The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction

by Edward L. Ayers

Hardcover, 1992




Oxford University Press, (1992)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
This is a good book. It was a 1993 finalist for the Pulitzer (History) and a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. While it is not one of those light and fluffy anecdotal histories, Ayers does keep it from falling into the dry-as-dust category. You know the kind. Inside of ten minutes, half of your mind is making a grocery list. This book is just right.

He covers the period from about 1877 – the end of Reconstruction – and ends his book with the Atlanta race riot of 1906. There is, of course, coverage of the birth and growth of segregation, disfranchisement, how the newly freed managed to live - and prosper in some cases - and the anger they faced from the white quarter, but there is also what I thought was a balanced view of how things were for the white southerners of the time as well.

Naturally, there is a heavy concentration upon politics. I learned about the Farmer’s Alliance (white) and the Colored Farmers Alliance, the Populists and how the Democratic Party, finally realizing the threat of these organizations - made up of the politically ambitious as well as the angry, plain people of the South - roused itself enough to crush them flat, stomping out any and all opposition. It’s the usual story. The poor suffer and are ignored – the rich prosper and run everything to suit and benefit themselves.

One particular outfit I’d not known about before was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor– an organization that came into being in the 1880’s and had both black and women members. They agitated for an eight-hour workday, child labor laws, the abolition of convict labor and equal pay for women doing the same work as men. Sadly, but predictably, this group did not have much success with their agenda

A chapter I really enjoyed was about Southern writers – Ellen Glasgow, Charles W. Chesnutt, John Fox, Jr., Kate Chopin, George W. Cable and many others – most of whom I’ve never heard of. Ayers also devoted another chapter to music – the beginnings of jazz and the blues in particular. I have to admit I did not care for that one as well, for I am mostly ignorant about music and have never found reading about it very compelling. Also, while I do like certain kinds of music, neither jazz nor the blues are among them. In addition to these subjects, there is thorough chapter-long coverage of religion, race relations, the growth of cities and towns, the growth of the mining, timber and textile industries and the consequent rape of the southern landscape and farmers. Women did not get their own chapter, but I thought that there was still a good deal of interesting material about them. (Loved the part where a lot of southern men suspected that the sudden popularity of Book Clubs was just a cover for woman suffrage organizations.)

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in Southern history; it covers much more than I am able to write about here.
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