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Becoming Free in the Cotton South

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Kimberley Travers

Direct Readings/HIST 7012

19th Century/Reconstruction/End of the Century

March 27, 2017

O’Donovan, Susan E. Becoming Free in the Cotton South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Becoming Free in the Cotton South (2007) produces a case study of an eighteen-county region in the southwestern corner of Georgia from 1820 through 1868. This four-decade period began with the development of cotton plantations across the region and ended during a presidential election year in which radical politics was wiped out. Migrants established this frontier late in Georgia’s history, but the slave economy and cotton culture grew at a rapid pace. This area became a very profitable cotton-growing region.  Dr. Susan E. O’Donovan, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Memphis, examines what happened in this remote section of Georgia during the era of slavery, the years of settlement, the Civil War, and the economic and political adaptations to emancipation. O’Donovan’s research interests in African American history up to 1900, gender and labor, Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and 19th-century US history are evident in this work. In Becoming Free in the Cotton South, O’Donovan argues slavery took many forms, but so did freedom. She explores this notion by tracing the transition from slavery to freedom among southwest Georgia’s black population.

 The author attempts to use the history of the southwestern corner of Georgia to tell the story of how slavery shaped and determined the ways blacks experienced freedom. The author’s examination of changes and continuity focuses on the roles black men, women and children played in the disunion crisis. She builds on the work of Steven Hahn, Dylan Penningroth and other historians in stressing that ‘becoming free’ was a process rooted in the construction of enslavement.  In my opinion, O’Donovan’s work mirrors Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, in maintaining that gender and gender relations were socially and culturally constructed differences between men and women in the antebellum South. O’Donovan includes her distinction of the worlds and work of male and female slaves. She argues that the transition to emancipation in southwest Georgia was regionally distinct, especially in terms of gender. I found another connection in Deborah Gray White’s work, Ar’n’t I a Woman? in chapter six, “From Slavery to Freedom”, describes a list of events where we get the understanding that slave women had obstacles in all areas of their lives. White shows the new hardships that came with freedom and describes what gave some slave women a sense of power, self-worth, hope and faith in their future.  The key conclusions developed by White are slave women were much more than their stereotypes depicted. They were active in resisting their condition and did what they could to successfully maneuver a world in which they were oppressed due to racism and sexism.

Slaveholders and speculative planters brought young slaves from across Georgia and beyond were dead set on recouping the cost of land and acquire wealth as quickly as possible. Planters shaped the gendered nature of work. According to O’Donovan, “Planters seldom hesitated to call on slave men to do the jobs slave women performed. Almost never, however, did they put women at jobs they understood to be men’s. This phenomenon introduced slave men to, and gave them mastery over, nearly the whole range of productive activities” (pg. 37).

As a result of forced migration, slaves in this region were forced to work day and night. O’Donovan does a great job describing the labor regimen: slave holders expanded the work day, took away weekend breaks, and hired/sold their slaves with no remorse. Torn away from kin and community, these slaves adapted a deeply gendered response to a new regime. Male slaves gained new value and new responsibilities as key laborers. As a result, they asserted their new power with the slave community. Meanwhile, slave women were bound to do domestic work on the plantation.  O’Donovan explains, “Black women’s public appearances slowed to a crawl” (pg. 46-47). Few of them, O’Donovan argues, “were able to replicate on cotton’s terrain the social and political lives they had previously known,” and instead were forced to “reconstitute their lives within the borders of their owners’ estates” (pg. 50). Largely isolated from the military and social pandemonium of the Civil War, plantations avoided the revolution of emancipation that tore through other parts of the South. Planter power and social relations among slaves stayed the same despite the coming of waged work. O’Donovan’s argues freedom strengthened existing power relations. Planters desired labor of black men and eagerly dismissed black women and children. The only option black women had- to seek security in household labor units under contractual and patriarchal authority of freedmen, whom planters relied upon to oversee the new labor force. Planter domination extended into politics, but for blacks, Reconstruction was delayed, demolished, and short-lived.

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