A Tale of Two Georgias
Devastated by the War for Southern Independence and unhappy about Reconstruction, north Georgia and the rest of the state came out from under the thumb of direct military control in 1877. From the end of Reconstruction to the start of the next century it would a time of socio-economic upheaval for most of the people in the area. Although this "new Georgia", and in fact the entire "new South," began to think as part of the United States, the story of Georgia from 1877 to 1900 is the story of the formation of two societies, delineated by the color of one's skin.
Death of the KKK
A new Capital
Atlanta's accessibility, thanks to its creation as a rail center, made it a good choice for the state capital. The capital's move from Milledgeville, ordered by federal occupation forces, brought new life into nearby communities. Marietta was popular with the politicians looking for a place to live. By 1877 the general populace concurred with the move. That year a general vote to return the capital to Milledgeville failed.
By 1880 a railroad boom spread across the region. The Marietta and North Georgia railroad reaches Canton that year, and continued on to Ellijay in 1885 and Blue Ridge in 1893. To the east lines running to Dry Pond (Toccoa) and Elberton increased the number of markets available for farmers, however, in spite of this growing distribution system manufacturing rarely developed. A major reason for the lack of industry was the burdensome Railroad Tariffs imposed on the South after the Civil War. These supported northern industry by making it cheaper to transport the South's abundant raw materials north for manufacturing.
A new Nationalism
Out of the Civil War came a new feeling of Nationalism. Prior to the war the South, including Georgia, had become a nation within a nation, and great rifts separated it from the other states. After the war a "new South" emerges, advancing from the "states rights" mentality that had caused America's bloodiest conflict. Unfortunately, this "new South" only applied to White Protestant men. Jews, Catholics, Women and Blacks lived in a different reality, and it was former slaves who bore most of the burden.
As slaves many Blacks had become tradesmen, especially in jobs requiring heavy labor such as stone masons. After the war the need for this craft kept many former slaves working while White men were unemployed. Whites learned the craft and by 1880 it was almost entirely a White occupation with the Blacks forced to take menial roles.
The new slavery(s)
Two new forms of slavery developed. Georgia's convict leasing program (institutionalized in March, 1874, before the end of Reconstruction) allowed the state to lease inmates for 1 to 5 years. Inmates would be leased, for example, to coal mine operators in Dade County and paid virtually nothing for their work. The leased convicts were predominantly Black, and the system was accurately depicted in newspapers as "worse than slavery." While the lease-holders agreed to humane treatment and a ten-hour work day, they abused both the agreements and the convicts. The policy was so corrupt and abusive that by the end of the century the state outlawed the practice.
Rural tenant farmers, known as sharecroppers, were trapped in a modified form of slavery. This practice allowed landowners to "share" crops with tenant farmers who worked the land. This practice included many poor Whites as well as Blacks.
Cotton is King
The north Georgia economy turned to cotton as a staple. Dependence on the single crop led to a boom-bust economy throughout the state that would continue well into the 20th century. During the 23 years from 1877 to 1900 the biggest enemies of north Georgia were drought and falling cotton prices. Couple these with a burdensome crop lien system and it was difficult for farmers to make a living.
To offset losses many farmers turn to making distilled spirits. Long a tradition throughout the South, federal tax law turned these farmers into criminals after the Civil War. While significant moonshine operations continued into the 1980's, this period represented widespread violation of the recently enacted laws.
The Populist movement in Georgia
The one-party system encouraged by the Ku Klux Klan had created a vacuum that needed to be filled. Many of the people, especially in north Georgia, felt that the Democrats had not done enough to help working farmers. Alienated Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans gave rise to a number of Independent candidates towards the end of the 1870's. Among the independents elected was Populist leader Tom Watson and Cartersville's Dr. William Fenton. The movement was only briefly successful in Georgia, and by 1882 the Democratic Party had regained almost complete control of the state.
Watson, who had run on a platform espousing racial tolerance, went on to be the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the 1896 election. Over time he became a vile, embittered man, spewing vitriolic, hate-filled epitaphs aimed at virtually every minority in the Nation.
The Charleston earthquake and other events in 1886
In 1886 the Charleston (SC) earthquake (Aug. 31) was felt throughout the northern tier of the state as far south as Lawrenceville. That same year Henry Grady spoke to northern audiences about "The New South," a term coined earlier by noted Georgia orator and politician, Ben Hill. Grady painted a picture of Black and White working together to mold a new society. Unfortunately, hypocrisy had brought Grady firmly into its camp. For while the Civil War had made slavery a thing of the past, hypocrisy was in full bloom -- that year Georgia leads the nation in public lynchings.
1886 was the year of a massive undertaking as far as the railroads were concerned. Georgia's small-gauge railroads were on the way out, thanks to the invention of the Pullman railroad car. Across the state crews added a third rail to accommodate the new cars.
Sometime prior to 1891 many states across the nation began to pass laws requiring separation of blacks and other races. It was a time when these Americans were believed to be inferior to other races, based on "scientific evidence." Schools, libraries, and transportation all required separate facilities for black and white. Of course, in many rural areas in north Georgia, this meant warm, friendly surroundings for whites and the cold side of the door for blacks.
The laws governed many aspects of life, from the house, to business, to military. Examples of Jim Crow laws include:
Georgia in the 1890's
In September, 1893, the first National Military Park was dedicated. Encompassing over 800 acres and including much of the land where the battle of Chickamauga was fought, the park was intended to heal the open wounds of war. Today the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park is one of the most-visited parks in the system.
The Supreme Court handed down its "separate but equal" ruling on May 18, 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. Although the words do not appear in the ruling, it validated the practice of segregation and remains today as one of the worst miscarriages of justice perpetrated on the American people as a whole and Blacks in particular. For the next 65 years these Americans would struggle to gain a voice in the United States.
February, 1899, brought an East Coast storm to North Georgia. This "Blizzard of '99" dumped over two feet of snow in many localities, and brought life to a standstill for more than a week.
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