Our Georgia History

Georgia's Gilded Age

Georgia History 101
by Col. Samuel Taylor U.S.M.C. (Ret.)
exclusively for Our Georgia History

With the election of James Smith as governor (list of Georgia governors) in January, 1872, the Democrats once again had an iron grip on the state's political process. Their first order of business was to effectively disenfranchise African-American voters. It was not difficult to do, and some of Georgia's most noted figures participated in the exercise. Joseph Emerson Brown, John Gordon, Alfred Colquitt and many others. Robert Toombs swore that his job was to rid Georgia of the 15th Amendment (this allowed all citizens the right to vote).

Georgia successfully removed from the state legislature three senators and twenty-nine representatives who were black under the pretense that the state constitution did not give black males the right to hold office. It was not only the Democrats who voted these elected officials out of office. Republicans, especially from north Georgia, turned on their fellow legislators and voted with the Democrats. Now it was time to disenfranchise the black voter. Since Georgia had agreed to the 15th amendment before it could rejoin the Union, it appeared that the politicians could not exclude them from the general election. A surprisingly simple answer was devised. By excluding black office seekers from the primaries, no black would (probably) ever be able to win in the general election. A poll tax was added to further ensure that blacks would lack political power.

The politicians also wanted to make sure that rural Georgia had a significant say in the government, so they created a "county-unit" system, a complex means of allocating districts. It worked similar to the Electoral College, thus giving small counties as much say as large counties. Six small counties could offset the entire delegation from Atlanta, for example. This was institutionalized in Georgia's Constitution of 1877, along with many other onerous ideas. The politicians refused to allow judges to be popularly elected (they were afraid this might give black males an avenue to power), and began a rudimentary "separate but equal" policy in education.

Before the Civil War, Georgia had been pro-growth. They gave tax credits to the railroads and exempted new manufacturing facilities from paying taxes to encourage non-farm growth. After the war, the state was nearly bankrupt, so it completed the withdrawal of the pro-growth tax incentives with the Constitution of 1877. As a result of this policy the growth in Georgia during and after Reconstruction did not match the strategic growth of nearby states.

Georgia's government began a corrupt phase, not only for its unfair treatment of blacks, but for the attempts by elected and appointed officials to make money to which they were not entitled. Among those involved, to varying degrees of corruption, were governor Alfred Colquitt (a former Ku Klux Klan leader) , Senator John Gordon, Western and Atlantic Railroad President Joseph Brown and Atlanta Constitution editor/owner Henry Grady. These four men, who led Georgia for years, were definitely Atlanta-oriented. Cities such as Macon, Augusta and Savannah tried to break their grip on the political process, but were unable to do so. The winners in this political struggle were the small county power brokers who would be rewarded with money within their own counties for siding with the Atlanta power-brokers.

While there were deep divisions within the Democratic Party, there was one theme on which almost all Georgians agreed: Segregation, and more importantly, white supremacy. Lynching provided the means to maintain the supremacy beliefs of white Georgians. Between Reconstruction and the start of the 20th century, Georgia frequently led the country in number of people lynched. The Ku Klux Klan may have ceased to exist, but terror was still an effective means of subjugation.

One result of the divided society favored by many whites was the development of enclaves of blacks, safe from the outrages of society as a whole. There were many such enclaves spread across the state including Gwinnett Street in Augusta and Auburn Avenue east of Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. It would be from these locations that blacks would strive for social and economic equality.

Leaders in the black community were frequently pastors, but two men rose to prominence in the South and they were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Booker T. Washington, the educator who was born a slave and became the head Tuskegee University and W. E. B Dubois, the teacher/author who was born into a society with little overt racism and moved to Atlanta. During the Piedmont Cotton Expedition (1895) Washington advocated blacks work within the structure of society to better themselves. DuBois disagreed, openly advocating agitation and protest.

Into the vacuum created by the corrupt Democratic Party came a movement oriented to the farmers, the Populists. When the Populist movement in Georgia is documented the name most frequently associated with it is Thomas G. ("Tom") Watson, a strange, intelligent man who grew up on a plantation in east Georgia. There were others who were involved in the movement, most notably Dr. William Felton, who grew up in the farm country around Cartersville, Georgia. While the Populist movement in Georgia was significantly different than the movement in the western states, it did involve much of the same core constituancy -- farmers and less affluent Americans.

William Felton was married to a firebrand of a woman, the outspoken, self-assured Rebecca Latimer Felton, whose mark was about to be felt across the state. One of the corruptions that politicians had brought into Georgia was the convict-leasing program. Convict leasing permitted companies to lease prisoners, force them to work for meager sums of money, keep them ill-fed and ill-clothed, and generally treat them worse than slaves had been treated by plantation owners. Most of the men and women working in the convict leasing program were black.

Felton found that it was common for the women working in the program to suffer extreme sexual abuse at the hands of the male guards and convicts. She began a crusade to abolish the practice, not only to right the wrong done to women, but to seek revenge against John Gordon, a political enemy who was leasing convicts at the time. Through a long, hard-fought battle Ms. Felton not only garnered support in Georgia, but raised the issue to a national level. In 1894 reformer William Yates Atkinson established a committee to review the abuses of the convict leasing system, effectively ending the practice at the state level. Counties, however, would be free to continue the practice until 1908.

Atkinson is one of those governors who is under-recognized for his achievements in office (1894-1898), specifically promoting both primary and secondary education, make more high-level government positions elected instead of appointed and vetoing a bill that would have made football illegal in colleges. His reform movement was widespread and prepared Georgia for the 20th century.


Our Georgia History: History 101 index

Georgia's Indian Heritage
The Age of Exploration in Georgia
Colonial Georgia
The America Revolution in Georgia
Constitutional Georgia
Antebellum Georgia
Georgia and the Civil War
Reconstrution Georgia
Georgia's Gilded Age
A State Divided
Depression and War

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