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Those cotton-picking maps

The excellent Strange Maps produced a fascinating overlay of Obama votes in this month's presidential election compared with cotton production in 1860. Not surprisingly there is a huge correlation: cotton in 1860 => slaves => black population now => Obama support.

The one thing that jumped out at me, after admiring the clarity of the general point, was that anomaly in southern Tennessee, where a concentration of cotton farms marked on the 1860 map translates into no correlation at all with the Obama votes in 2008.

The cotton concentration shown is mainly in Lawrence County (briefly the home of Davy Crockett, now the home of presidential hopeful Fred Thompson), with some spillover into Giles County; yet in the election, Lawrence voted for McCain over Obama by 66% to 32%, and Giles by 59% to 39%. (Lawrence has a 1.47% black population; Giles 11.80%.)

The commenters on the Strange Maps post put forward two theories to account for the lack of Obama votes in Lawrence and Giles Counties. First, that there were never many blacks there in the first place, because local agricultural practices were different: "Greg" says that "much of the cotton production in northern Alabama and southern Tennessee during the antebellum era was done on small family farms rather than large plantations. These poor white farmers couldn't afford slaves, and resented having to compete with plantations that relied on slave labor." Sam Persons Parkes adds that "Lawrence County has always been about 99% white."

The second is that the black population has left. "Goateebird" suggests that it has to do with the Ku Klux Klan, which was actually founded in Pulaski, the seat of Giles County. "DG" decries the KKK explanation, and says instead that the black population of southern Tennessee fled en mass to Nashville (a visibly blue part of the map with no 1860 cotton production) at an early stage of the Civil War. I must say that myself I wondered if this might turn out to be a parallel to the ethnic cleansing phenomenon of sundown towns.

But after a bit more research, I am inclining towards the first theory. The 1860 map comes from Sam Bowers Hilliard's Atlas of Antebellum Southern Agriculture, and can be found online here, an on-line publication of a book about the Savannah river by the National Park Service. That same page also has maps showing cotton production in 1820 and 1850, and most importantly slave population in 1860. Tennessee is represented as follows:

Tennessee cotton production, 1820

Tennessee cotton production, 1850

Tennessee cotton production, 1860

Tennessee enslaved population, 1860

That final map is pretty conclusive: rather than being kicked out by the KKK, or fleeing to Union-controlled territory, Lawrence County's black cotton plantation slaves simply weren't there in the first place. I have to say I find the sudden surge of cotton production in that area shown in the 1860 map a bit suspicious, and wonder just exactly how accurate it is to locate it in Lawrence County; I'm inclined to suspect that the real growth was a little further south and east around Decatur, Alabama.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 22nd, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC)
Interesting theories. Although being someone from Tennessee myself, and having seen all this, I have to say that I completely understand why there's that anomaly right there and these things turned out like they did.

There's a step they forgot in their whole equation is that major cotton production centers in the south eventually began to turn into cities and larger urban areas as the South, and America in general, trended away from being an agriculture based economy.

And African-Americans in the South have a history of heading towards bigger cities and urban areas to seek jobs, especially as farming became increasingly less profitable and feasible on a small scale.

If you'll notice the western most part of Tennessee (and most blue) is right smack dab over Memphis, which while it was a significant cotton producer, it later (after the war) became a river town that handled a lot of transportation because it's right there on the Mississippi River and it's a convenient hub.

Notice that in Georgia and Alabama, the blue trend sweeps through (roughly) the areas that correspond to Atlanta and Montgomery respectively, also fairly big cities.

As for Nashville, I have to say that I don't know if you can directly correlate it turning blue to African American votes. Nashville as a city not only has several colleges, but is a more affluent and liberal city than a lot of the surrounding counties and towns, which are abysmally rural. I can attest to this personally, having lived within an hour or two of Nashville most of my life.

Also, the map doesn't take into account that Nashville is overwhelmingly white yet turned blue on the map. FYI, it has a 69% white population where Memphis is actually majority African American with a 61% African American population.
Nov. 22nd, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
But it's not just Obama, it's Democrats in general. I noticed the same band of blue (and the parallel arc of red to the north, which is the Appalachians) in the 2004 election too:

As a commenter noted, patterns like this go all the way back to geology. Maybe there ought to be an American version of Richard Fortey's wonderful book about Britain, The Hidden Landscape.

Nov. 25th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
Thanks! I had noticed that too, and wondered...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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