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Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites

by Wayne Flynt

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First published in 1989 by The University of Alabama Press, Poor but Proud was met with critical acclaim and awarded the 1990 Lillian Smith prize in nonfiction, as well as being named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book. This new paperback version will make the classic work available for general readers, bookstores, and


First published in 1989 by The University of Alabama Press, Poor but Proud was met with critical acclaim and awarded the 1990 Lillian Smith prize in nonfiction, as well as being named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book. This new paperback version will make the classic work available for general readers, bookstores, and classrooms.

Wayne Flynt addresses the life experiences of poor whites through their occupations, society, and culture. He explores their family structure, music, religion, folklore, crafts, and politics and describes their attempts to resolve their own problems through labor unions and political movements. He reveals that many of our stereotypes about poor whites are wildly exaggerated; few were derelicts or "white trash." Even though racism, emotionalism, and a penchant for violence were possible among poor whites, most bore their troubles with dignity and self-respect - working hard to eventually lift themselves out of poverty.

The phrase "poor but proud" aptly describes many white Alabamians who settled the state and persisted through time. During the antebellum years, poor whites developed a distinctive culture on the periphery of the cotton belt. As herdsmen, subsistence farmers, mill workers, and miners, they flourished in a society more renowned for its two-class division of planters and slaves. The New Deal era and the advent of World War II broke the long downward spiral of poverty and afforded new opportunities for upward mobility.

Editorial Reviews

After examining origins, Flynt (Southern history, Auburn U.) studies farmers, textile workers, coal miners, and timber workers in depth and discusses family structure, folk culture, the politics of poor whites, and their attempts to resolve problems through labor unions and political movements. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher
"Broadly conceived, deeply researched, lucidly written, multidisciplinary, and remarkably balanced in its assessments of Alabama's poor whites . . . [Poor but Proud] is a model of historical writing and methodology—highly recommended."

"During the last half-century or so there has been an explosion of literature of the South, its people, and its problems. Scores of books and articles have been written on aspects of the South's economy after the Civil War, on race relations, on caste and class, on southern society, politics, and other major aspects of the southern experience. Few of these studies, however, match the high quality of Wayne Flynt's Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites. A logical and more detailed follow-up to the author's Forgotten People, The South's Poor Whites (1979), this is truly a superior book. There is probably no scholar in the United States who knows and understands the history of poor whites in the South as well as Professor Flynt." —Florida Historical Quarterly

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University of Alabama Press
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Poor but Proud

Alabama's Poor Whites

By Wayne Flynt

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9051-8


"Unknown and Forgotten Ancestors"

The Agricultural Origins of Poverty

The forces that drove men and women to the Alabama frontier were not unlike the ones that brought them to America in the first place. They wanted land, a better living, and more freedom. A certain internal selection process occurred when people pulled up stakes and headed for a new home. They were unwilling to accept existing conditions; they were optimistic that the next place would be better than the last; they had confidence in their own ability to cope with unforeseen circumstances. But the key to all their expectations was land.

Perhaps it was the distant memory of serfdom in Europe or the more recent struggle for land in Virginia or the Carolinas that drove pioneers westward. Or perhaps the soil seemed so abundant, the continent so vast, that settlers simply treated it without respect, exhausting its fertility, then moving on south or west. Whatever the source, the ownership of land seemed a magical elixir that promised to cure what ailed them.

For those who came early, Alabama was a generous earth mother. Her huge forests yielded to ax and plow, her fertile river bottoms brought forth harvests fit for any person. If great fortunes were rare in the early days, settlers were patient and could wait. Their primitive cabins and educational illiteracy belied their dreams, but gradually they carved out good farms, some large enough to be called plantations, most small enough to provide labor for only one family.

The form of agriculture and the social system which supported it dictated that the large units would be worked with slaves and provide most of the cash crops that made possible the South's distinctive society. The yeoman fitted nicely into the system also, providing food crops for nearby towns and some plantations, abundant livestock, and a modest quantity of cotton.

The planters, though looming large in romance and fiction, were a relatively small class in actual number. Far more numerous were the thriving yeomen who forged an alternative set of institutions and substantially exceeded the planters in political power. By 1850, 37,000 pupils attended 1,300 public schools, a total that was probably 40 percent of the state's white school-age population. Their Methodist and Baptist churches, profiting from the emotional revivals that swept the South, might embarrass the more educated and affluent but suited the yeomen's needs quite well. Jeffersonian in their beliefs that the best life was the one closest to the land, they did not share the occasional civic enthusiasm expressed over creation of a new textile mill. Independent and proud, they expressed their egalitarianism in support of the national Democracy and local Jacksonian candidates. They might aspire to be planters themselves someday, but in the meantime they gloried in the designation "common man" and were prouder to be identified with the poor who were struggling for justice and fair treatment, whatever that meant politically, than to be counted among effete, affluent, and affected planters.

There existed in the same region with yeomen and planters yet another group. Legendary for their fecundity and their excesses both of religion and of iniquity, poor whites were a poorly defined class in antebellum Alabama. Population growth was spectacular, bringing landless whites by the tens of thousands. Their numbers increased 1,230 percent in the teens, 122 percent in the 1820s, 76 percent in the 1830s, 27 percent in the 1840s, and 23 percent in the 1850s. Although prosperous immigrants came, many more needed only a small container to transport all their earthly possessions.

Most of these landless folk lacked money with which to purchase land and simply "squatted" where they pleased. As Indian lands were opened for settlement, pioneers pushed into the hollows and hillsides, not bothering to wait for the obligatory federal land surveys that preceded land sales. "Squatters" were a recognized breed in American settlement, pushing always in advance of settlement and illegally occupying land. Upon finding an appealing tract of land, they would establish their claim by girdling a few trees and laying the first logs for a cabin. Later they sought to legalize their claims through "preemption," the notion that preferential right to a plot belonged to the person who first settled it. In that way violations of land laws subsequently could be legally recognized.

Several barriers prevented easy access to federal land. The minimum price of $1.25 an acre and the smallest unit of sale (varying over time from 160 acres to 80 or 40 acres) required more money than most squatters possessed. Furthermore, they had to compete with land speculators, who often purchased newly surveyed land as it was offered, then increased the price before reselling it to squatters. This practice generated bitter animosity between prosperous speculators and poor squatters.

Complicating the issue was regional conflict between the settled Northeast, which feared the loss of cheap labor, and the newly opened lands of the South and Northwest. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton emerged as the major spokesman for land-hungry squatters. His scheme was simple. Because good land sold first at public auction, it should bring a higher price. Poor land that remained unsold should be offered at a reduced rate. Benton introduced a "graduation bill" in 1824, but Congress refused to pass it. The bill was immensely popular in Alabama and Mississippi, the two leading public domain states in the South. Each contained vast tracts of unsurveyed federal land. Grateful Alabama legislators named an east Alabama Piedmont county for Benton.

No extensive Alabama tracts were surveyed and offered for sale until 1818, and federal troops tried first to prevent squatters, then later to remove them. They were even ordered to burn the cabins of any who refused to leave; but all such policies were to no avail. By the early spring of 1816 some 10,000 squatters were illegally occupying Creek Indian lands. After that date an avalanche of poor settlers poured into the state. Food became scarce and starvation threatened. In 1816 flour sold for twenty dollars a barrel and corn for four dollars a bushel. In some locales food could not be obtained at any price. Thomas Freeman observed: "Provisions are so scarce in that country that a large portion of the present Intruders will be compelled to abandon their Improvements, and seek existence in the older settlements to prevent starvation, yet there are hundreds of families arriving daily."

Freeman underestimated the fierce determination of the poor. When the land office at St. Stephens auctioned parcels in 1815, groups of squatters formed a condemnation committee and threatened outsiders who came to bid. Immigrants who came later feared large debts if they purchased their tracts from speculators, so they intimidated land speculators into not bidding at federal land auctions.

Such tactics failed more often than they succeeded. When land sales were held at Huntsville in 1809, only one-third of the squatters were able to purchase the land they had cleared. And even those who made a down payment were not guaranteed land. The economic depression of 1819–20 caused many settlers to forfeit their lands because they could not make their loan payments. Alabama settlers relinquished more land than pioneers in any other states (in fact three times as much land as in other states combined). Congressional relief helped, but the specter of land hard to obtain and easy to lose bequeathed a bitter legacy.

The question of public land remained a major issue through most of the antebellum period. As late as 1835 Alabama had by far the largest quantity of unsold federal land (22 million acres). Surveying increased rapidly after that date and land sales reduced the total: 1.9 million acres were sold in 1836, 382,000 in 1837, and 151,000 in 1838. By 1850 only 23,677 acres of the state's 32 million remained unsurveyed.

The acquisition of land, which dominated the thoughts of most early settlers, also established the broad contours of Alabama politics. From the first settlement patterns in the Tennessee Valley, divisions arose between planters with mainly Georgia connections and small farmers generally of Tennessee origins. The key to election was at first mainly rhetorical: to convince the plain folk of one's genuine claim to be a common man in a state with universal manhood suffrage. But as politicians sought substantive issues on which to launch careers, they early fixed on the issue of land. Their position on land — the extinction of Indian claims, preemption rights for squatters, reduction of land prices and minimum acres per purchase, the graduation of land prices according to the quality of soil — became the litmus test of their Jacksonian rhetoric.

Expressed in class terms, resentment of the rich and fear of corporate wealth became important themes in antebellum Alabama history. Democrats sought to identify Whigs with "commercial elements" who warred against farmers. The public issue became "the supremacy of the rich over the poor," despite the fact that Alabama Whiggery seldom espoused elitist views. Within the legislature this ideological class dispute took the form of poorer elements favoring reduced taxes and biennial sessions of the legislature while opposing aid for internal improvements or state charters for banks or railroads. Common whites also opposed expansion of women's rights, prohibition, or increased expenditures for education and mental health. Their tax policy was to levy the highest rates on slaves, with land a lesser source of tax revenue. Secondary taxes should be levied on the ostentatious symbols of wealth: gold watches, private libraries, race horses, and the like. Thanks to the legislative successes of common whites, the wealthiest one-third of Alabama's population paid two-thirds of the taxes. Despite their influence on tax legislation, the single consistent thread running through the tapestry of common white ideology was opposition to laws that would concentrate more power in government. They justifiably believed that strong government was more likely to respond to the special interests of planters.

Insofar as land and public policy were debated, poor whites and yeomen shared a common outlook. The economic mobility of the Alabama frontier was so great, the social structure so fluid, that this year's squatter could easily become next year's landowning yeoman. Yeomen and poor whites worshiped in the same churches, crafted the same white-oak baskets, told the same tales, plucked the same dulcimer or banjo tunes, danced the same jigs, and fought the same politicians.

However limited their formal educations might be, poor whites had a profound understanding of their own self-interest. They also had a fierce class consciousness that even casual observers noticed. Antebellum travelers commented on the frequency with which they observed ostracism based on a reversal of social status: most Alabamians disdained wealth and education. Political candidates might win an election to the state legislature or even a congressional seat by portraying themselves as common men and arguing that "a rich man cannot sympathize with the poor."

Successful politicians had to advocate and practice social equality, and the appropriate expression of their belief was easy access to land. By the 1820s, the state of Alabama was a firm and consistent advocate of liberalized land policy. In 1826 the Alabama legislature petitioned Congress to peg the price of land to its true value and recommended that the minimum purchase be reduced to forty acres and the price to twenty-five cents an acre. Concerned legislators also asked for a preemption act affording squatters first right to purchase their land.

Such efforts obtained some satisfactory results. An 1830 preemption act legalized squatters' rights to their claims and helped early settlers in the Tennessee Valley legally record their homesteads. Seven years later Alabama's general assembly petitioned Congress to reduce the minimum purchasable tract to twenty acres. Such portions were too small for plantations, but legislators believed that "many poor persons" would settle "in the hollows, and on the small creeks in the mountainous parts of the country" and could "obtain homes for their families, and contribute something to the prosperity and convenience of the country, by the breeding of cattle, sheep, and hogs."

By 1845 the U.S. commissioner of public lands had received so many petitions from state legislatures and private individuals that he joined the chorus for easier settlement. Western emigration was occurring so rapidly as to outpace federal surveys. Opening forty-acre tracts to preemption would help those "whose scanty means prevent them from entering a larger quantity." Squatters would become yeomen with an interest in the soil, not "mere tenants at will to either private individuals [speculators] or the government."

The time was ripe for a bold initiative and it came from an appropriate source. The cosponsors of the first homestead bill to be introduced into Congress were Felix Grundy McConnell of Alabama and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. McConnell was a native Tennessean who had migrated to Talladega in the Appalachian foothills. Although limited in education he had taught himself law. But his physique suited him better for physical labor. Standing six feet tall and weighing two hundred pounds, he was an imposing figure as he roamed his mountain district selling and fixing saddles. He boasted of his working class origins and identified with laboring people. Once while traveling he met a poor family whose only horse had died. Springtime planting was impossible and calamity awaited them. McConnell dismounted, presented his horse to the indigent farmer, hoisted his saddle onto his shoulder, and set out for town fifteen miles away. Such folklore did his political career no harm among the deprived folk who inhabited mountainous portions of Talladega, Cherokee, Benton, Randolph, Tallapoosa, and Chambers counties. He was elected to the legislature in 1838 and to Congress in 1843, carrying the hilly areas and losing the flatlands. He was reelected in 1845 as an Independent Democrat despite the claims of his Democrat opponent that McConnell indulged "too freely in social class."

Even McConnell's vices were typical of the class he represented. He drank too much and embarrassed sophisticated Washington with his backcountry manners. During a concert by a renowned violinist, McConnell interrupted the "exquisite performance" with an egalitarian shout: "None of your highfalutin, but give us Hail Columbia, and bear hard on the treble."

In 1846 McConnell joined Congressman Andrew Johnson in introducing a bill to give "every white man 160 acres of ground, provided he would work it." The cosponsors argued that unoccupied land belonged to the laboring poor who had a right to a "homestead." So as to leave no doubt about the intent of the sponsors, Johnson even proposed that homesteaders be required to swear an oath of poverty that would be notarized by three witnesses. The bill did not pass Congress. Eastern congressmen opposed it, as did southern representatives from plantation districts. Major support came from northeastern workingmen's assemblies and southern congressmen representing those who lived in mountain regions and on the poor soil of the pine belt.

Two of McConnell's congressional friends shared his concern for the welfare of Alabama's poor whites. Williamson Robert Winfield Cobb resembled his fiery Alabama colleague in many particulars: like McConnell, he was a native Tennessean limited in education. He also became a skilled and modestly successful craftsman, peddling and repairing clocks in Madison County. And he represented a mountain district in east Alabama to the north of McConnell's. After his election to the state legislature in 1844, he left no doubts as to where his sympathies lay. He introduced a bill in the legislature to exempt plates, cups, saucers, a coffee pot, and furniture from forced sale when a poor family could not pay its debts. Following a brief stint in the legislature he offered for Congress in 1847, running for the seat from the northeastern corner of the state. His was a mountain district of small farmers with the highest rate of illiteracy in Alabama, and his campaign was directed at that constituency. He rattled tinware and crockery for attention and entertained his audiences with songs that he composed for the occasion. His most successful number was entitled "The Homestead Bill" and its opening lyric stirred strong emotions among the poor: "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." Verses were sufficiently lengthy to cover all the possessions a poor man might crave, from land and mules to furniture. Should the folksy lyric not identify him completely with the "common man," he also campaigned while chewing onions and corn bread. Planter opponents and urban newspapers sputtered with rage; Cobb was "very popular with the lowly and unlearned, whose devotion was singularly ardent and defied reason." But an exasperated opponent admitted in 1853 that Cobb would continue to win because of the prejudice "of those who can't or don't read, against any lawyer, townsman or states rights man — each of whom is regarded as a suspicious character."


Excerpted from Poor but Proud by Wayne Flynt. Copyright © 1989 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor of History at Auburn University and author or coauthor of 11 books, including Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, and Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950. He has been recognized by numerous awards and honors, including the Lillian Smith Award for nonfiction, the Clarence Cason Nonfiction Award, the James F. Sulzby Jr. Book Award (twice), and the Alabama Library Association Award for nonfiction (twice).

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