civil War.
Robin Lindley: You stress that the conditions of poor whites in the South improved markedly with the end of slavery, but emancipation was imperfect for those once enslaved. What are a few things that happened after the Civil War with poor white people and freed blacks?
Dr.Keri Leigh Merritt:With the emancipation of African Americans, poor whites were finally incorporated into the system of white privilege, even though it was at the bottom. The Southern elite understood that this was a way to buy their political allegiance and to forestall a political alliance between poor whites and former slaves, whose economic interests often aligned.
Poor whites quickly gained certain legal, political and social advantages solely based upon race, and this inclusion in white privilege allowed the former slaveholders to recapture control of Southern states after Reconstruction. Many times, though, these new freedoms came at the expense of African Americans, who now occupied the lowest rung of “free” society.
Most importantly, poor whites were finally able to compete in a free labor society. But they also were no longer the targets of the criminal justice system – African Americans suddenly took their place. And I argue that some poor whites were able to benefit from the Homestead Acts, gaining land and thus, wealth. And of course, after the war the Deep South finally started implementing a system of public education, however rudimentary. So,both blacks and poor whites were better off after emancipation, but both were still constrained by the vestiges of poverty and slavery.
Robin Lindley: You’ve also written recently about the resonance of this history in the issues of race and white supremacy we face now as the current president encourages racial division. You found echoes of the history you share in the Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, the racial rhetoric has amped up over the last two years, from the time that the presidential campaign started. Trump was gaining supporters using the same manipulation of racial and xenophobic fears. He utilized chosen media outlets to create as much fear and worry as he could about “other” people taking over America. There was abject violence at campaign rallies and literally nothing was done about it. They even tried to silence the media, experts, and intellectuals.
I can’t say that I predicted Trump would become president, but I was definitely worried because I fully realized he was directing people’s anger and fears at other Americans – divided solely along the lines of race and ethnicity. And when people are downtrodden, when they are angry at the system, their anger is easily channeled by designing politicians.
Robin Lindley: In Charlottesville armed white supremacists congregated to defend the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and their violence led to the death of a young woman and serious injuries to more than a dozen counter-demonstrators. And the police stood by as Nazis and their ilk attacked those who responded to their message of hate and racism. Your book details similar incidents in the antebellum South.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt:There’s a long and sordid history of violence in the South – from slavery and unfree labor practices to the criminal justice system.
The police are employed by the state and they know to whom they are answerable, to whom they serve. There’s also been a long history of police attracting a class of people who feel rejected by society and feel that they have something to prove – through a little bit of power that some of them truly exploit. And recent policies – not just under Trump, but under Obama as well – have heavily militarized them. It’s going to get very scary in the future with this grossly militarized police force, especially under the racist demagogue we currently have as President.
Robin Lindley: That ties in with mass incarceration of African Americans, a problem that has been evident since Reconstruction.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. When you look at rates of incarceration before the Civil War, it was mostly poor whites in jails and prisons – and that makes sense, because slaveholders generally “disciplined” – really, tortured– the enslaved right there on the plantation. They wanted to be able to use them as laborers immediately after punishment. Right after slavery ended, however, the vast majority of people arrested were black. This type of heavy policing served not only as a form of labor control, but also as a form of social control.
Robin Lindley: Your book deals with how the upper classes used racism to hold power. That seems to be part of the equation when you look at America today.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes - we see that systemically in most of our institutions and in our government. In most of the South – and increasingly, the nation –poor and working-class whites are still reeling from the toll of poverty. Their anger is ripe and easily channeled by demagogues and politicians. Controlling education, the media and politics, elite whites – including Trump – continue inciting fears of immigrants, hatred of African Americans and an intense distrust of government and experts.
Robin Lindley: So, as you see it, the rich maintain their control and wealth by dividing people by race.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely. We definitely see this in the labor movement. Southern businesses have always used – and encouraged and incited – racism to divide the laboring classes. It’s the primary reason the South still has very few unions.
But the elite also maintain their control by disenfranchising as many working-class and poor people as possible, and through gerrymandering. They also control education and the media. They discredit experts and journalists with whom they disagree. We’ve only seen the beginning of it, but I believe in a matter of a few months we’ll see more and more attacks on academics and intellectuals.
Robin Lindley: There’s a sense that Trump was elected because of poor or working-class whites. However, you’ve stressed that the white middle and upper class, including white women, also assured a victory for Trump.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. There’s a lot of racist anger throughout the entire white community that is finally coming to light with the election.
I think Trump brought to the surface things that have always been there, but have until recently been talked about in a gentile or coded language. But Trump’s giving it to us straight, and white supremacists are emboldened enough to think they can come out of their basements and out of their online worlds and make their hatred public. He has emboldened them to do that.
Robin Lindley: Given this current volatile environment, what do you think should be done about Confederate memorials and monuments?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’m definitely radical here – I think the best option is that they should all be destroyed. They were put up for one reason: to maintain white supremacy. They weren’t put up right after the Civil War to honor the dead. Most of them were erected in the first decades of the 1900s by white supremacist groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were all trying to maintain Jim Crow. They were meant to indoctrinate children and discourage black men from registering or attempting to vote. In Atlanta, where I live, many of them were dedicated in response to the bloody race riot in which angry, racist whites murdered scores of African Americans, and also destroyed and trashed black-owned businesses.
In short, the monuments are disgusting. They’re painful. I think we show a fundamental lack of empathy as a country to not understand how horrific these monuments are for African Americans who have to look at them every day.
As I recently said in response to removing Decatur, Georgia’s Confederate Monument, why do we need a visual reminder of slavery and white supremacy? The vestiges of slavery and white supremacy are still apparent everyday in this country.
Robin Lindley: And some Confederate monuments were put up during the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: That’s right, no matter what time frame, though, there’s one constant—they were put up for one reason: to remind African Americans to stay in their “place.”
A healing way to deal with this is to figure out what to put up in their places. The South has a long history of biracial alliances against all odds. Or put up a monument to the enslaved themselves—the people who created this country, created the infrastructure, created so much of the wealth. Put up monuments to great black people.
To me it’s absurd that we’re even arguing about this. We should be focused on what is right and just and good.
Robin Lindley: You’ve been outspoken about how you see the role of historians. You’ve called yourself an “activist historian.” How do you see your role and what would you like to do with your career?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: In a blog post, I used the term “activist historian,” and perhaps it’s not the most accurate term, but for now it’s pretty accurate.
There seems to be emerging within the profession a sharp divide between two groups. One group is comprised of people who think that history is simply history and that should not have any presentist purpose. But there’s a growing number of younger scholars who consider themselves activist historians – who want to use the lessons of history to create a better, more equitable, more just future, and who think we should use our knowledge and expertise to affect public policy and racial policy and labor issues--all sorts of things—and turn what we know into something good for the future.
Robin Lindley: How do you think readers might take the history you present in Masterless Men, for example, and use the lessons you share to address our current concerns about issues such as race, labor, and economic inequality?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The biggest lesson should be that there hasn’t always been a separation of the races in American history. There have been amazing, promising moments when people from different races lived together and worked together. That’s the hopeful aspect of it.
I think that it also shows the fallacy of all of the pro- and Neo-Confederate arguments. Many of the people waving Confederate flags and arguing for the monuments to remain are actually the descendants of Southern white Unionists or Southern white anti-Confederates who didn’t want to fight a war to preserve slavery.
I think also that, by showing the ways in which poor whites were freed by emancipation, and then what subsequently happened to freedmen and women – that should give us pause in thinking about reparations.
Robin Lindley: Who are some of the historians writing now that you consider your fellow activist historians?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt:There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. I love the work of Ed Baptist, Manisha Sinha, Chad Pearson, William Horne, Michael Landis, Karen Cox, and Keisha Blain, Ibram Kendi, and all the people writing for Black Perspectives. There’s a whole group of graduate students in Washington, D.C., calling themselves Activist Historians.
There are also a bunch of us Southern historians – who are especially interested in labor history – and who come from more working-class backgrounds, who have worked as activists. Social media has made it far easier for us all to connect and to create a broader movement.
I also want to give a shout out to LAWCHA, the Labor and Working Class History Association. I went to their conference this summer and it reminded me why I want to do this work.
Robin Lindley: And are there some other historians who inspired you when you were considering becoming a historian?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Definitely Eugene Genovese. I read his work as an undergraduate and was completely drawn in. And all of the cliometricians: Robert Fogle, Stanley Engerman, and others who wrote about the economic aspects of slavery. And of course, Eric Foner was a big influence--an amazing, amazing historian.
As I got into graduate school, I was heavily influenced by people who were researching poor whites, like Victoria Bynum and Charles Bolton and Jeff Forret.. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I had never read W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction until my final year of graduate school but, once I did that, my mind was blown.
Robin Lindley: What are you working on now?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I have two book projects I’m researching now.
The first one will look at the transition of criminal justice in the South. It goes from being run by sheriffs in the antebellum period to being dominated by professional, uniformed police forces in Reconstruction. One important thing to know about sheriffs is that they conducted sales of about half of the slaves in the South. These were slaves taken by the courts over debts and liens – and then sheriffs sold them to recoup costs. Very few scholars have even acknowledged that fact.
The other book project considers radical black resistance in early Reconstruction. The primary figure in that book is Aaron Alpeoria Bradley. He was a slave, escaped slavery, and moved to New York and became one of the nation’s first black lawyers. He went back down to Savannah in 1865, right after the war, to fight on behalf of common black laborers. He was heavily involved in Georgia politics and fought against police brutality and oligarchy. He also fought against gold coin, predating the populists. It’s hard to find a ton information on him, but I’m trying.
Robin Lindley: Those book projects sound fascinating. Would you like to add any thoughts for readers about your work or America today?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I believe we are at a vital crossroads in our country. Non-elite people of this country can either come together and begin fighting for their rights, or we can continue down this toxic road of racism and hatred. I’m understandably worried, but I do remain hopeful.