Alabama experienced drastic economic and social change in the post-Reconstruction or “New South” era, just like the rest of the South. “New South,” refers to the economic shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Influential southerners hoped to promote growth in the depressed South, while tapping the region’s abundant and largely untouched natural resources.
During this time, Alabama experienced changes in its economic and political landscape, with new manufacturing and mining industries, and advancements in education. Farming hardships and exploitative labor practices led to the emergence of labor unions. Jim Crow laws allowed racism to flourish under the “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.
Industry: Prior to the Civil War, most free people in Alabama made their living by farming cotton. The state had large untapped deposits of coal, iron ore, and limestone, which drew investors. From 1880, 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, with the number of people employed growing from 1300 in 1860 to 9000 by 1900. Grist mills, flour mills, and wool mills expanded.
Agriculture: Despite industrialization sweeping through the state, most Alabamians still lived and worked on farms. Market prices dropped throughout the 1880s and 90s, so the conditions of agricultural worker did not improve after Reconstruction. Many described the tenant farming and sharecropping systems in Alabama as little better than the slave system.
Urban Growth: Birmingham became a symbol of the New South in Alabama. The city was founded in 1871 by enterprising capitalists who convinced railroad interests to build rail lines to provide shipping for the iron, coal, and limestone products.
Transportation: By 1900, three major railroad lines reached into Alabama. 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 beginning in the mid-1870s. The Republican Party (Lincoln’s party) held a majority in the House in 1872, when the black vote carried Republican candidates to victory. But discord among Republicans enabled Democrats to reassert themselves.
Education: Many available jobs required unskilled labor. In 1880, half of Alabama's population and 80 percent of the African Americans were illiterate. The New South planned to improve education.
Labor Problems: New industrial labor brought strikes and controversy over working conditions and calls for reform of convict and child labor. Reconstruction Alabama had a severe shortage of jails cells. As a result, the state leased convicts to companies as a source of revenue. Working conditions for convicts were deplorable. Activists and reformers called to abolish convict labor.
Source: New South Era
The Encyclopedia of Alabama TM © 2017.