Friday, July 17, 2009

Just finished reading - Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside by Jeff Forret

Historians have generalized for years that slaves and poor whites in the Old South held an antagonistic relationship, but Jeff Forret, professor at Lamar University, has illustrated in Race Relations at the Margins, that that was not always necessarily so.

Using a diverse array of primary sources including court records, newspaper accounts, and slave narratives, Forret shows that slaves and poor whites often collaborated to survive in a world where they were marginalized by those in social and political power. Slaves and poor whites spent time drinking in taverns and bars, gambled together (also sometimes in taverns and bars - as well as hidden and out of the way locations), traded goods and services - sometimes stolen from those in power) and, of course, they sometimes met in more intimate ways.

Most all of these mentioned activities were against the law in the Old South, but as with many laws -even today - they were only enforced when deemed to negatively impact the community. What's the old saying? - all laws are local? Well, that was often the case in the rural areas of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the three states where Forret focuses his study. Slaves and poor whites met both secretly and out in the open at horse races, cock fights, behind haystacks, in barns, and in the woods depending upon what interracial activity was being pursued and how it might be viewed by the authorities.

Some of the most interesting stories that Forret relates are taken from court cases. These often highly detailed cases usually brought in a number of witnesses who didn't care to relate all they saw or thought they saw. Usually slaves were punished much more harshly than poor whites, when it was meted out in these cases. Rarely were poor whites whipped for their offenses with black slaves that were deemed harmful, but slaves on the other hand were dealt with much more strictly in order keep in them "in line," and "protect the public peace."

Forret continues to examine these relationships into Reconstruction and then on to the Jim Crow era of legalized state segregation, and he shows that the roots of many of those laws went back to slavery days.

This largely overlooked topic has now received the attention it deserves. One reason that it has been avoided is the belief that a study that looks at slaves and poor whites would be too challenging to find primary sources. But, by looking at unconventional primary sources Forret has written a thorough study that helps us better see the lives those that have previously been ignored.

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