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Georgia in the 2nd half of the 19th century


Picture of Georgia
Picture of Georgia

Economically as well as politically, Georgia was greatly disrupted by the war and its aftermath. The state slowly recovered during the latter part of the 19th century. With the aid of Northern as well as Southern capital, new banks and businesses were founded, and railroad and business facilities were restored. After Reconstruction, almost all prominent politicians in Georgia were Democrats. One faction was known as the New Departure, or Bourbon, Democrats, who encouraged industrialization. The cotton textile industry was expanded; the production of cottonseed oil, cattle feed, and fertilizer was undertaken. In the 1870s, Georgia became a major source of naval stores, and other natural resources were developed. Atlanta, which became the state capital in 1868, grew into a prosperous manufacturing and commercial center.

The hands of the Bourbons were tied, however, by a new constitution in 1877, which prohibited state debt, limited state funding of public schools to the elementary grades, prevented most forms of aid to business, and guaranteed rural control of the legislature. In general, farmers wanted low property taxes and few government services, so the state was prevented from doing much to attract industry. Southern businesses were further handicapped by discriminatory railroad rates, which favored Northern over Southern shippers. Not surprisingly, Georgia and the South lagged far behind the rest of the country economically.

Agriculture remained the chief economic activity, but many large cotton and rice plantations, formerly dependent on slave labor, were broken up into smaller farms operated by tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Rice production ceased, but the production of cotton, emphasized under the sharecropping system, continued to increase. A modest trend toward diversified farming began in the 1890s with the introduction of peach trees.

Soon Georgia was noted for its peach, apple, and pecan orchards. Still, Georgia remained dependent on the cotton crop. A symptom of Georgia’s agricultural stagnation was the high rate of sharecropping and tenant farming. By 1910 half the white farmers and 87 percent of the blacks did not own the farms they operated. Sharecropping and tenant farming were substitutes for paid farm labor where little cash was available to pay wages. A sharecropper raised part of the landlord’s crop and was paid a share of the profits after deductions for living expenses and the cost of tools and supplies.

A tenant farmer sold what he raised and paid the landlord a share of the profits as rent. The landlord chose the crop to raise and either owned it (in sharecropping) or had a lien on it (in tenant farming). If the profit was low, the landlord’s share was paid first. The cropper or tenant took what was left or, if none was left, got an advance to keep going for another year. In the effort to recover financially, landowners relied almost exclusively on their traditional cash crop, cotton. However, the price of cotton was low through the rest of the century, while living costs rose. Mounting debt forced small farmers to give up their land and become tenants or sharecroppers.

Once in that system, they were forced to remain because they could seldom earn enough to pay off their yearly advances. Not until World War II (1939-1945), when widespread mechanization of agriculture made sharecropping unprofitable, did the system begin to disappear.

Some impoverished whites were able to escape from the fields to the factories. However, Georgia industry demanded low skills and paid low wages. Company paternalism protected workers to some degree, as mill owners typically provided housing, schools, hospitals, and churches. Nonetheless, even young women in the Georgia mills were described in 1891 by an observer as carrying “the weight of a century on their bowed backs ... a slouching gait; a drooping chest ... yellow, blotched complexion; dead-looking hair; stained lips, destitute of color and revealing broken teeth—these are the dower of girlhood in the mills.” During the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, industry offered little opportunity for Georgia workers to rise in society. "Georgia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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