Alabama, like the rest of the South, experienced drastic economic and social change in the post-Reconstruction, or New South, era. The term “New South” refers to the economic shift from an exclusively agrarian society to one that embraced industrial development. Influential southerners such as Atlanta Constitution managing editor Henry W. Grady employed the term in an effort to promote economic investment and industrial growth in the decimated and depressed South, as well as to tap the region’s abundant and largely untouched natural resources.
First Steel Cast in Birmingham 1897 During this time, Alabama saw profound changes in its economic and political landscape, the emergence of new manufacturing and mining industries, the growth of urban centers, and advancements in education. The period is also characterized by civil and social upheaval; farming hardships and exploitative labor practices led to the emergence of labor unions, and Jim Crow laws allowed racism to flourish under the guise of a policy known as “separate but equal.” Alabama’s geographic location in the Deep South, along with its lack of skilled labor, capital, and education, caused the state to lag—economically and technologically—far behind the nation and even some parts of the former Confederacy. Alabama’s natural resources, however, gave the state an advantage over some of its neighboring states in attracting investment and industry.
Prior to the Civil War, most free people in Alabama made their living by farming cotton. Although little industry existed, Alabama contained large, unexploited deposits of coal, iron ore, and limestone. Jefferson County is the only place in North America where these three essential ingredients for steel production are found in such close proximity. These natural resources drew investors to Alabama, and from 1880 to 1890, the manufacture of iron products came to dominate industry in Alabama. By 1889, Alabama ranked second in the nation in iron ore production. Unlike antebellum farmers all over the South, who grew cotton and shipped the raw material up north or to Europe for manufacture into a product, Alabama manufacturers produced iron ore within the state. Alabama’s first blast furnace, built by the Pratt Coal and Coke Company, began operations in 1880. By 1891, 53 furnaces operated in Alabama.
Old Cotton Mill in Tallassee Cotton manufacturing also increased in the New South era. The number of cotton mills in the state increased, with the number of people employed at these mills increasing from 1,300 in 1860 to 9,000 by 1900. Once considered waste, cottonseeds became a valuable raw material. By 1900, more than a dozen Alabama mills produced oil, soap, fertilizer, and stock food from cottonseeds.
In addition to steel and cotton manufacture, grist mills, flour mills, and wool mills continued to operate and many expanded. The growth of manufacturing in Alabama was rapid and extensive during the New South era. From 1880 to 1900, the number of operating factories in the state rose from 2,000 to more than 5,500, with the number of factory employees increasing from approximately 10,000 people to more than 33,000. Birmingham became the center of commerce in the state, and its more than 200 industrial plants included cotton gins, brickyards, bottling works, broom factories, gristmills, furniture factories, a jug factory, an overalls factory, and a cottonseed-oil mill.
Notable factory and mine owners included Daniel Pratt, Henry F. DeBardeleben, James Sloss, Enoch Ensley, and Braxton Bragg Comer. Pratt, Alabama’s preeminent antebellum industrialist, and son-in-law DeBardeleben founded the Experimental Coke and Iron Company. DeBardeleben partnered with James Sloss and established the Sloss Furnace Company. Ensley created the Pratt Coal and Iron Company from the Alice Furnace Company and the Linn Iron Works in 1884 and also founded the Ensley Land Company, which became a major land holder in Birmingham. Comer started what would become one of the largest grist mills in the state in Barbour County before moving to Birmingham and developing successful textile operations at Avondale Mills.
Plowing with Draft Animals in Pike County Despite the wave of industrialization sweeping through the state, most Alabamians—nearly 90 percent—still lived on and worked farms. Cotton production rebounded by the 1880s to pre-Civil War yields, but market prices dropped continuously through the 1880s and 1890s. As a result, conditions for Alabamians engaged in agricultural production did not improve after Reconstruction. Many described the tenant farming and sharecropping systems, which emerged as a result of an overabundance of unskilled workers and the persistent lack of credit opportunities, as little better than the slave system that preceded it.
Both freed slaves and poor white small farmers were affected. Freedpeople were generally unable to find credit to purchase land of their own. Landowners, who no longer had an enslaved labor source, had little money to pay salaries. As a solution, owners either rented their land to farmers (tenant farming) or allowed farm laborers to live on and work their land in exchange for a share of the profits from cash crops (sharecropping). Such relationships developed not only between farmers and landowners, but also between farmers and creditors, who advanced groceries, seed, fertilizer, and other necessities for a share of future profits. These advances were known as “crop liens.” Both tenant farming and sharecropping exploited laborers and doomed them to perpetual debt. Few tenant farmers or sharecroppers could hope for better than breaking even each year.
Tenant farmers and sharecroppers established advocacy organizations, such as the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel, the Farmers Alliance, and the Sharecroppers’ Union, to combat exploitative business practices and advocate for reforms. The Farmers’ Alliance achieved modest successes in reducing railroad shipping costs and establishing the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry to help educate and fight for their rights. Agricultural curricula at Auburn University and Tuskegee Institute sought to educate farmers in both the business and science of farming.
Birmingham Mule-drawn Streetcar, ca. 1887 Birmingham became the most representative symbol of the New South in Alabama. The city was founded in 1871 by a group of enterprising capitalists who successfully convinced railroad interests to build lines through the area to provide shipping for the iron, coal, and limestone products. Located at the intersection of north-south and east-west railroad lines, Birmingham became a center of commerce. Lots in Birmingham worth $100 in 1871 were worth $50,000 by 1900. People said the city grew “like magic,” hence its nickname, the “Magic City.” By 1900, the population of the city rose to nearly 40,000 as industry expanded. Soon after the rise of Birmingham, entrepreneurs attempted to recreate its success by founding other towns where iron and coal deposits were suspected to be abundant. DeBardeleben founded Bessemer, Ensley named a town after himself, and Samuel Noble and Daniel Tyler founded the planned community of Anniston, which became the fourth largest city in Alabama by 1900. Some towns that lured investors, such as Fort Payne, did not fulfill their promise and bankrupted their hopeful developers.
Sizeable cities not related to industrial areas expanded during this time as well. Mobile struggled throughout the early New South era because of the decrease in cotton exporting, but it rebounded as textile shipping increased and the state dredged a deeper shipping channel. Huntsville, Montgomery, and Gadsden grew larger and more prosperous because of the influx of successful textile mills.
Steamboat in Mobile, ca. 1910 Transportation improvements played a major role in the development of Alabama during the New South era. Railway construction connecting Mobile with Nashville, through Montgomery and Birmingham, was completed in 1872. In addition, a line linking Meridian, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, also ran through Birmingham. By 1900, the Southern Railway system, the Atlantic Coastal Line, and the Seaboard Line all reached into Alabama, which by then had more than 4,000 miles of working track.
Waterways also played an important role in shipping. Improvements to steamboats and Mobile Harbor made water transportation more viable. The invention of sternwheeler steamboats, which were more powerful than sidewheelers, improved efficiency on Alabama’s riverways. Dredging efforts in Mobile Harbor in 1876 and 1888 were crucial in maintaining Mobile’s status as a major ocean port.
After almost a decade of Reconstruction efforts by Republicans, southern conservative Democrats, or “Bourbons,” regained political power in the period known as Redemption, which began in the mid-1870s. The Republican Party (the party of Lincoln) held a majority in the House in 1872, when the black vote carried Republican candidates to victory. But the party failed to stay unified because of the emergence of Republican figures like Lewis E. Parsons, who was no supporter of rights for African American Alabamians. This discord among Republicans sympathetic to and those opposed to civil rights opened the door for Democrats to reassert themselves in the state political arena. After winning back control of the state in 1874, Democrats drafted a new Constitution in 1875 that re-imposed white supremacy and enshrined states’ rights, limited government, and low property taxes. The party split into conservative and reform factions. Reform Democrats supporting Rueben F. Kolb split from the party to form the Jeffersonian Democratic Party.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Populist Party emerged as a viable competitor in the traditional two-party system. Democrats in Alabama viewed Populists as a threat to their support from small farmers and discontented factory workers and bristled at their calls for government regulation of business and industry, which were viewed by many people as corrupt and exploitive. Kolb, who courted the Populist vote and spoke out for Populist ideas, narrowly lost two controversial gubernatorial races marred by charges of voter fraud, apparently well founded.
1901 Constitutional Convention In 1901, Alabama’s legislators drafted a new Constitution in which conservative Democrats sought to disfranchise black and poor white voters through severe limitations on suffrage. Clearer voting requirements set the voting age at 21 and established an annual poll tax. Vague qualifications included a requirement to be “of good character” and hold a “steady job.” Under the new constitution, the number of black male voters fell from well over 100,000 to fewer than 4,000. The poll tax also deterred poor whites from voting and secured power in the hands of the conservative Democrats well into the twentieth century. Nationally, reform became the sentiment that carried the day, and many reform-minded politicians were able to enact progressive improvements in areas like education and worker rights. The conservative Democrats had to embrace some tenets of progressivism to ensure their continued dominance of Alabama politics.
Antebellum society did not place a premium on public education. A significant portion of available jobs required unskilled labor and social stratification discouraged widespread educational opportunities. In 1880, more than half of Alabama’s population was illiterate. Even more significant, more than 80 percent of Alabama’s African Americans could not read or write. A major part of the New South optimism hinged on improving education and thereby enhancing opportunities. Several important colleges and universities in Alabama were founded in the New South era. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University) was founded in 1872; Alabama College (now the University of Montevallo) was chartered in 1892; And the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (present-day Tuskegee University) was founded in 1881 to train black educators.
Several existing colleges relocated or were forced to rebuild following the Civil War. The University of Alabama, which suffered significant damage during the conflict, began rebuilding in 1867 and reopened in 1869. Southern University moved from Greensboro to Birmingham and became Birmingham-Southern College. Howard College moved to Birmingham in 1887 and became Samford University.
Julia Tutwiler “Normal” schools, established to train teachers, opened in several cities during this time. In 1872, the state of Alabama took over Florence Wesleyan University in Florence and renamed it Florence State Normal School (now the University of North Alabama). Additional institutions were founded in Jacksonville and Livingston in 1882 and Troy in 1887. Social reformer Julia S. Tutwiler served as the president of the normal college in Livingston (now the University of West Alabama)and became a major force in education reform in the state.
Elementary and high school education also made great strides during the New South era. Many of the normal schools also offered preparatory (elementary and high school) programs. More than 100 private elementary and high schools were chartered in Alabama between 1880 and 1900, and a state school system headed by a state superintendent was established. In addition, many of Alabama’s larger towns set up their own independent school systems.
Education among blacks in Alabama, however, never progressed as well as that of whites, and lost ground after the gains made during Reconstruction. Beginning in 1891, local jurisdictions were authorized to apportion spending, and they unevenly divided funding among the segregated schools in favor of white institutions.
New industrial labor brought with it strikes and controversy over working conditions, as well as renewed calls for reform of convict and child labor. In antebellum times, plantation owners held legal jurisdiction over slaves and whites often settled disputes outside the courts. Reconstruction Alabama had a severe shortage of jails and penitentiaries to house convicted criminals. As a result, the state leased out convicts to companies as a source of revenue. Convicts provided cheap labor for new industrialists, who needed mine and mill workers. Working conditions for convicts were deplorable; they were overworked, poorly fed and clothed, and harshly treated. Because the majority of the convicts were black, the use and abuse of conflict labor drew comparisons to slavery. Activists and reformers, such as Julia S. Tutwiler, called on the state to abolish convict labor. Free workers also argued against the convict worker program, charging that it reduced available jobs and depressed wages. Labor unions and worker organizations such as the Greenback Labor Party, the Knights of Labor, and United Mineworkers of America tried unsuccessfully to organize Alabama’s industrial workers beginning in the 1880s, but convict leasing continued until 1928, when Alabama became the last state in the nation to end the practice.
Child Textile Mill Workers in Mobile Child labor became a major social concern during this time. Many new industrialists built villages around their mines, mills, and factories to house laborers. These self-contained communities usually included a school, a market, and a church, and provided housing allowed companies to keep wages low. Workers had no choice but to accept such arrangements, given the alternatives of tenant farming or not working at all. Low wages also meant that the family needed as many paychecks as possible, and so mothers, fathers, and children all joined the workforce. Protestors, most prominently Montgomery minister Edgar Gardner Murphy, lobbied unsuccessfully to establish a law limiting a child’s workday to eight hours. In 1909, Alabama passed a law setting the minimum age of a child worker at 12 and limiting the maximum hours a child could work per week to 60. Alabama raised the minimum age law to 14 in 1915, and child labor would continue in Alabama until the 1930s.
Race relations in Alabama were always contentious, but in the New South era, disfranchisement, dire working conditions, and convict leasing worsened them significantly. Optimism among blacks during Reconstruction quickly dissipated when conservative Democrats regained power. The Constitution of 1901 dealt a devastating blow to dreams of racial equality in Alabama.
William H. Councill Some blacks protested the new voter restrictions, including Montgomery’s Jackson W. Giles, who led the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association and filed a class-action suit against the state on behalf of blacks who lost their voting rights, but the suit failed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Others, including Tuskegee Institute’s Booker T. Washington, and Alabama A&M University’s William H. Councill thought that protesting was futile and had the dangerous potential to incite the anger of whites and thereby hinder efforts to empower African Americans in the state. The numbers are staggering: in 1900, more than 180,000 black men had the right to vote; by 1903, this number had been reduced to less than 3,000. While the Alabama Constitution of 1901 severely inhibited the suffrage rights of Alabama’s poor whites, the legislation was intended to reduce the political power of blacks in the state and to concentrate power among wealthy whites.
The re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century also exacerbated racial tension in Alabama. By the 1920s, the Klan had nearly 100,000 members and held tremendous political power. Yet Klan violence alienated many of its members, and membership dropped significantly toward the end of the decade.
Approaching the Great Depression
New South industry changed the face of Alabama. It brought prosperity for some and new concerns for others. Reform movements in the early decades of the twentieth century sought new railroad regulations, prison reform, improved working conditions for both industrial and farm workers, and prohibitions on alcohol. Both industrial and farm production reached an all-time high in the 1920s. Ironically, it was this production, which exceeded the country’s capacity for consumption, that contributed to the economic collapse of 1929 and essentially signaled the demise of the New South era all over the region. In Alabama, the effects of the Great Depression were so devastating that Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt called Birmingham “the worst hit town in the country.”
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Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the “New South.” Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Hesseltine, William Best. Confederate Leaders in the New South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950.
Lewis, W. David. “The Emergence of Birmingham as a Case Study of Continuity between the Antebellum Planter Class and Industrialization in the ‘New South.'” Agricultural History 68 (Spring, 1994): 62-79.
Rogers, William Warren, and Robert David Ward. August Reckoning: Jack Turner and Racism in Post Civil War Alabama. Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press, 1973.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South. Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press, 1951.