"Cheap cotton depends on cheap niggers."
Some African American leaders still held out hope that at least northern whites could be turned back from the rising venality of white Americans. Instead of embracing the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, a generation of younger black intellectuals led by W. E. B. DuBois insisted that it was whites who needed to adapt to full black citizenship. Born in Massachusetts and schooled first in Germany, then in Harvard, DuBois had been since 1897 a groundbreaking professor of sociology at Atlanta University, one of the most prestigious majority-black institutions in the country. A stream of his articles, novels, and nonfiction assessments of the progress of African Americans, including The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, were scathing incisions into the state of race relations in the United States. Later, after the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, DuBois would emerge as its most central early figure.
The arrival of DuBois in Atlanta had put him deep in the heart of the new system of southern slavery. As part of his university duties, DuBois directed a series of extraordinary statistical and sociological surveys of the rural South, and black people within it, between 1898 and 1904. The last of them, "Negro Farmer," became a bedrock demonstration of the new science of sociology and a rigidly empiricist approach toward quantitative analysis in the study of social forces. Two years later, the U.S. commissioner of labor, whose office had funded the previous studies, agreed to back a new DuBois project, this time focused specifically on the state of black sharecroppers in the South.1
Choosing as his venue Lowndes County, Alabama, DuBois's project injected one of the most extraordinary American intellects of the era into a place as backward and forbidding as any on the continent. Named after a nineteenth-century U.S. congressman from South Carolina, William Lowndes, who prior to the Civil War strenuously advocated the extension of slavery into new U.S. territories, the county sat at the center of the Black Belt.
At the beginning of the Civil War, more than nineteen thousand enslaved blacks—the twelfth-largest population of slaves in one place in the country—lived on 1,100 farms in Lowndes County, nearly five hundred of which exceeded one thousand acres in size. The war obliterated the hope of Congressman Lowndes and others to expand slavery. But despite Lowndes having the largest proportion of blacks to whites of any Alabama county, the war seemed to have had little effect on the question of whether slavery would continue there. By 1900, even as the white population dwindled further, the landholders who remained reforged an almost impenetrable jurisdiction into which no outside authority could extend its reach. By then, more than thirty thousand blacks worked the rich flat cotton fields, no longer called slaves but living under an absolute power of whites nearly indistinguishable from the forced labor of a half century earlier. Black land ownership in the county was inconsequential. Where it existed on paper, the appearance of independence was a chimera behind which local whites continued to violently control when and where blacks lived and worked, and how their harvests were sold. Most offensive to blacks, white men in Lowndes County continued to exercise their slavery-era presumption that they were entitled to the sexual companionship of virtually any African American woman residing on their property.
During the grand jury investigation of peonage that led to the trials of 1903, Warren Reese concluded that Lowndes County was the fountain-head of Alabama's new slave labor. W. D. McCurdy one of the original operators of the most notorious convict slave mines near Birmingham, also kept dozens of black workers imprisoned on his home plantation in Lowndes County. It was here that federal investigators working for Reese had reported—until being run out of the county at gunpoint—that the sheriff, J. W. Dixon, was an active participant in a violently enforced convict slave system that held hundreds or thousands of black laborers. The Smith family—whose deadly convict farm had become the symbol of convict leasing's most lethal manifestations in the nineteenth century—was one of the county's most prominent landholders. But Reese could bring no charges in Lowndes County because no blacks forced into slavery were willing to risk the lives of family members or their own by testifying to the grand jury in Montgomery. Even a black grand juror from Lowndes County participated in the inquiry only under protest—for fear he would be killed upon his return home.
But the failure of the federal investigation to reach Lowndes County didn't indicate there had been less slavery than federal agents initially claimed. Indeed, there was vastly more. In the summer of 1906, W. E. B. DuBois and a team of more than a dozen researchers, including sociologists Monroe Work, Richard R. Wright, and others of the most extraordinary young black minds of the new century, arrived at the Calhoun School. Founded in 1892 by a wealthy white northern socialite, the institution operated largely on the industrial education principles of Booker T. Washington. But the Calhoun School was distinct in one regard among the many institutions for blacks established near the end of the nineteenth century— often naively and ill-fated—by wealthy benefactors. Going beyond training black children in basic academics and advanced vocational skills such as bricklaying and carpentry, the school's founder, a well-bred Connecticut spinster named Charlotte Thorn, actually moved to Lowndes County and eventually promoted a land ownership experiment for blacks in the heart of what was likely the single most repressive white-power regime in the South. Over time, land companies established by the school purchased a total of more than four thousand acres of cotton land, encouraged local blacks to operate the farms on a quasi-communal basis, and ultimately resold smaller tracts of land to African Americans.2
DuBois, whose differences with Booker T Washington had not advanced to the complete rupture that eventually pitted the men against each other as committed enemies, was attracted to the Calhoun School as a preserve in which idealistic and educated whites and blacks could interact freely. He also delighted in the effrontery the school presented to the white dominance that surrounded it.
DuBois went to Lowndes County in hopes of capturing an unassailable, empirically proven portrait of the penury and exploitation that African Americans there—and by extension most of the South—were forced to endure. With funding from the federal Bureau of Labor, the DuBois team fanned across the countryside carrying ten thousand copies of questionnaires containing a battery of piercing questions regarding land ownership, labor control, family life, education, sexual mores, morality, political activity, and other aspects of black life. By late fall in 1906, more than 21,000 of the county's black farmers had been interviewed through a cabin-to-cabin canvass, with researchers scrupulously recording the answers and compiling tables of the responses back at the school. Separately, two white investigators provided by the federal government conducted an even more discreet inquiry into the political operations and sexual morality of Lowndes County whites. To cross-reference the individual interviews, white researchers examined and analyzed prodigious volumes of Lowndes County mortgages, liens, arrests, incarcerations, and proceedings of local justices of the peace—all of the key instruments of government used by whites to contain and control blacks throughout the South. DuBois used the legal record and personal accounts to create detailed maps and tables of the county, showing between 1850 and 1906 the evolution of economic, social, and political power and a chronological movement of land ownership among blacks and whites.3
No social study on such a scale of research and ambition had ever been undertaken in the United States, certainly not one focused on black life and even more so never one attempted in the environment of overt physical danger that existed in Lowndes County.
Local whites were already openly hostile toward the existence of the Calhoun School and its implicit challenge to the neo-slavery that surrounded it. DuBois wrote later that researchers met "with the greeting of …shotguns in certain parts of the county"4 5 He told U.S. commissioner of labor Charles P. Neill that two investigators "were shot at and run out of one corner of the county. "
Yet DuBois and others believed the enormity of the data and the impregnability of a federally authorized analysis conducted under the most rigorous scientific methodology presented an opportunity to smash the racial myopia and growing indifference to conditions in the South of the majority of American whites. DuBois later called the project his "best sociological work."6 7 By the end of 1906, the report had been completed, written by hand, and delivered to the Bureau of Labor for publication.
The growing ubiquity for all African Americans of the dangers DuBois and his colleagues encountered in Lowndes County was underscored on September 22, 1906, when the team learned that a mob of as many as ten thousand whites was on the rampage in Atlanta. DuBois rushed aboard a train to return to his wife, Nina, and daughter, Yolande, who had remained in their quarters at South Hall on the campus of Atlanta University, where DuBois was a professor. He sat in vigil on the steps of the building with a shotgun. But white attackers never arrived.
By the time the riot ended, hundreds of African Americans, by virtually all accounts, had been attacked on the streets of the city. Atlanta had never completely cooled since the performances of The Clansman ten months earlier. Tensions—driven by rumors of black ambitions for political power and open race baiting by candidates running for governor—had mounted over the months.
In the weeks just before the riot, the fall of 1906, Atlanta was whipped into a fury by weeks of exaggerated and fabricated accounts published in the Atlanta Constitution and other local newspapers of blacks allegedly raping and insulting white women. A second visit to Atlanta by the touring Clansman production was being arranged—this time featuring in the cast two cousins of Jefferson Davis, the late president of the Confederacy. Two days after the production began its new tour on September 20, with packed performances in Charleston, South Carolina, a crowd of whites—delirious with racial animosity—gathered in downtown Atlanta.
Heeding an anonymous public call to revive a new Ku Klux Klan, a group of men gathered to discuss how to respond to the alleged series of sexual assaults against white women. Almost none of the alleged attacks were ever proven. But by late afternoon, the city's competitive newspapers were rolling off extra editions to report even newer dubious claims of black men attacking young women. Just before midnight, the crowd began marauding indiscriminately through the city. For five days, vigilantes, police officers, and soldiers grabbed and beat African Americans, seizing them off sidewalks and streetcars. They broke into businesses where blacks were employed and crashed into homes in African American neighborhoods, spilling blood everywhere they went. In some areas, blacks stood their ground, fighting back with guns and fists—spurring even more anger and a rationale for police and militia to join on the side of white rioters. In the end, the mobs were believed to have killed at least two dozen African Americans. Fewer than a half dozen whites died.8
Three weeks after the riot in September 1906, a former U.S. congressman from Georgia, William H. Fleming, raised a rare voice against rising racial animosity. "How many causes have recently been cooperating in that line from the theater, the press and the stump to familiarize us with the disrespect for law and to arouse hate and contempt by the whites against the blacks?" Representative Fleming asked. "Chief among offenders stands a former preacher, Rev. Thomas Dixon, with his Clansman."9
In Washington, federal officials who previously had shown such assiduous interest in the research by DuBois—and the possibility it would document the widespread slavery of the South—suddenly faltered. Tabulations that had appeared acceptable months earlier now looked questionable to Commissioner Neill. He signaled that publication of the report would no longer be immediate. Nearly a year after completion, it remained under review, when a new commissioner replaced Neill. After reading the report, W W. Hangar, the new head of the agency, wrote taciturnly to DuBois: "It would be extremely unwise to make any use whatsoever of the material which was gathered."10 A year later, after months of pushing for publication of his research, or at the very least that the document be returned, DuBois was informed that the study's conclusions "touched on political matters." It could not be sent to him because "it had been destroyed."11
Nothing of what might have been a seminal study of black life survived—with one exception. Three years later, DuBois penned his first novel—The Quest for the Silver Fleece—a richly descriptive portrayal of African Americans struggling against the strictures tightening against them in the North and South. The heart of the novel was a narrative drawn from what DuBois and his researchers had witnessed during their dangerous summer in Lowndes County. Substituting new names for the Calhoun School, the McCurdys, and other great white landholding families, DuBois rendered the social order of what he called Tooms County in sharp, but unexaggerated, relief. The baronic family whose patriarch, Colonel Cress-well, had been the county's largest slaveholder before emancipation still controlled in the twentieth century fifty thousand acres of prime cotton land and uncounted black families who lived upon it in the novel's account.
In the portrait etched by DuBois, Colonel Cresswell lived in a sprawling mansion far from town, surrounded by endless numbers of broken cabins inhabited by terrified and uneducated "tenants." Cresswell was intent on crushing any semblance of movement toward economic or political independence among those blacks. "Cheap cotton depends on cheap niggers," he exclaimed. No manner of shared interests between blacks and whites could ever be contemplated. "We've got whips, chain-gangs, and—mobs if need be…. It's the Negro …we've got to beat to his knees."
In the county described by DuBois, black sharecroppers lived or died on the whim of the white men still called "master" by most. They begged the white men for their broken-down log cabins, for food and cloth to make clothes. Maturing black girls complied with their initiation into sexual activity when Colonel Cresswell's son demanded it, because "he was our master."
The Cresswells and other whites "bought" and sold sharecroppers at will—substituting the sale of their alleged debts for rent and supplies as a proxy for the sale of humans themselves. Able black men and their families routinely "sold" for $250 in this Lowndes County. Black families who resisted their sale to other whites were subject to brutal violence and the confiscation or burning of their homes and possessions. Once under a labor contract to any white man, blacks knew they would almost certainly never be free of it. Disputes over the value of the cotton they raised were settled by local officials controlled by the white farmers. Any man who fought back against overseers beating workers in the field risked gruesome punishments and sale into the convict leasing system.
Robbed of her crop, DuBois's central character, Zora, knows she has no recourse: "What should she do? She never thought of appeal to courts, for Colonel Cresswell was Justice of the Peace and his son was bailiff. Why had they stolen from her? She knew. She was now penniless, and in a sense helpless. She was now a peon bound to a master's bidding." She knew that signing a contract to work for the Cresswells "would mean slavery, jail, or hounded running away."
While hunger and the physical abuse of overseers haunted every day, it was jail, the chain gang, or any other contact with the judicial system that loomed as the greatest constant jeopardies to blacks. Starved and manacled squads of black men prowled the town square and the roads between plantations, hustled along by gun- and whip-toting guards—a scene hardly changed from the traveling slave salesmen of a half century earlier. At the slightest provocation, Cresswell threatened this ignominious horror to any uncooperative or insolent blacks. The result of any accusation by a white man would, almost without exception, be court-sanctioned ownership. Once hauled before a judge, any African American could be purchased by Colonel Cresswell or another white. One passage of DuBois's novel described the routine courthouse scene:
"What's this nigger charged with?" demanded the Judge when the first black boy was brought up before him.
"Breaking his labor contract."
"I have the contract here," announced the sheriff. "He refuses to work."
"A year, or one hundred dollars."
Colonel Cresswell paid his fine, and took him in charge.12
In October 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Judge Speer's order against Georgia's county convict leasing system,13 finding that the federal courts had no jurisdiction to dismantle the system of obtaining and selling prisoners so vividly described by DuBois. In January 1906, Warren Reese gave up the modest office in the Montgomery federal building from which he had waged his quixotic war on slavery. The White House named a new district attorney for central Alabama.
Three months later, in April 1906, John W. Pace was pardoned for his crimes by President Roosevelt.14 The following year, Fletcher Turner was elected to represent Tallapoosa County in the Alabama House of Representatives.