How Southern Society Shaped Black Popular Culture After the Civil War


The Southern society shaped the Black population after the Civil War in a number of ways. To understand how this happened, it is important to place it within the broader cultural perspective of the American South. 1The South was purely agrarian with a large rural population. The American South, therefore, developed an economy and social structure based mainly on nonwage labor, racial segregation, racial discrimination, violence, evangelical orientation, and others. The racially segregated social hierarchy meant that White Southerners clearly controlled the Blacks of the South even after the Civil War. White Southern society relentlessly defined the white line to limit black freedom after the Civil War. This underlined their thinking about race relations. The white society used their intellectuals and politicians to shape public opinion, which turned increasingly hostile to the black population as they thought about the future at the end of the Civil War. They spread ideas about black inferiority through popular culture and mass communications on a wider scale.

This paper tries to discuss how Southern society shaped black popular culture after the Civil War through acts of racism, racial discrimination, religious evangelism, and segregation.

The acts of racism had been endemic among white American society, particularly Southern society. These acts of racism in this region were made worse by its institutionalization in the form of chattel slavery2. The southern society depicted African Americans by their nature to be subjects of enslavement by whites. Indeed, the majority of African Americans entered America prior to the Civil War under those circumstances. These changes went on until the changes that came about by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. African American free blacks in the South lived under serious disabilities after the Civil War3. These disabilities were sanctioned by law, the weight of social customs of the South, economic leverage, and the threat of violence that was ever-present in society. 4

It is important to note that whites and blacks in the South had lived in close social contacts; not as equal, but often as intimates. This social contact between the races discouraged Southern popular culture from other parts of America; where physical separation and economic inequality resulted in aversive racism. In addition to these distinctive patterns of behavior, the South generated new norms of cultural attitudes which have distinguished it from other parts of the country.

The basic class structure and agrarian economy of the South were not altered despite losing the Civil War. The whites with huge tracts of land maintained their dominant class and cotton remained the major cash crop. Similar to occurrences before the Civil War, white landowners required a workforce to farm the land. Due to economic disruptions and depredations caused by the Civil War, white plantation owners lacked cash and liquid capital. Employing the workforce on the wage system was not viable for these plantation owners. As a matter of fact, legislators from the south tried to force African Americans back to forced labor by passing a series of legislation called the ‘Black Codes’5. However, the active intervention of the federal government and the beginning of reconstruction prevented the implementation of these laws6.

More than half of African Americans worked in white agricultural farms and the remainder was in domestic occupations such as maids and janitor by 1910. This meant that the shortage of workers in southern agricultural farms was solved, and the black community found itself in a subservient status once more. During this same period, the white Southern working class was deliberately protected from direct job competition from the black community. Therefore, the white workers were able to monopolize better-paying jobs as the South began to industrialize. Measures of direct discrimination by whites’ only labor unions and anti-black legislation and customs enabled white workers to erect barriers that excluded blacks and reserved better industrial jobs in cities and mill towns to themselves. These confined blacks to rural peasantry white workers took advantage of the new jobs brought by industrialization. The blacks were effectively excluded from the process of modernization7.

Some sectors of the transforming Southern economy saw a fall in African Americans status than it had been during slavery. For instance, in 1865, 83% of the artisans in the South were African Americans; by 1900 this ratio fell by 5%. African Americans were confined by the Jim Crow system to the agrarian and domestic sectors of the labor force. They were denied the opportunity for a decent education and excluded from politics. Jim Crow system was further reinforced by more laws and customs that drastically limited the options of black Southerners8.

The end of the American Civil War heralds the abolishment of slavery institution. In accepting the reality of being irrevocably part of the Union and the abolishment of the institution of slavery, the ruling class of whites in the South reacted to this defeat by attempting to rebuild a society similar in all aspects to the antebellum world they had wished to maintain. Specifically, white Southerners ruling elite was determined to see blacks continue to be slaves in all but name. They began this process by formulating the called ‘Black Codes’. In particular, they were written into law in 1866 in the State of Northern Carolina. Through these legislations, blacks could be arrested for minor crimes such as intending to still livestock. Once they were convicted and jailed, they were hired out as laborers at the court’s pleasure9.

White Southerners also enhanced their control over Blacks through a system of segregation legislation and measures to disfranchise blacks. The migration of Southerners to town explained much of the perceived need. Segregation laws strengthened white authority in the face of rising challenges of a new generation of African Americans then coming to maturity; people who had not experienced slavery. In addition, young white Southerners were more likely than their parents to view blacks as more vicious, an attitude supported by the intellectual and cultural influences after the Civil War. 10

During the same period after the end of the Civil War, there was the emergence of vigilante groups consisting of militias of the Confederate army all over the Southern states. These brutal groups ensured that black people understood their place in society now that they were emancipated from slavery. At this period, however, the radical Congress in Washington viewed the South to be overreaching itself and for this reason, it passed two Reconstruction Acts of 1867. These legislations ensured that all states of the Union depended upon the writing of universal manhood suffrage into their state constitution11.

The period between the Reconstruction Acts and the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876, when all federal troops were withdrawn from Southern territories, so a persistent power struggle between various groups. The Conservative wing endeavored to use any possible way to build a society that was racist. On the other hand, the Republicans and the black opposition were left to depend on increasingly inconsistent support from the federal government. The militia gangs and the Ku Klux Clan in effect became an extra-legal arms of the Conservatives. The Republicans found themselves not able to cope with the organized violence of the opposition in most of the South, including much of Northern Carolina State. Due to these implacable resistances by white Southerners, it was not easy to preserve law and order. The authorities in the South were almost paralyzed by this organized law disorder12.

There was a significant change in the manner blacks were viewed by whites after the Civil War. The stereotypes of the contented slave in the plantation were pushed into the background; were replaced by the image of the retrogressive individuals. The new images portrayed Southern blacks as threatening beasts needing stern control to protect white society. The success of race pandering by white Southerner’s ruling class and the frequency of racist images in the popular culture indicated solid entrenchment of virulent racism in the structure of Southern culture. This institutionalized racism was the basis through which all perceptions and social interactions were channeled and shaped.

The period after the Civil War was preceded by too much stereotyping based on white Southerner’s misconceptions and fear of black sexuality. The Southern American popular culture had reinforced such ideas about black physical and moral inferiority. The minstrel show emerged as the leading form of mass entertainment, and its producers adopted anti-Black stereotypes as the basis for appeal. The diffusion of these stereotypes and other black stereotypes through popular culture has a disturbing history. Perhaps the minstrel show of the nineteenth century was the single most important influence. It was the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the United States and the world from about 1820 to 188013. The show had its origin in the years following the war in 1812 when traveling ‘Ethiopian Minstrels’ began to perform songs and dances which they drew originally from authentic black sources. The actors were primarily white males who blacked their faces with burnt cork and applied white makeup around their eyes and mouth to give them a wide-eyed, grinning Sambo look. The performance was a conscious imitation of songs, dances, and humor of black people by white performers in black faces. It was through minstrel performance that many Americans of the nineteenth century got their only impression of black culture.

In the 1830s, the Southern denominations launched invigorated missions to the slaves. White Southern Missionaries promoted a paternalistic vision of evangelical biracial community, with religious leaders assuming responsibilities for the fate of slave souls. The evolving evangelicalism was shaped by black Baptists and Methodists. Black preachers and exhorters’ were a popular feature of frontier camp meetings. The Antebellum biracial churches became an avenue for nurturing the cultural interaction between blacks and whites in the South. Before the civil war, both the black and white communities shared the same religious life. They both practiced the same religious activities, for instance, they attended similar sermons and were involved in partaking in the communion together. “These settings were segregated; however, the interaction within biracial churches represented a foundation for later spiritual commonalities among blacks and whites in the south and provides the historic basis for moral commonalities on some contemporary public issues”14.

Blacks in the South were both participants in the evangelical culture after the Civil War and yet were also separate from it. The black community came to be excluded from influence on the region’s public culture; at the same time, they created a room that expressed their sense of civil religion to redeem the flawed South, a vision that resulted in the reforms of the Civil Rights Movement15. Blacks established independent churches after the Civil War, pulling away from biracial churches of which they had once been members. Black churches combined evangelical church traditions with the distinctive praise and worship traditional embedded in the slave quarters and a sense of black destiny. The black churches transformed to be central institutions of religion and of African American culture. The separation of the Southern evangelical denominations provided the development of Southern cultural identity. The racial separation of the churches after the Civil War assisted crystallize the perception of the white religious and cultural solidarity that was reflected in white religious support for Jim Crow laws of segregation and political persecution.

The black church involved dimensions of popular religion that made it easier for blacks to develop a supply of religious resources that enabled them to blunt, but not completely banish, the power of white supremacy. This was due to the rise of Jim Crow and segregation after the Civil War. Blacks’ popular religious culture successfully destabilized older beliefs about the suffocating and immutable nature of white supremacy as it evolved after the Civil War. Their religious culture successfully did this primarily by highlighting how blacks worked the edges of segregation to their benefit that shaped their very characters16.

The popular religious culture of blacks was also influenced by the white Southerners’ societal racial attitude. Black American preachers and churches minimized the deliberating effects of racism by identifying the black community as people chosen by God. They also financed schools and press for blacks, taught literacy skills, gave job skills, organized protests, and demanded racial equality and justice steadfastly. The majority of Southerners who lived in rural areas received white supremacy thoughts from small-town newspapers as their primary sources. Small town editors depicted blacks as wild ignorant animals who had an intense hatred of the white race. These papers commonly disparaged blacks physically. The black morality was treated with great despite. Male blacks were depicted as predatory, and black women as promiscuous. Black marriages were considered devoid of infidelity. There was also an assumption that blacks should always be supervised by white men.

This intense thinking about blacks buttressed the impulses of white supremacy of the Southern society. So many forms of expression intellectual and political thought, popular entertainment, advertising and mass communications reinforced the message of black inferiority; that popular culture clearly enhanced white dominance. Any attempt to face white domination, or to challenge the growing white nationalism in the South, had to address not just political and economic forms of white supremacy but also the authority of its cultural expressions. 17

The Southern society also shaped the black popular culture after the civil war through segregation. The black community mediated the construction of social hierarchy based on skin and color during the years of Jim Crow by drawing on their sacred beliefs and practices. 18For instance, black Baptists and Methodists incorporated their experiences with the color line into revelations, and prophesy vision. Segregation emerged because the forces that opposed racial discrimination weakened over time. The concern of the federal government for the rights of blacks had eroded with the Republican Party focusing on the protection of business interests after the Civil War period. When a law was proposed to enforce black voting rights in 1890, white Southerners reacted angrily to such a bill. The defeat of the bill made federal intervention less like in the future.

In Sum, disfranchisement showed the harshest ironies in the US after the Civil War. All institutions in the South gave the most effective means to enforce white supremacy next to violence. White Southerners co-opted the democratic process to impose their dominance over African Americans. More effectively, whites used government institutions to reduce their raw violence and enhance their dominance in the process. White supremacy imposed by democratic sanction seemed legitimate to most whites. Disfranchisement of blacks made them powerless at levels of governance, in terms of deciding where water, parks, and sewerage services would go. This situation left African Americans at the mercy of an unfair and often unforgiving criminal justice system in which all policemen, judges, jailers, and attorneys were whites. They solely determined the guilty and the innocent amongst their own jury of peers.

As law enforcers for white supremacy, policemen resorted to violence quite often against blacks. They could be beaten, main or even murder blacks without much concern that they would be censured. African Americans were commonly arrested in vagrancy when white officials felt the need to force them to work or simply to exert racial control. Once convicted, they were sentenced to hard labor for an industrial corporation. The southern States leased their convicts to railroads, coal mines, and lumber companies, where they often suffered from appalling working conditions19.


Deburg, William. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Hartman, Garry. The History of Texas Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Norrel, Robert. The House I live in. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wilson, Charles & Mark, Silk. Religion and Public Life in the South. New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005.


  1. Engelhardt, (The End of Victory Culture Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).
  2. Deburg, Slavery & Race in the American popular culture Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
  3. Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).
  4. Engelhardt, (The End of Victory Culture Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).
  5. Norrel, The House I Live (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  6. Hartman, The History of Texas Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  7. Hartman, The History of Texas Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  8. Norrel, The House I Live (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  9. Norrel, The House I Live (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  10. Engelhardt, (The End of Victory Culture Massachusetts:University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).
  11. Norrel, The House I Live (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  12. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  13. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  14. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  15. Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (Massachussets: University of Massachussetts Press, 1998).
  16. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  17. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  18. Wilson, Religion and Public Life in the South (New York: Rowman Altamira, 2005).
  19. Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture (Massachussets: University of Massachussetts Press, 1998).