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Are we a “New South” city?


"Are We a New South?" In a Charlotte Observer op-ed last month, Rabbi Judy Schindler pondered this question during a tour of the Deep South and came to the conclusion that no, we are not a New South. Rabbi Schindler observed that while the industries of the South have changed over the past 152 years, since the end of the American Civil War, “The present [South] still stands solidly on systemic racial inequities inherited from our past.” Debating whether we are a “New South” can be a matter of weighing continuity against change, or how much the South really changed following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

As Rabbi Schindler notes, boosters first used the term “New South” to promote northern investment as the region industrialized in the late-nineteenth century. After sixteen years of bloodshed, through civil war and a violent Reconstruction era, white Americans, both northern and southern, sought reunion and harmony. In Stories of the South, historian K. Stephan Prince demonstrates the extent to which “boosters spent the 1880s and 1890s spinning yarns about the South and its place in the nation.” Civic leaders portrayed the “New South” as a place of growth and opportunity for new industrial ventures and urban development. While white southerners detested northern involvement in regional affairs up until the end of Reconstruction in 1877, they now welcomed northern capital and migrants, so long as northerners let the South deal with racial matters.

So, for whom was the “New South” created? Henry W. Grady, a leading proponent of the “New South” and managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution, touted the South’s post-Reconstruction economic resurgence and the endless opportunity that awaited northern interests. At the same time, Grady believed: “The supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the Negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards – because the white race is the superior race.” One of Charlotte’s very own boosters, D.A. Tompkins, echoed Grady’s stance as he advised mill owners to avoid hiring black laborers, and when he supported the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaign in 1898 and the disenfranchisement of African Americans two years later. From sharecropping to convict labor to Jim Crow, the “New South” looked a lot like the “Old South.” This iteration of the “New South” existed well into the mid-twentieth century until civil rights activists found victories in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Today, the Supreme Court’s decision to limit the power of the Voting Rights Act, numerous voter ID laws, and polling place restrictions continue to fuel concerns over access to the ballot for communities that have been historically disenfranchised.

As Charlotte remains segregated with the chances of upward economic mobility largely contingent upon race, can we profess to be a “New South” city? Should the term “New South” be used to describe our city, our state, our region? Is the term merely a nineteenth-century marketing ploy? Some may point to new industries as a way of measuring the “New South.” Others may also cite the region’s growing diversity and globalization. Personally, I say Old South, New South – it’s the South.

What do you think? Are we a “New South?” Share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CometoUnderstand

Written by Eric Scott, Education Programs Manager