Alcorn State professor pens book on postwar Natchez

Published 9:40 am Wednesday, February 13, 2013

JAY SOWERS | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Author Aaron Anderson, above, recently signed copies of his latest work, “Builders of a New South: Merchants, Capital and the Remaking of Natchez, 1865-1914,” at Turning Pages in Natchez.

The war was over. The old plantation economy was gone. Natchez, once a major player in the U.S. economy, was floundering.

And out of that uncertainty arose a new class of merchants who created a new economy based not on the money of powerful landholders but on the money that would be spent by small farmers and former slaves.

Aaron Anderson, an assistant professor of history at Alcorn State University, explores that period of history in his new book, “Builders of a New South: Merchants, Capital and the Remaking of Natchez, 1865-1914.”

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Anderson said he was interested in writing about the post-bellum period in Natchez, because even though there has been extensive scholarship about the planter class in the prewar period, very little has been written about the postwar years.

“You will hear a lot of the old timers in Natchez say, ‘Merchants saved Natchez after the war,’ and in some ways they did because a lot of the wealth of the South evaporated after the war,” Anderson said. “There really was a reconfiguration of Natchez throughout that time period, and they left a lot of monuments to the era — a lot of the buildings on Main and Commerce streets were built then, and the Woodlawn area was established during that time.”

To frame the story of the reconfiguration of Natchez from an agriculture-based economy to a mercantile one, Anderson selected 10 Natchez families and told the story of how they did business. The merchant class at that time was not formed of one bloc of people.

“It was a complicated time,” Anderson said. “Some of them were from the South, some from Europe, and a fair amount of them were folks who came from the North. A lot of these folks who came in didn’t have a lot of capital, but they had business savvy and access to Northern credit.”

As the merchants began to form the new social order, the locals began to recognize their contributions — even if it meant thinking beyond prejudices that came after the war, Anderson said.

“There was a group called The Natchez Guards, it was composed of the veterans of the Confederate Army, and they would appoint former Yankees and even carpetbaggers honorary members because they were important members of the community,” he said.

Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller served as a reader for University Press of Mississippi for Anderson’s book. Miller said of special interest to her was the focus Anderson took on Jewish Natchez and what that community meant to Natchez’s return to prominence after the Civil War.

“They sort of formed a new social order, and I think the whole interaction between gentiles and Jews are especially intriguing,” she said. “Isaac Lowenberg came here as a an Army sutler who was born in Germany, he arrives with the occupying Union Army speaking broken English, and it is not long before he is mayor of Natchez, and a beloved one.”

After the war, Jews dominated approximately a third of the marketplace, Anderson said.

“They were really good at what they did because of the anti-Semitic configuration in Europe that went back to the middle ages, so they were very good at what they did because one of the few things that was open to Jewish people was mercantilism and banking,” Anderson said.

One form of banking that Jewish and gentile merchants alike really appropriated during the postwar period was the crop-lien system. The merchants were lending money, Anderson said, to the emerging economy around former slaves who were now growing and selling crops for themselves or sharecroppers.

“The crop-lien system gave merchants first rights to any cotton crop and used that as a security for goods that were essentially lent during the crop year,” he said. “They made people pay a premium to get that credit, and some of the pretty substantial landowners who were paying 30-50 percent markup on their cornmeal and plows that they’re buying, so there’s a pernicious side to that too.”

Anderson said some of his research goes back 10 years, when he first came to Natchez as an undergraduate student, working as an archival intern at the Historic Natchez Foundation. He began work on it in earnest in 2005 and finished the initial writing in 2011, spending a full year researching in the courthouses of the traditional Natchez district.

That included processing 13,000 mortgage records produced by the merchant families on whom he chose to focus, traveling to Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties and Tensas and Concordia parishes to find out what he could about their business and the extent to which it reached.

“I have every last recorded document emanating from their businesses, and that took four counties and two parishes,” he said.

The Historic Natchez Foundation recently honored Anderson with its 2012 Mary Postlethwaite History Award for his work. Miller said this is the first time the award has ever been given for a book.

“I can be really picky when it comes to Natchez, and Aaron did a great job — he knows Natchez well,” she said.

“Builders of the New South” is available at local bookstores and online.