A 1950s View of the Southern Plantation System

[Cross-Posted at the Atlantic]

The following documentary fits neatly into the culture of 1950s America. Southern plantations were depicted as scenes of peaceful coexistence between master and slaves before the Civil War and through the era of Jim Crow. According to this narrative, slave labor led naturally to sharecropping, and both arrangements provided the two parties with an equal benefit within an organic community. One can hear echoes of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, which played down the evils of slavery and the coming of emancipation and freedom.

Today, if we visit a social gathering in the south, we’ll see some of these things. The gentle manners and courtesy. The separation of society into distinct groups. And the relationship of that society to the land, which supplies its wealth. These are some of the things the plantation system has contributed to southern life.

The nation’s collective memory of its Southern past, which included no hint of any racial or class tension, reinforced America’s self-proclaimed status as leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War. Within a few years, this view would be shattered by bus boycotts, Freedom Riders, and lunch-counter sit-ins. As a result, by the end of the 1960s, a new interpretation of the Antebellum South began to emerge, one that attempted to deal more honestly with some of the tougher questions related to slavery and race.

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7 comments… add one
  • Karen Dec 3, 2014 @ 7:39

    Thank you for posting this. I’m working on a project for Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” and will be using a snippet of the video to establish the setting.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Apr 30, 2012 @ 14:26

    I just threw up in my mouth. Imagine what a Soviet researcher into American society thought of this.

    If any short movie needed the MST3K treatment, this is it. Look up their takes on “Why Study Industrial Arts” or “Truck Farming.”

    • Michael Douglas Apr 30, 2012 @ 21:10

      Well, the Soviets had issues of their own in this regard. We had nothing on them when it came to manipulation of historical “memory” during this time period. 😉

  • Keith Muchowski Apr 30, 2012 @ 7:08

    I wonder if the mid-twentieth century sharecroppers understood they were being filmed in part to depict life on an antebellum plantation. It would be fascinating to know. The first clip obviously takes place in a museum, and the overseer in the cotton picking scene appears to be dressed in period costume. In the second clip, it seems to be the same cotton pickers but with the landowner and the black foremen (for lack of a better term) dressed in their modern finest. No attempt seems to have been made to either “modernize” the sharecroppers or show them in period dress. They seem to just be wearing their contemporary work clothes.

  • Page Gilliam Apr 30, 2012 @ 6:13

    “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” – Bob Dylan

  • Shanon Hays Apr 30, 2012 @ 5:14

    This conjures memories of Looney Toones…the little “Colonel Sanders” dude sitting on his verandah calling out (insert ludicrous southern accent): “Belvedere….Belvedere! Come here, boy.”

    • Kevin Levin Apr 30, 2012 @ 5:16

      I agree.

      They are, however, wonderful teaching tools. They can be used to get a number of issues related to memory and they tell us a great deal about how America chose to see itself during the postwar years and before the racial turmoil of the 1950s and 60s. So much for the illusion of an organic and peaceful community.

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