Freedpeople in the Tobacco South: Virginia, 1860-1900. – Review

Freedpeople in the Tobacco South: Virginia, 1860-1900. – Review – book review

Kenneth H. Wheeler

Freedpeople in the Tobacco South: Virginia, 1860-1900. By Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 345. $18.95.)

In this fine monograph, the author counters historiographic trends that have posited the failure of freedom and the continuance of a pre-emancipation culture in the postbellum tobacco belt of Virginia. Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie’s argument is that the end of slavery, coupled with capitalistic economic changes, steadily dismantled traditional forms of social control and allowed freedpeople slowly increasing opportunities to control their own labor. The evidence for this simple argument, however, is quite complex. Kerr-Ritchie explains that his two goals are to contextualize the Virginia tobacco belt within the rapidly shifting terrain of a post-emancipation society and a growing capitalistic world, and to demonstrate the convolutions of the Virginia Piedmont in the face of sustained economic depression and the global expansion of capitalism that radically altered Virginia tobacco culture during the late nineteenth century.

The method is comparative, as Kerr-Ritchie moves from local conflicts over work and household economies to state politics and court decisions, to international tobacco production and prices. Throughout this movement between the macrocosmic world of international agriculture and economies and the microcosmic world of Virginia freedpeople, the author argues that freedpeople, while limited, were nonetheless agents in the changes in their lives as they arranged work contracts following emancipation and made decisions about their household economies.

In the 1890s, as unfettered competition produced consolidation, squeezed small tobacco manufacturers out of business, and resulted in the American Tobacco Company trust, freed-people attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to counter this monopolistic domination of the tobacco industry. But during the 1890s, as many whites sold their land, freedpeople both bought land and left the countryside for towns and cities in great numbers. For Kerr-Ritchie, these two changes indicate two concepts of freedom for different generations. A key element of freedom for an older generation was ownership of land; even a few acres of poor land represented success. For a younger generation, the higher wages offered in urban environments and the choice to relocate connoted freedom.

This valuable book contributes to the ongoing discussion about the quality of the freedom experienced by newly freed people in the postbellum South. Moreover, because Kerr-Ritchie so intentionally draws together the structural and the particular, this work should be of much wider interest. He presents a complex picture and resists oversimplification. His lucid style is complemented by measured conclusions and amply supported by pertinent tables and maps. He uses the agricultural press; manuscript collections; and census, tax, and other governmental records to great advantage. While the introduction alone will be helpful for those who want a model of forthright explanation of ideas, this entire book will greatly benefit scholars of nineteenth-century American history.

Kenneth H. Wheeler Reinhardt College

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