Are we that different? Thoughts on shared history of North and South – from the cotton economy to 20th-century fights for freedoms

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

Early 19th-century Salem wharf. Illustration by Fred Freeman. Photo by National Park Service

Early 19th-century Salem wharf. Illustration by Fred Freeman. Photo by National Park Service

By Jamil Zainaldin

Previously, I wrote of a summer family vacation week in New England — Massachusetts specifically — and the intertwining stories of Georgia and the Bay State that we discovered.

This wasn’t so surprising, since both places share a common history: as members of the original 13 English colonies, having fought each other when the concept of the Union came under attack, and having joined each other to fight in two world wars.

But our shared history can sometimes be obscured as we hear the differences between the North and South emphasized. Discovering afresh the dynamic corridors of North and South interaction throughout our country’s history is a reminder of just how much we are part of one another and how much this interaction has contributed to the knitting together of the unique character of the American.

Here are a few more instances of our connected stories and how we have influenced each other.

Cotton

Memorable for the trials and hangings of witches by the Puritans, Salem was, a century later, a leading American seaport in the coastal Atlantic and Pacific trade. Georgia cotton that was shipped from Savannah landed at Salem’s crowded wharfs for processing in nearby mills. It was in turn shipped to Africa and the Orient as finished cotton fabric — a critical link in Georgia’s and New England’s antebellum economies.

Slavery

Ellen and William Craft, escaped slaves, lived in Boston and England before returning to Georgia in 1870.

Ellen and William Craft, escaped slaves, lived in Boston and England before returning to Georgia in 1870.

The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Fanny Kemble, a brilliant English Shakespearean actress, became devoted friends and lifelong correspondents after her blockbuster stage performance in Boston in 1846 (he later dedicated a poem to her).

At the same time, Kemble’s marriage to Pierce Mease Butler, an American slave owner she had met earlier on her acting tour, was unraveling (and would end in a messy divorce). The heart of the dispute was the treatment of slaves on Butler’s massive St. Simons Island plantation. Kemble went on to publish Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, a condemnation of the slavery system. Given Kemble’s enormous popularity in her homeland, this narrative of the conditions of slave life may have contributed to Britain’s reluctance to enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Photo by Library of Congress

Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Photo by Library of Congress

The institution of slavery horrified many in the North who refused to return fugitive slaves, infuriating southern slave owners who demanded their prompt return as “rightful property.”

Daniel Webster was the senator of Massachusetts who helped negotiate the Compromise of 1850 that 1) admitted California as a free state, and 2) made it easier for slave owners to retrieve runaway slaves by mandating the assistance of federal marshals in free states. In short, Webster helped extend the life of slavery in the Union.

Historical evidence points to the probability that Webster fathered a son born of a slave who had been his cook in Washington. Being sold (and resold) later, his slave son was given the name Robert Yancey by his owner in Athens, Georgia. Yancey happened to be living in Atlanta when Sherman’s troops entered the city in 1864 — indeed, Yancey was part of a mayoral delegation surrendering the city to their captors. In the event, he may have been the first slave (or among the first) in Atlanta emancipated by Union occupation — a surprising conclusion for the son of the senator.

While Daniel Webster represents those Northerners who took a more moderate stance in hopes of preserving the Union, others were radicalized by slavery and became fiery abolitionists.

Theodore Parker, a Universalist minister in Boston, was one of them; Parker’s congregation included abolitionists and town leaders. In 1850, the year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, he helped rescue and hide from bounty hunters in Boston two runaway slaves from Georgia, Ellen and William Craft.

"Freedom of Speech," by Norman Rockwell (1943). Photo by Norman Rockwell Museum

“Freedom of Speech,” by Norman Rockwell (1943). Photo by Norman Rockwell Museum

Martin Luther King Jr. likely encountered Parker’s legacy while he was a student in Boston in 1953, for he cited Parker’s words in an article for “The Gospel Messenger”: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Hearing those words again from King in other speeches reminds us that the journey for freedom begun in our earliest days as a nation continues to go on for all peoples.

Freedom

What does Norman Rockwell’s famous “Four Freedoms” series of paintings — Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Worship — held in the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, have to do with Georgia?

The original inspiration for these paintings came from Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s 1941 inaugural address in which he articulated the “Four Freedoms.” The paintings toured the nation in 1943 as part of a sales drive for war bonds (they raised $132 million) to help support the war effort against fascism.

Without the healing powers of Georgia’s Warm Springs that attracted FDR to the state in the 1920s (there was no cure then for the polio from which he suffered), there would be no FDR presidency and no successful Allied entry into World War II. When FDR arrived immobile and depressed at the springs in 1924, his only hope was to be able to walk again, not to lead a country.

His time at Warm Springs gave him not only the will to return to public life but also a second home, Georgia. Looking at Rockwell’s paintings of hope and courage, can we imagine this virtual theme of America’s involvement in World War II without Roosevelt’s healing time at Warm Springs? I think not!

Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

3 replies
  1. Thomas S. Upchurch says:

    This is a great read by Jamil S. Zainaldin, who writes Jamil’s Georgia in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Jamil is the CEO of The Georgia Humanities.Report

    Reply

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