Distinguished Lecturers
Jeannie Whayne

Jeannie Whayne

Jeannie Whayne is a University Professor of history at the University of Arkansas and a past president of the Agricultural History Society. She is the author of two books including Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South (2011), a social, economic, and environmental study of a plantation owned by a single family from 1846 to 2010 and the winner of the John G. Ragsdale Prize. She is the editor or a coauthor of nine other books, including The Ongoing Burden of Southern History: Politics and Identity in the Twenty-First-Century South (2012). Whayne has won numerous awards for her teaching and publications, including the Arkansas Historical Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. She is currently researching a book on Memphis, Tennessee, that examines the interaction between the city and its hinterlands in forging a regional cotton empire; she is also working on a National Endowment for the Humanities digitization proposal to map that connection. Her 2014 presidential address to the Agricultural History Society, "The Incidental Environmentalists: Dale Bumpers, George Templeton, and the Origins of the Rosen Alternative Pest Control Center at the University of Arkansas," examined a tradition of sustainable agriculture within the traditional agricultural bureaucracy of the late twentieth-century United States and the role of the center in promoting alternatives to agricultural chemicals. Also in 2014, she presented a paper at the World Congress on Environmental History that examined modern "portfolio plantations," or investor-owned agricultural land, placing this global development in the context of the new corporate colonialism and examining its environmental and cultural implications. She has also presented her work at the Southern Historical Association and the European Rural Studies Organization conferences.

OAH Lectures by Jeannie Whayne

Depictions of a desolate landscape abound in southern literature, particularly in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932), and, perhaps most famously, in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Although the works by Faulkner and Caldwell have endured as classics in southern literature, Gone with the Wind has retained a greater public recognition even as its literary merit has been criticized and its historiography repudiated. Nevertheless, its place in the southern imaginary is secure, and scholars recognize its importance in sustaining the “lost cause” myth that continues to animate eager partisans of that point of view. One crucial bulwark of the myth is a rigid understanding of gender relations and, particularly, the purity and exalted status of southern white womanhood. Another is the image of slavery as a benign institution peopled by paternalistic masters and gently treated slaves. Gone with the Wind observes these conventions in parading across its pages southern belles and happy slaves. Slaves labored in the fields with little remonstrance and women like Scarlet O’Hara glided across broad green lawns unfettered by the worldly concerns of the men who adored her. Although neither the book nor the “acclaimed” movie that followed has a wide audience today, the movie, particularly, is revered by many and continues to promote a vision of a southern past that preserves arcane attitudes on race and gender.

This lecture focuses on a dispute between planters and small white farmers in Northeastern Arkansas during the flood of 1927, one where the small farmers dynamited a levee protecting planter lands. Planters were able to restore their levee relatively quickly, but the dispute reveal class tensions in an area where both planters and small farmers uneasily coexisted.

This lecture explores the tension between black and white labor in Memphis between 1865 and 1900. The analysis pivots around three things: the riot of 1866 led by Irish working class men (and Irish police) against the freed people of Memphis; the tenuous coalition of black and Irish voters in the 1870s which elected an Irish mayor; and the ability of the white cotton elite to seize control of city government after the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. The cotton elite success in defeating the unusual alliance between African Americans and Irish immigrants preceded formal disfranchisement statutes in Tennessee. In fact, for a decade before disfranchisement, African Americans served as a crucial element of the cotton elite's political machine.

This lecture examines one of the most infamous episodes in southern history: the lynching of Henry Lowry at Nodena Landing, Mississippi County in 1921. Announcements that the lynching would take place appeared in the Memphis newspapers and more than 600 people watched as Lowry was burned at the stake. Lowry's fate was tied to a dispute with the planter for whom he worked, a dispute that led to a fatal gun battle which left two whites dead. Lowry escaped to El Paso, Texas but was apprehended and after assurances were given to the governor of Texas by the governor of Arkansas that Lowry would be given a fair trial, he returned to Arkansas only to be lynched instead. This lecture examines the limits of planter paternalism in the context of tenant/landlord disputes.

The South has undergone profound changes since the American Civil War, but as historian Morton Sosna suggested in his 1982 presidential address to the Southern Historical Association, “World War II rather than the Civil War is the crucial event of southern history.” Sosna argued that given the survival of the plantation system and the return of freed people to another kind of slavery, the post-war South looked little different from its pre-war counterpart. Pursuit of profit though monoculture and the utilization of sharecropping, a relatively unfree labor system, contributed to the persistence of the inequalities that had so profoundly shaped the old South. Sosna emphasized the marginal growth metropolitan areas and the emergence of a relatively anemic industrial development. World War II, on the other hand, ushered in more significant changes on the landscape of the South. The Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of the Sunbelt South suggested greater possibilities on the horizon. A close perusal of rural communities, however, reveal the persistence of inequality and economic stagnation. This is nowhere more apparent than in the lower Mississippi River Valley where poverty and inequality can still be found in the late twentieth century plantation counties. This talk examines the evolution of rural society in the post-World War II period and probes the intersection of racism and poverty in the region.

This lecture considers the advent of the corporate plantation (what Whayne calls the portfolio plantation), particularly in the 21st century. Whayne argues that this is one more incarnation of a very old institution (dating back to the latifundia of ancient Rome) and suggests that there is reason to be concerned about this newest version of it given the emergence of modern agricultural practices. Never before has so much capital been combined with such advanced technology (including the use of an array of dangerous chemicals). The talk places the plantation in the larger world context across time but moves quickly to a consideration of the North American version beginning in early 17th century Virginia and following through to the early 21st century. It focuses specifically on the environmental impact of plantation farming practices over time and concludes with some thoughts about how the 21st century plantation brings something new to the table.

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