And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James, Agee, Walker Evans and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South
By Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson
Random House (1990)
This book is meant as a sequel to James Agee’s 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the original, Agee and Evans documented – though photos and biographical narrative – the profound poverty of white and black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt. The sequel also provides historical background about the invention of the Cotton Gin* in 1794, which first made cotton a viable crop in the southern US, and of cotton picking machines, gradually introduced in the 1950s, which ultimately put nine million sharecroppers out of work.
Between 1985-88, Maharidge and Williams revisited the same families that Agee and Evans had interviewed, compiling a coherent account of significant life events befalling children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original subjects. Sacramento Bee journalist Dale Marahidge, also provides a detailed analysis of various sharecropping schemes that were deliberately designed set up to keep families in debt. Typically the landlord advanced credit, based on a crop-lien agreement, and charged so high interest (as much as 200%) that families became virtual slaves when they couldn’t pay it. The end result was excruciating poverty, extreme malnutrition and chronic illnesses associated with malnutrition (mainly hookworm and pellagra**).
Despite contributing approximately one billion annually to the global economy, most tenant cotton farmers ended up owing money to the landlord. Maharidge maintains that without slavery and the sharecropping system that replaced it, there would have been no way the South could have produced cotton economically.
The book finishes by exploring develops that would end cotton cultivation in the Cotton Belt. In addition to the total mechanization of cotton farming that occurred after World War II, Maharidge blames the invention of and other synthetics, competition with other countries for cotton export markets and depletion of Cotton Belt soil due to the slash and burn mentality of large landholders.
At present, nearly all US cotton cultivation occurs in Texas and California and is totally mechanized. White tenant farmers displaced by the death of King Cotton could find work in southern factories that sprang up in the fifties and sixties. Owing to racial discrimination they faced from factory owners, former black tenant farmers mainly migrated to northern cities. Many, however, failed to find work, even after five years and longer.
Maharidge subscribes to the role played by massive unemployment of former black sharecroppers in triggering the early sixties civil rights movement.
*The cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, allowing for much greater productivity than manual cotton separation.
**Hookworm is an intestinal parasite and pellagra is a deficiency disease stemming from absence of Vitamin B3 in the diet.