The Great War in the Heart of Dixie: Alabama During World War I

The Great War in the Heart of Dixie: Alabama During World War I

by Martin T. Olliff

There has been much scholarship on how the U.S. as a nation reacted to World War I, but few have explored how Alabama responded. Did the state follow the federal government’s lead in organizing its resources or did Alabamians devise their own solutions to unique problems they faced?

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There has been much scholarship on how the U.S. as a nation reacted to World War I, but few have explored how Alabama responded. Did the state follow the federal government’s lead in organizing its resources or did Alabamians devise their own solutions to unique problems they faced?

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The Great War in the Heart of Dixie

Alabama During World War I

By Martin T. Olliff

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2008 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5492-3



Alabama, April 1917

Martin T. Olliff

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany. He specifically wanted to "take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war." Four days later Congress committed the United States to "total war."

Mobilization—the first on such a scale since the Civil War—strained the country's economic, social, and political institutions. The sudden change from a peacetime to a wartime economy led to inflation, hoarding, profiteering, and labor problems. At the national level, America's rail transportation system provides an immediate and tangible example of mobilization-caused economic dislocation. Rail transport was vital to America's mobilization as well as to the ability of the Allies to continue fighting. The railroad was also the largest industry in the United States and had long dominated the industrial economy. In 1917 the United States had 375,000 miles of track, over which 66,000 locomotives pulled 55,000 passengers and 2,500,000 freight cars.

Even before the outbreak of war in April, the rail system bogged down. The lines had not modernized their facilities, had been fighting a rate war with shipping interests, and had lost workers to higher-paid manufacturing employment. In 1916 the British and French dramatically increased their orders for war materiel but were not able to supply enough ships to move it from the United States' eastern ports. Rail managers could neither unload the trains on arrival nor, because of railroad policies that required cars to be filled for return legs, move the empty cars that began to amass at the ports. To complicate matters, the Departments of War and the Navy competed with one another over priority freight and personnel shipments throughout 1917, further tying up rail lines and rolling stock. At the height of the crisis, newspapers reported between 148,000 and 180,000 freight cars short of their destinations. Walter Hines, the director-general of railroads from 1919 to 1920, reported that in May 1917, the worst month of the crisis, 164,000 cars sat idled on the tracks. This situation created a transportation shortage as far away as St. Louis, Chicago, and even Alabama. At a hearing of the Railway Commission of the Council of National Defense in May, Birmingham magnate Henry DeBardeleben claimed that Alabama's economy would suffer if the traffic jam was not cleared quickly. Even so, it was only when the voluntary Railroad War Board utterly failed to ameliorate the crisis that President Wilson federalized the lines in late December. Wilson's secretary of the treasury and son-in-law, William McAdoo, headed the U.S. Railroad Administration and ultimately unsnarled the lines through incentives and command. Although no other sector of the economy reacted to mobilization quite so poorly, the war gave noticeable jolts to them all.

Fighting the war in Europe required coordinating resources on an unprecedented scale and preparing the citizenry for great sacrifice. The federated political system of the United States had almost no experience in accommodating the demands of such a war. Congress took the first tentative steps toward erecting a nationwide mobilization infrastructure in 1916 when it dragooned the secretaries of the Departments of War, Labor, the Navy, Commerce, Agriculture, and the Interior into forming the Council of National Defense (CND) to coordinate war industries. But the CND lacked the political stature to challenge Americans' dearly held notions of limited federal power, nor did it have the muscle to order compliance with its directives from Washington, D.C., as evidenced by its inability to deal with the rail traffic jam in 1917. With little power, the CND set about doing what it could. It replicated itself at the local level, building a hierarchy of state, county, and community branches peopled with local business leaders; then it created a gendered counterpart—the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense. The declaration of war in 1917 allowed President Wilson to consolidate at least some power at the national level for the duration. He created an entire system of Washington-based bureaucracies that paralleled the CND: the War Industry Board, the War Finance Board, the National War Labor Board, the U.S. Food Administration, the U.S. Fuel Administration, the U.S. Railroad Administration, and the U.S. Shipping Board. Led by, and for the most part staffed by, government and industry volunteers called "dollar-a-year-men" (and women), these bureaus subdivided into task-specific units. The state-level affiliates of the CND coordinated local actions of some of these bureaus, and others worked directly with farmers, citizens, manufacturers, shippers, and labor unions.

Many scholars have examined how the nation as a whole prosecuted the war, but few have considered how Alabama responded. Did the state follow the federal government's lead in organizing its resources, or did Alabamians concoct their own solutions to unique problems they faced? How did the state's cultural institutions and government react to the sudden changes that mobilization produced? How did its economy and way of life cope? What, if any, were the war's long-term consequences in Alabama? How did women, blacks, and poor whites, all without the franchise, support the war to make the world safe for a democracy in which they could not participate? The chapters in this book address these questions and form, the authors hope, a basis for further investigation of the people and institutions of Alabama during this important but understudied era.

These chapters illustrate how Alabamians responded to the war within the limits on their action set by preexisting paradigms, some imposed from without, others from within. How Alabama's militia, renamed the National Guard by the National Defense Act of 1916, organized for domestic and foreign duty fell within the model established by the U.S. Army. That model served the national purpose of prosecuting the war, and local custom had little impact if it deviated from the service's professional culture. The nationally focused needs of the military, coupled with the internal political machinations of Congress, led the army to build training camps and airfields in the state. Here, too, the culture of the military took precedence over local customs in building and operating the reservations. But in many areas—organizing local citizens, coping with dramatic economic changes, carving out public space for women and blacks to act, defining the role of government, and serving memory and identity—Alabamians responded to the Great War bounded by the cultural, social, economic, and political arrangements they themselves had created as of April 1917. These arrangements set the parameters within which Alabama's institutions tried to solve the problems created by nineteen months of war.

Alabama's Cultural "Arrangements"

Alabamians built a culture of inequality in the half-century between the Civil War and World War I. Nowhere was this more apparent than in race relations, where white supremacy became an obsession enforced by white cultural hegemony, law, and, when those failed, vigilantism. Throughout the New South era, white Alabamians struggled with the end of slavery and sought to restrict the social place of free African Americans. Racial attitudes hardened as whites saw their own social status and economic position threatened by the presence of free blacks, even after a new generation of politicians legalized inequality and segregation in the 1890s. Between 1882 and 1930, mobs, mostly whites, vented their anger in a wave of lynchings. Of Alabama's 300 lynching victims in those troubled years, 262 were blacks murdered by white mobs sending the message that white citizens would enforce inequality even outside the law.

Political "redemption" of the state from Republican rule by Democratic victories in 1874 squelched whatever public voice black Alabamians had exercised during Reconstruction, and the constitution of 1875 ensured that the state would do as little as it could to reempower them. For two generations these Redeemers and their successors—called Bourbons by their enemies and Conservative Democrats by themselves—centralized social, economic, and political power in the state legislature dominated by the "Big Mules," a coalition of Black Belt planters and Birmingham industrialists who shared a desire for "low taxes ... minimal education required by farm laborers and factory workers, no effective labor unions, a small electorate, and racial segregation." Until 1901, the Bourbons kept political power by vote fraud and the shrill rhetoric of white supremacy that drove a wedge between poor whites and blacks. After 1901 the revised constitution made vote fraud and demagoguery unnecessary. It simply disfranchised black voters outright and began disfranchising poor white farmers and workers. It also made white supremacy the law of the land at the polls, in public conveyances, and at the marriage altar.

It is unnecessary to construct a long litany of Bourbon abuse and misrule. The hobbling of public education shows how the state maintained racial inequality. The ambitious—even liberal—but ineffective public education law of 1854 had whetted Alabamians' appetite for state-supported schools. After the Civil War, Reconstruction legislatures tried but failed to create an effective school system for both whites and blacks. The Bourbons who succeeded them, rightly claiming mismanagement and public impoverishment, reduced state fiscal support for public education while restricting localities from levying school taxes. The Bourbons continued to impose governmental parsimony and low taxes even during the relatively prosperous 1880s, ensuring that schools fell further behind in adequate funding. Although educational revenues grew between 1868 and 1891, the total number of schools almost doubled, and per-student expenditures for both races fell from $1.47 to $1.27. Black schools, always abysmally underfunded, were hamstrung even more after the 1891 school law allowed local officials to distribute state funds according to their own judgment. In 1888 officials allocated 38 percent of state school funds to black schools that served 42 percent of Alabama's students. By 1908 the legislature gave black schools only 12 percent of the state's total school funds while requiring them to educate 44 percent of the state's total student population.

Some Alabamians disparaged book learning when doing so served their purposes. Planters who used black laborers and sharecroppers complained that educating blacks ruined them as field hands, and only four of ten black children attended any state school in 1910. Others scorned education when it was hard to come by or was inadequate to advance them in life. Poor whites kept their own children out of school in droves. Average attendance of the school-aged population in the period 1869–1890 varied from 13.4 to 34.8 percent. The 1910 census reported 51.4 percent of school-aged children attended class, though that proportion dropped sharply after age fourteen. Correspondingly, illiteracy rates were astounding. The 1910 census documents that almost one-quarter of voting-age white males were illiterate. Ten years later, Alabama's 16.1 percent overall illiteracy rate made it the fourth least literate population after Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Trailing Alabama, but still with illiteracy rates above 10 percent in 1920, were New Mexico, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.

The Political Economy of Agriculture

Alabama's economy both reinforced and mirrored its culture of inequality. Farming prevailed throughout the state, even near urban areas, setting the boundaries within which Alabama's other institutions could act. Plantation-sized land holdings worked by freed tenants rather than gangs of slaves predominated in the Black Belt while yeoman farmers in the Wiregrass and Tennessee River valley rented or sharecropped to replace their lost land or to supplement their small holdings. King Cotton had resumed its reign, planted across the state despite an overall decline in price between Reconstruction and the Great War. Cotton prices teased farmers in that half century, starting out rather high immediately after the Civil War, declining until they revived in the late 1890s, and then resuming a steady drift downward. By 1914, in fact, the price of cotton had fallen to 7.35 cents per pound, significantly lower than its nominal 1869 price of 16.5 cents per pound. The 1914 harvest brought less than the 12.2 cents per pound it might have commanded if only corrected for deflation. These economic arrangements—rebuilding of plantations in the Black Belt, inadequate small holdings in the northern and southern tiers, and dependence on continually less-valuable cotton—exacerbated poverty, powerlessness, and racism for the majority of Alabamians. The state's economic structure kept black farmers under the thumb of a powerful elite in the Black Belt and kept white farmers too poor and divided to become a successful countervailing force against the elite "Big Mule" political coalition that emerged in the state.

The cotton monoculture not only wreaked havoc on its market price but also set the stage for radical changes in the state's agricultural mix as time passed. By World War I, cotton cultivation was wearing out the land even in the fecund Black Belt; farmers were able to make the 1914 crop only by record use of costly fertilizer. Furthermore, overcultivation opened the door to the ravages of the Mexican boll weevil after 1910. The weevils spread rapidly from the initial infestation in Mobile County across the southern half of the state, laying waste to the cotton in their path. Farmers had resisted pleas to vary their crops and even responded to the plunge in cotton prices by planting more, but the weevils and war finally drove many to diversify. Melon farms, strawberry fields, and truck farms sprang up in the state's southwestern counties and in the Sand Mountain area of North Alabama. For example, in Baldwin and Mobile counties between 1909 and 1919, sweet potato production rose by 68 percent, pecan harvest by 300 percent, and orange yields by an astounding 3600 percent. The Wiregrass counties of southeast Alabama made their storied switch from cotton to peanut cultivation on land cleared by timbering and made arable by commercial fertilizers.

Wiregrass peanuts, a million acres of which grew in 1918, were not a direct consumer product until Tuskegee Institute's George Washington Carver's experimental successes of the 1930s. Farmers fed "goober peas" to livestock, the market for which grew because of the war. Between 1914 and 1918, cattle production in Alabama increased by 57.5 percent, and hog production rose 145 percent, with most of the increase occurring in areas hit hardest by the weevil.

By the time the boll weevil pressured farmers to diversify, the state had taken its first steps to modernize farming. The federal Morrill Act of 1862 and its extension in 1890 provided land grants by which the states could fund college instruction in agriculture and mechanics as well as the traditional liberal arts. Alabama split these funds—at least those that were not lost to mismanagement—between the white Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API) at Auburn and the black Alabama A&M College in Normal. The federal Hatch Act of 1887 funded agricultural experiment stations and basic research. By combining Hatch Act funds with a small tax on commercial fertilizer and, after 1907, direct appropriations, the Alabama legislature created experiment stations under the auspices of API.

Agricultural research began to pay off by 1900 when, as historian A. B. Moore notes, "a number of trained agriculturalists had been developed, a considerable percentage of farmers had been led to improve their methods and a scientific agriculture was clearly taking root." The state's racially segregated land-grant colleges, its Department of Agriculture, and the experiment stations developed an assortment of flyers, pamphlets, and news articles, the articles for use by the rapidly expanding network of weekly newspapers. But most farmers did not trust new methods or were unable to get or understand the research. To the colleges, the solution seemed obvious—explain the research to the farmers in practical and understandable ways and encourage farm families to apply their new knowledge. Implementing this required more time and more federal money.

Each summer between 1890 and 1915, the white agricultural faculty at API and the black faculty at Tuskegee Institute held weeklong on-campus training institutes, gave local lectures, conducted demonstrations, and addressed agricultural fairs. In 1908, J. J. Doster of the University of Alabama suggested that faculty inaugurate "extension work" through boys' corn clubs and girls' tomato-canning clubs. The Alabama legislature appropriated money to start such clubs and to hire the state's first full-time county demonstration agents three years later. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 gave federal money to expand this state program, and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 provided vocational and home economics teachers for rural schools. With the rudiments of federal-state cooperation providing enough money for support, county and home demonstration agents became the leading edge of Progressive Era reform and uplift in rural Alabama.


Excerpted from The Great War in the Heart of Dixie by Martin T. Olliff. Copyright © 2008 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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