In the 1920s, when those who had been adults during the War between the States had almost all gone off to either their great reward, some fallen to damnation, or some like my great, great-grandmother Mattie J. Dobbs, were languorously lingering through their ninth decade on God’s green earth, their sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren now felt that they could speak more freely about the departed than they had during their lifetimes and following that horrible war.
“He was mean to his slaves,” was the worst thing you could say about a departed Southern relative. At least that is according to an author writing the history of Cobb county in the state of Georgia in the 1930s.
Cobb county was one of nine Georgia counties carved out of the disputed territory of the Cherokee Nation in 1832. My Dobbs ancestors settled in Cobb county after winning land in the 1832 Georgia Gold Lottery. For a number of decades, they owned a plantation in the county and raised cotton using slave labor. In 1935, a local author named Sarah Blackwell Gober Temple published a book titled “The First Hundred Years – a Short History of Cobb County, in Georgia”.
Although there was the railroad along with cotton mills and sawmills here and there up and down the Chattahoochee River, agriculture primarily involving King cotton was chief source of wealth in the county. Despite this the topic of slavery and agriculture is not discussed in Ms. Temple’s book until the 14th chapter. Even then the chapter mainly talks about the agricultural history of Cobb County. There is a section in that chapter on the subject of cruelty to slaves and it is in there that the author talks about the phrase “he was mean to his slaves.”
Ms. Temple primarily places the blame for bad behavior on the employment of overseers; implying that when there was no middleman, there was no cruelty shown towards slaves. She states “it was inevitable in the South that there were many cases of cruelty to slaves. Particularly was this true when overseers were in charge. In Cobb County, however, the number of slaves owned by individuals was not so large that overseers were often employed. The relationship in this County was usually a direct one of master to slave, without another white man as intermediary.”
It is not clear what the author meant by “not so large”. In 1860 the total population of Cobb County was 14,242 out which 3,819 were slaves. That year, my ancestor David Dobbs owned the largest number of slaves in the county. The 62 men and women were primarily put to work in the cotton fields, and some worked in the mills. Other Dobbs family members owned slaves that they hired out.
Between the end of the Civil War and when Ms. Temple wrote her book, seventy years had elapsed. In that time, the decade-long reconstruction that attempted to place the newly freed slaves on equal footing with their former masters was ended in 1876 and a series of Jim Crow laws passed in the 1890s, virtually restored the Plantation system in the South. In between 1882 and 1930 more than 450 documented lynchings occurred in Georgia alone.
The author states that she is aware of the “rosiness which this [the antebellum] period has assumed in retrospect” and here she is referencing the so-called “Lost Cause” movement that had reached its zenith during the Great War of 1917. The “Lost Cause” has been described as an American pseudo-historical, negationist ideology that advocates the belief that the cause of the Confederate States during the American Civil War was a just and heroic one. This ideology has furthered the belief that slavery was just and moral, because the enslaved were happy, even grateful, and it also brought economic prosperity. The notion was used to perpetuate racism and racist power structures during the Jim Crow era in the American South. It was also the primary motivation for the erection of statues and monuments dedicated to the glorification of the war that caused the deaths of over 1 million Americans including over 80,000 of whom were enslaved.
Temple describes having many conversations with people in the county in which she “discovered the attitude, pleasant or unpleasant of the owner to his slaves.” From these conversations she says that one fact emerged as the most important and that was that a man who was remembered as being “mean to his slaves” was not “well thought of.”
She explains that “to this day, older citizens in Cobb still remarked upon one person or another as having earned this reputation.” She says that as far as she could ascertain this “being mean” – assuring the reader the expression is always the same – consisted in not providing adequate clothing or food, the latter she describes as “the unforgivable sin.” She assures the reader that the inflicting of punishment which was “undeserved for was out of proportion to the offense committed” occurred only on rare occasions.
While compiling the history of Cobb County, Ms. Temple interviewed a number of families in the county, and it was on multiple occasions that she was asked not to mention a certain family member who was known to have been “mean to his slaves”.
The author describes on one occasion being removed from the group she was interviewing and taken to the back of the house, where the door was firmly closed. Here the eldest member of the family, approaching 80 years of age faced her, in some embarrassment, and confessing the fact that she did not want the younger members of the family (only about 50 to 65 years old) to hear what she had to say, she revealed that the name in the family Bible over which she had skimmed (“I reckon you saw that I just didn’t want to talk about him”) was that of a man who had married her aunt, greatly against the wishes of her family, was reported to have been “unkind to his slaves”. She ended by saying “we are also ashamed of him and so glad that he moved to Texas later.”
Temple ends by stating that the “dark cloud of social ostracism still hovers”, and yet she did not, as promised, name any names.