Hallelujah Times

Eric Foner

  • A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans
    Harvard, 313 pp, £23.95, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97214 8

Between 1910 and 1930, more than a million black Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. Refugees fleeing grinding poverty, political disenfranchisement, inadequate education and the ever present threat of violence (a comprehensive system of white supremacy known by the shorthand Jim Crow), they found employment on the bottom rungs of the burgeoning industrial economy. Despite pervasive prejudice in the North, the migrants spoke of a second emancipation, of crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.

The Great Migration, as it came to be called, produced the modern urban ghettos of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities, which epitomised African-American life in the 20th century as surely as the Southern farm and plantation had in the 19th. It inspired innumerable responses from artists, including novels, blues ballads, Broadway shows and ‘The Migration Series’, a collection of sixty small canvases by the black painter Jacob Lawrence. This population upheaval has been the subject of numerous scholarly treatments, most recently Isabel Wilkerson’s bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns, and Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America, which considers the black experience within the framework of four historic migrations (the other three being the forced removal of slaves from Africa to North America; the ‘second middle passage’ that uprooted slaves from older states such as Virginia and brought them to the cotton kingdom of the Lower South; and the arrival in the last quarter-century of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Africa). Population movements have been a defining feature of African-American life.

The fact is, however, that more blacks preferred to stay in the South than embark on the Great Migration, and far less attention has been paid to them. A Mind to Stay by Sydney Nathans deals with one small slice of that population. The book, Nathan’s life’s work (he began the interviews that led him to reconstruct this story forty years ago), is a marvellous example of how ‘microhistory’, based on a deep immersion in local sources, can illuminate broad historical patterns. It also suggests some of the limitations of this increasingly popular genre of historical analysis.

A Mind to Stay spans nearly two centuries of history. The first part, which begins in the antebellum period, focuses on the experiences of ‘two Pauls’ – Paul Cameron, the son of Duncan Cameron, one of the largest slaveowners in North Carolina, and his slave Paul Hargress (originally named Hargis after a previous owner) – and their families. Duncan Cameron prided himself on his paternalistic regard for his human property. He tried not to separate family members when buying or selling slaves, and relied on incentives – such as credits that slaves could use at local shops to purchase cloth, whisky and other goods – rather than violence to elicit efficient labour. (On the other hand, slaves who tried to run away received severe whippings.) After an unsuccessful stint as a lawyer, Paul Cameron took over management of the plantation while his father concentrated on running a local bank. It took the younger Cameron a while to develop his own system of discipline. He acquired a reputation, Nathans writes, as an owner ‘who whipped his workers just to show them who was master’.

In 1844, like innumerable other planters in the Upper South, where tobacco and wheat were the main crops, Paul Cameron purchased a plantation in Alabama, part of the booming cotton kingdom. He acquired 1600 acres of land for $30,000 borrowed from his father, an immense sum at a time when the income of an urban workman was around $300 a year. Cameron had no intention of moving there himself; he sent 144 of his slaves from North Carolina to Alabama and hired an overseer to manage the plantation (which helps to explain the voluminous correspondence that makes a book like this possible). Like his father, he made an effort to keep families intact, but inevitably some of those transported left behind loved ones.

Because of the world market’s insatiable demand for cotton, the key raw material of the industrial revolution, many cotton planters acquired fortunes. Paul Cameron was not among them. Almost at once, he complained that he had been cheated. The land was not nearly as fertile as he had been led to believe. Moreover, his slaves, who no doubt resented the forced removal from their homes, proved recalcitrant workers. Cotton was a far more demanding crop than wheat or tobacco, and the overseer reported constant battles over the pace of work. In the 1850s, Cameron purchased another plantation, in Mississippi. But the one in Alabama never proved as profitable as he had hoped.

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[*] Basic, 560 pp., £13.99, October 2016, 978 0 465 04966 0.