Nobody can accuse Frank Hyman of not being a true Southerner.
The Beaufort County, South Carolina native attended segregated schools as a child. At 18, he campaigned against the late Sen. Strom Thurmond and served on the Durham, North Carolina, City Council where he wrote the first Living Wage Ordinance in the South. But he also says that his favorite uncle, AJ, was a KKK Wizard who kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car.
Hyman’s a stone mason, a carpenter and an avid gardener who writes the “Coop Builder” column for Chickens Magazine. You can have him build you a custom chicken coop if you’d like.
And he wants people to know that for a significant share of white Southerners, the Confederacy — and the slave economy it defended — was a huge scam. And in an essay that ran last month in a number of newspapers across the South, he argued that the mythology surrounding the Confederacy still hoodwinks many of his white working-class Southerners to this day.
Hyman appeared on Politics and Reality Radio last week to lay out his argument. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Holland: You say the Confederacy was a con job on whites then and now. Didn’t white Southerners profit immensely from slavery prior to the Civil War?
Frank Hyman: Yeah, but most of the profit then, as now, went to the one-percenters – people at the top of the pile. About a third of Southern families did own slaves, so it was pretty widespread, but there were plenty of families that might own one or two enslaved Africans. They weren’t wealthy. The bulk of all slaves were owned by the top 5 percent or 10 percent of Southern families.
A small number of people in the South profited immensely. In my research I found that most of the one-percenters in the US were Southerners, not Northern industrialists. The Southern states were wealthier than any nation in Europe except for England, because there was so much money to be made growing cash-crops if you weren’t actually paying people to help you harvest them.
But there was a middle class. In addition to those smaller landholders, there must have been other people who sold wagon wheels or imported fancy goods from Europe or whatever.
Right, but for the bulk of the population – what we would call the working-class today — slavery wasn’t at all financially beneficial. One-third of the population were African-Americans being paid nothing for their work, and that drove down wages. And not just in agriculture. Slavery drove down wages in the skilled crafts because a quarter of all enslaved people were trained to be carpenters and cobblers and masons and wheelwrights and shipwrights – and everything else you could imagine. The slave-owners thought, ‘gosh, why should I pay this white guy a professional wage when I can just train some of my slaves to do the work?’
So most white folks in the South were economic losers because of slavery, but many of them bought into the institution for what they saw as its social value. They might have a crummy deal in life, but somebody else had it even worse than they did. That was a big selling point in a lot of the literature from that period, many of which were owned by slaveholders. Pamphlets, newspapers, novels and magazines conveyed the message that you might have it rough as a poor white person, but you were still better off than black people.
I think we should pause here to make it clear that you’re not in any way suggesting that whites were the true victims of slavery in the plantation economy.
No, I’m saying that blacks were the primary victims of the Confederacy and the slave economy and that’s one very good reason to take down the battle flag. And I’m saying that the slavery system also undermined wages for Southern working class whites. And that’s another good reason to banish the flag from public spaces outside of museums.
Blacks were brutally enslaved and then, after the war, kept down through Jim Crow laws and a campaign of violent terrorism, but the ideology of the Confederacy was a con-job on whites.
You write that they employed propaganda techniques that would be familiar to modern Americans. Those pamphlets and magazines also promised that there would be a kind of trickle-down effect that would raise all boats. They even claimed that it was beneficial for the slaves.
Yes, exactly. That’s how they sold it in the literature of those days. Of course, they didn’t use the term “trickle-down.” We had to get into the 20th century before somebody came up with that. But that was the message they conveyed – that by having all this wealth, the plantation owners would be buying things and hiring people for things, and that would benefit the working class. The numbers just don’t support that, but as you know, anybody can say anything in politics.
They did claim that slaves in the South were better off than what they called “wage slaves” in the North, but that wasn’t true. Northerners had a higher rate of land ownership than Southern whites and a much higher literacy rate than Southern whites because not only were the plantation owners maintaining a no-wage economy for blacks and a low-wage economy for whites, they were also maintaining a very low tax environment, so there wasn’t any money for public schools for either white or black people. If you were wealthy, you could get tutoring and private schools for your kids, but Southern working-class folks were often illiterate and rarely owned the land that they worked on.
So it was a very unequal society, yet even poor whites fought and died to preserve the institution of slavery. There’s a personal angle here for you, right?
Yeah, Canna Hyman was one of my kinsmen from that era. He and his two sons were in the fields and a note from our family history says, “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up, and all three went away to the war, and only one son, William, came back.” Now, they might have owned one slave in the 1850s, but they didn’t own slaves at this point. Otherwise, they would have been able to use that as an excuse to stay on the farm because a lot of the Southern states had exemptions to the draft: If you owned a certain number of slaves, you didn’t have to go to war.
Canna lost an arm. One son came back whole. The other son died. They went because it made sense to them to maintain the institution of slavery. They didn’t own slaves, but they felt they benefited from it.
And American historians rarely make it clear that not everybody in the South was pro-slavery. In fact, North Carolina held a referendum on whether to secede from the Union, and a majority of the white men over 21 who voted in that referendum voted “No.” They didn’t want to be part of the Confederacy. North Carolina only seceded when the General Assembly decided a few months later to just go ahead and pass the Articles of Secession.
I take it the legislature was more representative of the elites of the day than of average North Carolinians.
Right, yes. A disproportionate number of legislators all over the South were slave-owners. Of course, even then, it took money to campaign and where was that money to be found? From slave-owners.
This does have a kind of resonance with the politics of today. What do you mean when you say that the Confederacy is still a con job?
What I mean is that the wealthy no longer believe in slavery, but they still use the trickle down argument as a way to get working class people on their side. Today they’re saying, ‘When we buy yachts, you’ll benefit.’ The numbers still don’t support the rhetoric. Productivity has been on a rising arc ever since World War II ended, but since the end of the 1970s, wages for working people have been flat. They’re really suffering because of the way this whole trickle-down ideology captures working-class whites in the South.
And then you still have racist dog-whistles and what some call the ‘God, gays, and guns’ gambit. You still have this Lost Cause mythology around the Confederacy. So you have people lower on the income ladder who are consistently voting against their own economic interests today just as you did back then.
In the rest of the country, the white working class vote was split pretty evenly between Romney and Obama in 2012, but in the South, the white working class went 2-to-1 for Romney – to a rich Yankee from Massachusetts.