The New South and the New Immigrant, Part 1

The following paper was written in 1975, while I was doing graduate work in Southern history at the University of Tennessee. I am pleased to dedicate this posting to the late Professor Ralph W. Haskins, mentor and teacher, who taught the course in Southern history for which this essay was written.

1. Ruins of a railroad depot outside of Charleston, South Carolina

Ruins of a railroad depot in Charleston, South Carolina

The Civil War left the South materially shattered. The whole country has been more or less devastated, Howell Cobb wrote President Andrew Johnson in June 1865. Its physical condition in the loss of property and the deprivation of the comforts of life…is as bad as its worst enemy could desire.

The most serious of the many problems confronting the region, Cobb noted, was that of labor. The war had largely decimated its white male population, leading to the emancipation of nearly five million slaves and had revolutionized the whole system of agricultural labor in such a way as to necessarily retard the restoration of former prosperity.

While the great majority of its former slaves remained in the South, it was widely believed that Negroes would only work diligently if compelled—that freedom would make them undependable and inefficient. The desertion by Negroes of plantations, migration to presumed greener pastures, idleness, assertiveness, and insubordination (natural reactions under the circumstances) only deepened this conviction.

2. Blacks fleeing their former masters

Former masters had great difficulty persuading the freedmen to continue working on their land.

Thus, as early as 1865, Southern leaders began to consider the possibility of substituting imported white for black labor.

This essay is concerned with a limited aspect of the prolonged campaign to induce white labor to turn south. It will consider, in particular, the efforts to procure a larger share of European immigration for the region (I speak here only of the eleven state area of the former Confederacy). Moreover the primary focus of this essay will be on the last great wave of newcomers, mostly southern and eastern Europeans, an influx, as C. Vann Woodward noted, that swept past the South leaving it almost untouched and further isolated from the rest of the country.

This last wave of immigrants coincided with a period of industrial expansion in the South coupled with better financed and organized efforts to attract immigrants.

3. The New Immigration (Ellis Island)

At the height of the so-called New Immigrant influx of the 1890-1920 period, European immigrants were arriving at Ellis Island in New York Harbor at the amazing rate of 10,000 a day.

The campaign to attract European immigrants to the South, as noted above, had its origins in the dissatisfaction of plantation owners who doubted the Negroes would work diligently if legally free to do otherwise. The movement soon spread, however, to other segments of Southern society besides the planter class; to the advocates of industrial development, for example. As early as September 1865, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle published an editorial entitled The Southern States as a Desirable Point for Immigrants: Colonization of the South.

4. J.D.B DeBow

J.D.B. DeBow, Editor of the influential newspaper DeBow’s Review.

J.D.B. DeBow, editor of the influential DeBow’s Review strongly advocated increased immigration in 1867. Population, we repeat, is one of the sorest needs of the South; immigration can supply this.

The desire of these advocates Southern industrialism, it should be noted, was for skilled labor, a resource as scarce in the South of 1865-75 as capital.

Railroads, on the other hand, were anxious to foster immigration as a means of filling up sparsely inhabited districts and thus increasing the value of their extensive land holdings, while simultaneously increasing the volume of traffic on their lines. Such organizations as the Southern state and county branches of the Patrons of Husbandry sought to promote immigration in the 1870s, reasoning that European peasants, with their long experience of intensive and diversified farming, would help free the region from the grip of staple agriculture.

5. Houston & Texas Central Railway appeal for immigrants

A Poster published by the Houston & Texas Railroad touting the availability of rich farmland along its line for immigrant settlers.

The scope of the South’s efforts to attract European immigrants prior to 1880 is impressive. Of the eleven states of the former Confederacy, all had taken positive steps by 1873 to secure immigrants, and most some years before. Seven of the eleven had established bureaus or other agencies whose duties included the promotion of European immigration—South Carolina and Louisiana in 1866, Tennessee in 1867, Georgia and Florida in 1869, Alabama in 1872, and Mississippi in 1873. Moreover at least five states had stationed immigration agents in Europe, chiefly in northern Europe (Germany, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Switzerland). Other methods resorted to by state governments included chartering state and county immigration promotion societies and land companies, passage by state legislatures of resolutions formally inviting foreigners to settle, sanctioning foreign contract labor, publication and distribution of promotional literature, efforts to secure direct steamship connections between Europe and southern ports, and participation in intra and inter-regional conventions.

However, the results of this campaign proved more than a little disappointing, for not only did the eleven state region fail to attract substantial numbers of immigrants before 1880, they were unable even to maintain the low levels that prevailed before the Civil War.

According to the census of 1880, there were 261,000 foreigners living in the eleven state area. The comparable statistic for 1860 had been 234,000, but what on the surface looked to be a modest increase, is rather misleading.

6. Mexican immigrant railroad workersoborder

Mexican immigrant railroad workers.

To begin with, the big gain came in a single state, Texas, where the number climbed from 43,000 to 114,000. Texas was unique in several respects: economically and geographically it is as much a western as a southern state. Also, a substantial part of its foreign born population (37 percent) had crossed over from neighboring Mexico. It alone among the states we are surveying enjoyed proximity to a pool of cheap foreign labor. On the other hand, Mexican immigrants lacked the attributes that made northern and Western European immigration so desirable. The great bulk of these Mexican were unskilled, uneducated, lacking in financial resources , and were regarded, moreover, as socially undesirable.

If we discount Texas from our calculations, the relative failure of the southern immigration campaign becomes clear, for in the other ten states of the former Confederacy the overall foreign born population actually declined—from an 1860 level of 191,000 to an 1880 level of only 147,000. Declines were especially evident in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Virginia. The most striking decreases occurred in Louisiana (81,000 to 54,000) and Virginia (35,000 to 15,000).

Increases, on the other hand, tended to be relatively modest. The state of North Carolina, for example, notwithstanding extraordinary efforts to attract immigrants that included the chartering of land companies, a joint resolution of the state legislature urging immigrants to consider that state, and the establishment in 1871 of an official state publicity agency, in 1880 contained contained only 3,749 foreign-born residents, an increase of only 450 over its 1860 foreign-born population.

In short, at a time when the immigrant population of the North and West was burgeoning, that of the eleven states of the former Confederacy was actually shrinking, and this despite vigorous efforts by state governments and property owners to lure European immigrants to the region. In 1880 the eleven state area contained a paltry 4 percent of the nation’s foreign born population. In eight of the eleven states of the former Confederacy immigrants comprised less than 2 percent of the population.

The campaign to lure immigrants south was not abandoned, however; indeed, it grew in intensity after 1880. The mood of the times was one of buoyant optimism, for the south had been politically and socially redeemed—carpetbagger governments had been overturned, a political settlement with the federal government effected, taxes and the scale of government reduced, and the black population effectively subordinated. The region would now surely recapture its prewar power and prosperity. The 1880s also marked a high point in the crusade to industrialize the South, and since immigrants had been an essential corollary of northern industrial development, and it was reasoned by some that the South, like the north, would benefit from an infusion of immigrants.

5. Henry Grady

Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and the leading spokesman of the “New South” called for measures that would attract large-scale European immigration and thus substitute white labor for black, both in the south’s factories and on the land.

New South spokesmen like Henry Grady asked the immigrant, Why remain to freeze, and starve, and struggle on the bleak prairies of the northwest when the garden spot of the world is waiting for people to take possession of it, and enjoy it?

In 1880, however, Grady and other spokesmen of industrial progress could offer the potential immigrant little besides a salubrious climate. The South, despite some progress in the 1865 to 80 period, remained an industrial backwater. While the total number of industrial jobs had risen by 1880 to 171,674, an increase of 66 percent over the pre-war level, the rate of development in the South had not kept pace with that of the rest of the nation. Most of the industrial jobs of the region were in textile manufacturing and other industries concerned with the processing of southern crops. Thus a region that held nearly 25 percent of the nation’s population, could by 1880 lay claim only 6.3 percent of U.S. industrial employment. Also, Southern wages were well below the national average.

Certainly the potential existed. The importance of industry in attracting immigrants is suggested by the high percent of foreign-born engaged in such labor, not only in the North and West, but also in the South. In 1880 southern manufacturing, mechanical and mining enterprises employed foreign-born laborers in numbers strikingly out of proportion to their share of the total population. Immigrants constituted 26 percent, for example, of the Texas industrial work force, while the figure for Louisiana stood at a comparable 25.6 percent. Even in Tennessee where the foreign-born population was miniscule, immigrants held 7 percent of the state’s industrial jobs. But job opportunities were comparatively paltry and wages in southern factories were lower than in the rest of the nation.

8. Textile Mill, Columbus, Georgia

Columbus, Georgia Textile Factory.

Another force that fostered the South’s crusade for immigrants was its expanding railroad system. Far from abandoning efforts to attract settlers, these hitherto small and relatively inconsequential lines, as one writer on the topic noted, having formed alliances with powerful, energetic corporations, touted the virtues of immigration more vigorously than ever. Lines such as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railway advanced southward into the Mississippi Valley from Missouri, opening up vast stretches of Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. From the east the Illinois Central penetrated Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. The Louisville and Nashville, entering Tennessee from the North, crossed the state to spread over much of the coastal south. These lines, controlling millions of acres of land, worked closely with the various southern state governments to encourage immigration.

9. Railroad crew

A Southern Railroad Crew

When Henry Grady appealed in 1881 to immigrants to come South he was directing his message to a people of predominantly northern European stock. Some 80 percent of the 648,000 immigrants who entered the United States in the year ending June 30, 1882 were of British, Irish, German or Scandinavian origin. In the course of the 1880s, however, the pattern of immigration began shifting toward southern and eastern Europe: the so-called New Immigration had begun, a process that by 1920 radically altered the ethnic composition of the nation.

Did these new immigrants reach the South, and, if so, with what degree of impact?

The immigrant population of the South in 1880 stood at 261,000. The following list identifies the five principal European sources of immigration at that time:

Germany 77,768 (29.7%)
Ireland 48,908 (18.7 %)
Britain 31,069 (11.9 %)
France 15,451 (5.7 %)
Scandinavia. 6,499 (2.5 %)

By 1910, when the total immigrant population of the south stood at 454,000, the five principal sources were these:

Germany 81,363 (17.9%)
Italy 44,353 (9.9%)
Britain 36,254 (7.9%)
Austria-Hungary 33,397 (7.1%)
Russia 26.561 (5.8%)

As these statistics show, the New Immigration did indeed penetrate the South, though to a far lesser extent than the north and west. Also, in keeping with the broader pattern, the makeup of the region’s immigrant population underwent significant alteration. By 1910 the ethnicity of the immigrant population had shifted decisively from northern and western Europe to the more southerly and easterly regions of the continent. The western and northern European component of the South’s immigrant population dropped from about 75 percent in 1880 to less than 38 percent by 1910, while the southern and eastern European share rose from a mere 3 percent in 1880 to some 25 percent by 1910.

What were some of the more notable characteristics of the growing southern and eastern European populations that were now entering the South? The nation states from which these immigrants came were, in several cases, polyglot empires in which minority elements were subject to various forms of social, economic, and religious discrimination. The case of the Russian Empire is particularly instructive. The largest ethnic element emanating that despotic empire, more than half the total number, were Jews. Another fourth were Poles, with Lithuanians and Germans making up much of the remainder. The number of ethnic Russians who emigrated was comparatively small.

The same was true of Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jews again comprised a disproportionately large share. One fourth of immigrants from this singularly diverse empire were Polish, with large numbers of Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians fleeing to America. Ethnic Germans, who constituted the majority of the empire’s people, made up only a small percentage of immigrants from Hapsburg lands.

The differences between the old and new immigration (pre 1880 versus post 1880) extended beyond ethnicity, however. In religion the new immigrants were mostly Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish, as against pre-1880 populations that were predominantly Protestant. These newer elements also spoke a greater variety of languages. Most importantly they tended to be poorer on average and less well-educated than earlier groups.

10. Impoverished Immigrants Arriving

Impoverished Eastern and Southern European immigrants landing in America.

The single largest ethnic group entering the United States in the 1880 to 1920 period were Italians. The great majority came from the impoverished and overpopulated southern half of the peninsula and from the island of Sicily. I will focus of this element in Part 2 of this essay.

Most of the New Immigrants had been employed on the land, but few owned land in fee-simple. Of Hungarian immigrants in 1907, for example, less than less than one in twelve could be classified as “farmers” in the fullest sense of that term, since they did not own the land they worked. On balance, as a leading historian of European immigration has noted, the New Immigration consisted preponderantly of the most vulnerable and least prosperous classes from the countryside, drawn from the least fertile and more crowded regions of Europe.


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