Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South: An Interview with Historian Keri

Lindley, Robin

Publisher:  History News Network (HNN)
Date Written:  05/11/2017
Year Published:  2017  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX21840

Historian Keri Leigh Merritt presents a comprehensive study of this malignant and overlooked aspect of slavery in her new book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press). This is an interview with her.



Dr. Merritt details how an underclass of white people grew in the Deep South. By the 1840s and 1850s, the global demand for cotton had skyrocketed, and slaveholders from the Upper South had sold over 800,000 African Americans to Lower South states. This influx of slaves reduced the need for white laborers, whose ranks also grew due to white immigration, particularly from Ireland. As she vividly describes, these whites were landless, jobless or underemployed, and illiterate, and faced involuntary servitude, a hostile legal system, illness, starvation, harassment, and the constant threat of violence--the result of the policies designed to expand the wealth and power of the white slaveholding master class while preserving slavery at all costs in a de facto police state.

Dr. Merritt also dispels myths about this time, including the idea that virtually all whites in the South supported slavery and secession. She concludes by chronicling how poor whites benefited from the end of slavery by gaining the ability to compete in a free economy while, ironically, free black people were excluded from the economic system and became subject to "slavery by another name" with the persistence of white supremacy and a racist justice system.

Because of the illiteracy of most poor white people in the prewar South, they left few written documents. To address this problem, Dr. Merritt conducted extensive original research to uncover their story by studying sources from county court records, jail and penitentiary records, newspapers, and coroners' reports to slave narratives, accounts from slaveholders and abolitionists and veterans, petitions from laborers, and much more.

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