It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.
Judge Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove had invited me to join him for a lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.
The lecturer: Sven Beckert, the author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”
Beckert, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. His book, published in 2014, chronicles the rise and fall of cotton and the central role it once played in the world economy.
“This fluffy white fiber is at the center of this book,” Beckert writes. “The plant itself does not make history, but if we listen carefully, it will tell us of people all over the world who spent their lives with cotton: Indian weavers, slaves in Alabama, Greek merchants in the Nile Delta towns, highly organized craft workers in Lancashire. The empire of cotton was built with their labor, imagination and skills. By 1900 about 1.5 percent of the human population — millions of men, women and children — were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting or manufacturing cotton.
“Edward Atkinson, a mid-19th century Massachusetts cotton manufacturer, was essentially correct when he pointed out that ‘there is no other product that has had so potent and malign an influence in the past upon the history and institutions of the land; and perhaps no other on which its future material welfare may more depend.’ Atkinson was speaking of the United States and its history of slavery, but his argument could be applied to the world as a whole.”
The Abramson family has a long history in the cotton culture of Arkansas. Rue and Venda Abramsom, who in 1921 built the house at Holly Grove were I spent a delightful evening last summer, were Holly Grove natives. Their parents had been among the first people to settle in the area after the Civil War. Raymond Abramson is a grandson of Rue Abramson and part of a rich tradition of Jewish farmers and merchants in the Delta, a tradition that’s rapidly disappearing.
In addition to farming, Rue Abramson operated a bank and several businesses. He opened the town’s first modern garage and service station in 1927. The official listing of the Abramson house on the National Register of Historic Places states: “The Abramsons were active in the commercial life of Holly Grove as merchants, ginners and plantation owners. By 1922, they also founded the First National Bank of Holly Grove. They were active in civic affairs. They were leaders in such organizations as the Crowley’s Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Monroe County Fair Association, the Sahara Temple of Pine Bluff, the American Red Cross, B’nai B’rith, Temple Beth El of Helena and various other Jewish organizations.”
Rue Abramson selected a well-known Memphis architect, Estes Mann, to design his home. Mann had a remarkable career, designing more than 1,800 residences across the Mid-South, including some of the finest houses in Memphis. Mann was a Marianna native.
In the city’s commercial district a few blocks away from the Abramson home, Rue Abramson’s R. Abramson Co. owned four buildings. Rue’s son, Ralph, later took over the family’s businesses. Ralph’s wife, Rosemary, was a Memphis native who married Ralph in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Holly Grove. Rosemary (Raymond’s mother) died in January 2013 at age 93.
Raymond Abramson received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1973 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1976. He and his wife Mockie, a Virginia native, split their time between Little Rock and Holly Grove but maintain deep ties to Monroe County. I enjoyed sitting with them at the lecture and then talking about the Arkansas cotton culture at dinner later that evening.
I’ll say it again: You can’t understand the history of Arkansas if you don’t understand the history of cotton cultivation in the state.
Beckert wrote this about the spread of cotton into the American South: “Planters brought with them thousands of slaves. In the 1790s, the slave population of the state of Georgia nearly doubled, to 60,000. In South Carolina, the number of slaves in the upcountry cotton-growing districts grew from 21,000 in 1790 to 70,000 two decades later, including 15,000 slaves newly brought from Africa. As cotton plantations spread, the proportion of slaves in four typical South Carolina upcountry counties increased from 18.4 percent in 1790 to 39.5 percent in 1820 and to 61.1 percent in 1860. All the way to the Civil War, cotton and slavery would expand in lockstep, as Great Britain and the United States had become the twin hubs of the emerging empire of cotton.
“The only substantial problem was the land, as the same patch could not be used for more than a few years without either planting legumes on it or applying expensive guano to it. As one Putnam County, Ga., planter lamented, ‘We appear to have but one rule — that is to make as much cotton as we can, and wear out as much land as we can … lands that once produced 1,000 pounds of cotton to the acre will not now bring more than 400 pounds.’
“Yet even soil exhaustion did not slow the cotton barons; they simply moved farther west and farther south. Newly emptied lands, portable slave labor and the new ginning technology allowed cotton to be easily transferred to new territories. After 1815, cotton planters moved westward into the rich lands of upland South Carolina and Georgia. Their migration to Alabama and Louisiana, and eventually to Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, was choreographed to the movement of cotton prices.
“While the price of cotton gradually declined over the first half of the 19th century, sharp price upswings — such as in the first half of the 1810s, between 1832 and 1837, and again after the mid-1840s — produced expansionist bursts. In 1811, one-sixteenth of all cotton grown in the United States came from states and territories west of South Carolina and Georgia. By 1820, that share had reached one-third, and in 1860 three-fourths. New cotton fields sprouted in the sediment-rich lands along the banks of the Mississippi, the upcountry of Alabama and the black prairie of Arkansas. So rapid was this move westward that by the end of the 1830s, Mississippi already produced more cotton than any other Southern state.”
Beckert points out that “the entry of the United States into the empire of cotton was so forceful that cotton cultivation in the American South quickly began to reshape the global cotton markets.
Consider these facts:
— In 1790, three years before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the United States produced 1.5 millions pounds of cotton.
— By 1800, the United States produced 36.5 million pounds of cotton.
— By 1820, the United States produced 167.5 million pounds of cotton.
— By 1802, the United States had become the most important supplier of cotton to the British market.
— By 1857, the United States was producing almost as much cotton as China.
“American upland cotton, which Whitney’s gin worked up so efficiently, was exceedingly well suited to the requirements of British manufacturers,” Beckert writes. “While the gin damaged the fiber, the cotton remained suitable for the production of cheaper, coarser yarns and fabrics in high demand among the lower classes in Europe and elsewhere. But for American supplies, the miracle of mass production of yarn and cloth, and the ability of new consumers to buy these cheap goods, would have foundered on old realities of the traditional cotton market. The much-vaunted consumer revolution in textiles stemmed from a dramatic transformation in the structure of plantation slavery.”
You will notice that Beckert mentioned blackland prairies when talking about Arkansas. He was referring to lands in southwest Arkansas that were the center of cotton production in the state before the Civil War, making Washington in Hempstead County a key trading center.
It wasn’t until well after the Civil War that most of the swamps were drained and the timber was cut from the vast bottomland hardwood forests of east Arkansas. Once that occurred, the Arkansas Delta became an integral part of the empire of cotton. At one point in the early 1900s, the Wilson Plantation in northeast Arkansas was one of the largest cotton plantations in the country and Mississippi County claimed to grow more cotton than any other U.S. county.
Beckert explains the westward expansion of the empire of cotton this way: “In the United States, the expansion of land under cotton occurred in two distinct ways. Cotton production expanded into the remoter hinterlands of older American cotton states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, now made accessible by railroads, where white upcountry farmers began growing much larger quantities. In the South Atlantic states, annual production, for example, increased by a factor of 3.1 between 1860 and 1920.
“In Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, by contrast, annual cotton production stayed level until the end of the century and declined by about 25 percent in 1920 due to the exhaustion of cotton soils and the emergence of more productive cotton-growing areas farther west. Yes even despite the tired soil, cotton production dramatically expanded in some areas, such as in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where large numbers of African-Americans cultivated cotton, enabled by new railroads, canals and levees. As a result, by 1900, one of the most highly specialized cotton-producing areas in the world emerged.
“The most dramatic expansion of cotton agriculture, however, occurred farther to the west. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the production of cotton exploded from 1,576,594 bales in 1860 to 7,283,000 bales in 1920 — a factor of 4.6 in the half century after the Civil War. By far, the most important expansion took place in Texas, a state whose farmers had only produced 431,463 bales of cotton in 1860 but produced 10 times as many — 4,345,000 bales — in 1920. Indeed, the cotton growth of 1920 in Texas alone equaled about 80 percent of that of the entire South in 1860. And by the late 1910s and early 1920s, vast investments in irrigation infrastructure by the federal government enabled a further extension of cotton agriculture in the arid lands of Arizona and California.”
The evils of segregation and the loss of work due to the mechanization of cotton farming made Arkansas a participant in the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to cities in the upper Midwest.
Drought and low cotton prices also drove a lot of whites from the state. John Steinbeck made the Okies famous in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but there were just as many white Arkies headed west. That trend continued for years.
Between the whites (and some blacks) heading west and the blacks heading north, Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population between 1940 and 1960 than any other state.
Nationally, about 6 million blacks fled the South from 1915-70.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Isabel Wilkerson writes: “The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia up the Eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and their satellites. A second current traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black Southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.”
Wilkerson notes that by the mid-1930s, some grade-school classrooms for blacks in Milwaukee had almost “every child from Mississippi, Tennessee or Arkansas.”
The outmigration continues to this day in a number of Arkansas Delta counties.
Raymond Abramson’s native Monroe County lost a larger percentage of its residents — more than 20 percent — between the 2000 census and the 2010 census than any other Arkansas county.
The irony is that the land in these Delta counties is more valuable than ever, producing bumper crops most years of soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, wheat and grain sorghum. Arkansas farmers are among the best in the world at what they do. They’re so efficient that they need few employees. Land that once required hundreds of sharecroppers to chop and pick cotton can now be farmed with just a handful of laborers.
Left behind in the Arkansas Delta are the landowners — whose wives may drive Mercedes and BMWs and whose kids may attend Ivy League schools — and the poorest of the poor, those who couldn’t escape.
I’m reminded of how Sven Beckert closes “Empire of Cotton”: “A world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next. The capitalist revolution, after all, perpetually re-creates our world, just as the world’s looms perpetually manufacture new materials.”