Georgia's Gilded Age
Georgia History 101
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
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
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
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
The America Revolution in Georgia
Georgia and the Civil War
Georgia's Gilded Age
A State Divided
Depression and War