The Role of Poor Whites in the Reconstruction era South


In American Negro Slavery, Ulrich Phillips wrote, “A great number of southerners at all time held the firm, belief that the negro population was so docile, so little cohesive, and in the main so friendly toward the whites and so contented that a disastrous insurrection by them would be impossible.” In observing slaves alone, many plantation owners came up with this conclusion based on the behavior of the majority of slaves that were owned, along with the belief that blacks were naturally programmed to be submissive and obedient, as stated by the character Calvin Candy in Django. Looking only at the population of black slaves, to southerners it seemed almost impossible. But with poor white people thrown into the mix, a fear began to boil within.


“The slave holders… suspected that non-slaveholders, to encourage disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the black as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty. White men sometimes were linked to slave insurrectionary plots, and each such incident rekindled fear” –Eugene Genovese


Poor white people began helping black slaves out of spite. The idea of poor whites and black slaves working together and forming an alliance struck fear to many slave owners. Due to that reason, white slave supporters did whatever they could to keep the poor whites segregated from black slaves and tried to keep some sort of hatred amongst the two groups. They did so by paying the poor white people to oversee slave labor as well as segregating the Irish workers and the slave workers to avoid and alliance between the two. What this also did, was give the poor whites a sense of power and authority over the black slaves, once again, causing hatred between the two.


Howard Zinn says a lot by bringing a spotlight onto the common fear of alliance between poor white and black slaves leading to urgency for segregation between the two. He not only conveys the importance of white and black segregation, but he also coveys the reoccurring message that whether blacks and whites were on the similar ranking or not, in this day and age of slavery, white people always end up on top. Although the black slaves were the same before and after the fact that poor whites were helping them, it wasn’t until poor white people came into the picture that slave owners were afraid of rebellion. He showed how despite the fact that they were powerless in terms of their economic status, the idea remained that the poor whites were more powerful than the slaves because they were white, which resulted in the fear rebellion only when poor whites came into the picture.