Shadowed Thresholds: Rural Poverty in Louisa County, Virginia, 1860-1900

Shifflett, Crandall A., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Barton, Josef J., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Younger, Edward E., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

A tracing of a random sample of black and white rural families through census and tax records in a Southern community after the Civil War--Louisa County, Virginia--illustrates the response of individual families to conditions of economic marginality. The war brought economic changes like the greater commercialization of land, labor, and capital that threatened the class and status positions of large landholders who, contrary to belief, survived the war in great numbers. The operation of a free market economy portended the kind of economic democracy that would bring an end to the traditional social order which the slave economy had guaranteed. Yet, between 1865 and 1870 traditional social arrangements persisted, as the aims of the large planters dovetailed with those of the Freedmen's Dureau, which was so interested in restricting the geographic mobility of the former slaves that they allowed the large planters to negotiate labor contracts whose terms perpetuated the old order. After 1870, however, the refusal of increasing numbers of freedmen to live and work under these conditions coupled with a long period of economic depression required other adjustments to preserve the old order. Large owners responded by choosing to operate as commercial farmers, which proved unwise in a period of price decline for all farm commodities, and which led to some of the economic democracy large owners had previously avoided. Small numbers of blacks and whites reaped some of the rewards of the large owners' losses. Yet, the legacy of concentrated wealth built up in the slave economy persisted in the form of depleted soil, dependency for the majority of the population, and widespread poverty.

The shadow of poverty touched the thresholds of individual households and the institution of the family served as an adaptive mechanism under economically marginal conditions. Contrary to the popular myth about the "black matriarchy," a myth encouraged by the overemphasis given to this family type by E. Franklin Frazier and the "Moynihan Report," black families were typically two-parent households, an indication that slavery failed to destroy the vitality of the black family. Generally, household composition, as revealed in the manuscript census schedules of 1870, 1880, and 1900, appeared to be less an expression of cultural values, and more intimately related to economic pressures and social conditions. In the absence of social welfare institutions to mitigate the detrimental effects of poverty, the family filled the gap by assuming instrumental roles. In addition to changes in household composition, the effects of poverty are also evident in the demographic features of the two racial groups--in the age-sex composition of the populations, ages at marriage, and in sex and dependency ratios.

Public assistance for the poor was nearly nonexistent, and the history of Virginia's public relief legislation is a story of how poor laws developed into instruments of social control, a development that explains the parsimonious attitudes of civil officials in our period. Limited public assistance in the midst of concentrated wealth and increasing poverty raises a perplexing question. Why, under objective conditions where we might expect some form of collective action, did the South never have a revolution? After sifting through a rich body of European writing on peasant uprisings, a theory is proposed that relates collective action to the extent of mutual interdependence, a sense of group solidarity, that exists at the local level. Whatever the reason, the missing revolution allowed the resolution of the contradiction between a social order that implied class antagonism with desires for an ordered society.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
rural conditions, Louisa County, Southern history
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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