Agriculture and Rural Life in the South, 1900–1945
- William Thomas OkieWilliam Thomas OkieKennesaw State University
The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.