The recent events in Charlottesville, VA have put white nationalism and white supremacy at the center of many public conversations, at least for the moment. People are calling it a “turning point,” although it remains to be seen whether that is true or what it means. Dylan Roof’s murder of nine African Americans (and shooting of three more people), at Emanual AME Church in Charleston, SC should have been a turning point.
Many people think of white supremacists as part of the societal fringe, but it is important to think about how the ideology has operated throughout our country’s history and has been practiced by people one might consider “upstanding citizens” or who have been identified by other terms of respectability. White supremacy has been foundational to the development of our nation. One way white supremacy and white nationalism have operated has been through policies and practices that deny African Americans (and other people of color) access to territory. By territory, I mean an area of land, held by government or private ownership. The goal of such exclusion was to create all-white spaces: counties, townships, towns, etc. This still happens today, but I want to share an historical example from around 1919 in Southeast Missouri, also known as the Bootheel.
In the early 20th century, drainage projects in the region made thousands of acres of land available for farming. It was rich alluvial soil that beckoned farmers from the South and Midwest. Real Estate companies, railroads, private owners, and lumber companies began marketing and selling land. Local businessmen established commercial clubs focused on promoting town and regional development. In the Bootheel, the 1910s were probably the peak of this activity (although it continued into the 1920s). Clarence F. Bruton, who was originally from Boone Co., MO, moved to Sikeston in Scott County between 1900 and 1910. He established real estate and investment company, which published The Modern Promised Land around 1919. It contained accolades about the region’s soil, water, schools, churches, and more. At a future date I’ll scan the entire publication and put it in the Documents & Exhibits part of my site, but for now, I’m sharing a small piece.
The publication tells readers that one of the “positives” of moving to the region was the absence of African American farmers and the racial segregation of schools. One of the target audiences for this pamphlet was Midwestern farmers in Indiana and Illinois. At this time there were very few African Americans living in rural Scott County. Many people wanted to maintain the status quo, which meant white landowners rarely sold land to African Americans in this county. Until widespread cotton production took hold around 1922-1923, there were few Black farm laborers or sharecroppers. This exclusion of African Americans from economic opportunities is one example of how inequities from the past directly connect to wealth inequality today. It also illustrates how white supremacy was a part of everyday business and was practiced by everyday people.