New South Era

Alabama experienced drastic economic and social change in post-Reconstruction or “New South” era just like the rest of the South. “New South,” is a term coined by Henry Grady and refers to the economic shift from an agrarian society to one that embraced industrial development. Grady and other influential southerners hoped 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.

During this time, Alabama experienced changes in its economic and political landscape—the emergence of new manufacturing and mining industries, growth of urban centers and advancements in education. Farming hardships and exploitative labor practices led to emergence of labor unions, and Jim Crow laws allowed racism to flourish under the guise of a “separate but equal” policy. Alabama’s geographic location, along with its lack of skilled labor, capital and education caused the state to lag economically and technologically. However, its natural attracted investment and industry.

Industry: Prior to the civil war, most free people in Alabama made their living by farming cotton. The state had large unexploited deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone, which drew investors. 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.

Cotton manufacturing increased in the New South era; with the number of cotton mills in the state increased, the number of people employed increased from 1300 in 1860 to 9000 by 1900.

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.

Agriculture: Despite industrialization sweeping through the state, most Alabamians still lived on and worked farms. Market prices dropped throughout the 1880s and 90s, and as a result, conditions of the 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.

Urban Growth: 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 convinced railroad interests to build lines through the area to provide shipping for the iron, coal, and limestone products.

Transportation: Improvements in transportation played a major role in the development of Alabama during the New South Era. 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 a role in shipping. Improvements to steamboats and Mobile Harbor made water transportation more viable.

Politics: After a decade of Reconstruction efforts by Republicans, southern conservative Democrats 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. Discord among Republicans sympathetic to and those opposed to civil rights opened the door for Democrats to reassert themselves in the state political arena.

Education: A significant portion of available jobs required unskilled labor. 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

Labor Problems: New industrial labor brought with it strikes and controversy over working conditions, as well as renewed calls for reform of convict and child labor. Reconstruction Alabama had a severe shortage of jails and penitentiaries to house convicted criminals. As a result, the state leased convicts to companies as a source of revenue. Working conditions for convicts were deplorable. Activists and reformers, called on the state to abolish convict labor.

Conclusion: New South industry changed the face of Alabama. It brought prosperity for some and new concerns for others.

Source: New South Era
The Encyclopedia of Alabama TM © 2017.

Back to top