WASHINGTON, September 18, 2017 – No one can argue that slavery in the South, in large part, revolved around cotton; specifically the growing and picking of the picturesque white balls of fluff led to the enslavement and ill-treatment of blacks, captured by warring tribes in Africa, who were sold into slavery in the new world.
The history of cotton in synonymous with slavery. And it is ugly. No argument.
On PBS.org, Henry William Gates writes “Why was cotton king?”:
“Slave-produced cotton “brought commercial ascendancy to New York City, was the driving force for territorial expansion in the Old Southwest and fostered trade between Europe and the United States,” according to Gene Dattel. In fact, cotton productivity, no doubt due to the sharecropping system that replaced slavery, remained central to the American economy for a very long time: “Cotton was the leading American export from 1803 to 1937.”
What did cotton production and slavery have to do with Great Britain? The figures are astonishing. As Dattel explains: “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over 80 percent of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.”
If there was one ultimate cause of the Civil War, it was King Cotton — black-slave-grown cotton — “the most important determinant of American history in the nineteenth century,” Dattel concludes. “Cotton prolonged America’s most serious social tragedy, slavery, and slave-produced cotton caused the American Civil War.” And that is why it was something of a miracle that even the New England states joined the war to end slavery.And, finally, New England? As Ronald Bailey shows, cotton fed the textile revolution in the United States. “In 1860, for example, New England had 52 percent of the manufacturing establishments and 75 percent of the 5.14 million spindles in operation,” he explains. The same goes for looms. In fact, Massachusetts “alone had 30 percent of all spindles, and Rhode Island another 18 percent.” Most impressively of all, “New England mills consumed 283.7 million pounds of
“In 1860, for example, New England had 52 percent of the manufacturing establishments and 75 percent of the 5.14 million spindles in operation,” he explains. The same goes for looms. In fact, Massachusetts “alone had 30 percent of all spindles, and Rhode Island another 18 percent.” Most impressively of all, “New England mills consumed 283.7 million pounds of cotton, or 67 percent of the 422.6 million pounds of cotton used by U.S. mills in 1860.” In other words, on the eve of the Civil War, New England’s economy, so fundamentally dependent upon the textile industry, was inextricably intertwined, as Bailey puts it, “to the labor of black people working as slaves in the U.S. South.”
So cotton, the growing, and harvesting of cotton, had everything to do with slavery for without slaves to perform the arduous task of picking and processing cotton, the large Southern plantations would not have flourished.
Once we understand the paramount economic importance of cotton to the economies of the United States and Great Britain, we can begin to appreciate the enormity of the achievements of the black and white abolitionists who managed to marshal moral support for the abolition of slavery, as well as those half a million slaves who “marched with their feet” and fled to Union lines as soon as they could following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Cotton’s sinister past is triggering those whose lives have been consumed by taking affront to anything connected to America’s history. And while the Confederate flag and many statues belong in museums, are we ready to ban cotton?
Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University in Tennessee had invited African-American students over his house for dinner when some became triggered over the fact that Lowry had a cotton centerpiece on his table, not unlike the stalks above.
Here is what one of the students had to say:
Tonight AFRICAN AMERICAN students were invited to have dinner with the president of the school. As we arrived to the president’s home and proceeded to go in we seen cotton as the centerpieces. We also stood and ate dinner, there were no seats to sit in and it felt very uncomfortable.
We were very offended, and also the meals that were provided resembled many “black meals” they had mac n cheese, collard greens, cornbread etc. The night before Latinos also had dinner at his house and they had tacos. They also DIDN’T have the centerpiece that we HAD tonight.
A couple of minutes went by, the president was coming around and asking for our names and what our major was. He finally got to our table and my friend @kay_cyann asked why there was cotton on the table as the centerpiece. His response was that he didn’t know, he seen it before we did, he kind of thought it was “ fallish”, THEN he said “ it ISNT INHERENTLY BAD IF WERE ALL WEARING IT ”
Reading the student’s post, the dinner menu choices, and seeing the centerpieces, it seems the president’s party planner needs a bit of sensitivity training, because the choices made are questionable, at the least.
But the university president is not wrong. Cotton is the most used fiber in the world and a leading cash crop in the U.S. The production of each year’s crop stimulates business involves the purchase of more than $5.3 billion worth of supplies and services stimulating business, and jobs, throughout the country from the planting to the processing of the crop. Annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $120 billion, making cotton America’s number one value-added crop.
Annual business revenue stimulated by cotton in the U.S. economy exceeds $120 billion, making cotton America’s number one value-added crop is grown in Texas where 25% of the country’s cotton crop is grown.
California grows cotton in seven counties within the San Joaquin Valley, though Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley. California is the largest producer of Pima cotton in the United States.
The California cotton industry provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state and generates revenues in excess of $3.5 billion annually. (Wikipedia)
In Florida cotton is grown in the Santa Rosa County, and accounts for more than 50% of the regions crop harvest. In Mississippi, 1.1 million acres are planted each year.
While cotton has a history dyed red by the blood of slavery, slavery is only a part of its history. Toward the end of the 1920s, some two-thirds of all African-American farm tenants and almost three-fourths of share-croppers (farmers who paid rent on their lands by sharing part of their crop) worked on cotton farms. Three out of four black farm operators earned at least 40% of their income from cotton farming during this period.
While cotton enslaved African-Americans, it also helped to bring them out of the fields as slaves. Studies conducted during the same period indicated that two in three black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming (Wikipedia).
Today the planting, harvesting, and processing are largely automated and do not rely on human resources, legal, illegal or low paid, to process or turn the cotton into cloth. The United States cotton industry exports 5.7 million bales of raw cotton every year, but are behind both China ($15 billion) and India ($6.3 billion) in the $51.2 billion global export sales of cotton.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Services, the U.S. cotton industry generates some 200,000 jobs from the farm to the textile mill leading to the $25 billion in U.S. products and service.
As textile production began to support developing countries, U.S. textile production has declined despite demand for cotton products remaining strong. Unfortunately, imported clothing now accounts for most purchases by U.S. consumers.
China, India, and Pakistan consume two-thirds of the worlds raw cotton, followed by Turkey and Brazile. The U.S. in sixth place as we ship our raw cotton out only to buy it back as clothing, cloth, towels, blankets, sheets, and so forth.
While cotton is synonymous with slavery, it is also about so much more. Thirty percent of the world’s consumption of cotton fiber crosses international borders before processing, a larger share than for wheat, corn, soybeans, or rice.
Through trade in yarn, fabric, and clothing, much of the world’s cotton again crosses international borders at least once more before reaching the final consumer.
Recognizing cotton’s past, it should not be vilified, as all things white and Southern have been. Cotton impacts our economy, our daily lives and, as President Lowry said, it’s kind of “fallish”.