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October 13, 2011

Presentation as the William J. Clinton Distinguished Lecturer, Bill Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock, Arkansas.


Author Discusses History of Cotton and Race in America

The production of cotton has shaped race relations across America for centuries, according to financial historian Gene Dattel, author of "Cotton and Race in the Making of America," who spoke at the Clinton School Thursday night.

Introduced by Clinton School student Jake Coffey ('13), Dattel said the price of cotton directly correlated to the price of slavery in the 19th Century. But while the South is primarily associated with the slave trade, Dattel said the largest center for slave trading internationally was actually New York City, where nearly 40 percent of all pre-Civil War cotton revenues ended up.

Dattel's book follows the history of cotton through the Civil War, when it was used to barter for arms. Dattel emphasized the point that the South decided against shipping cotton abroad during the war, which left the region without many resources.

The destiny of black people in America was directly linked to the cotton industry, Dattel said. The invention of the cotton gin, while beneficial to the industry, forever changed the lives of many black people, because it reduced the need for labor, he said. He also touched on the effects the cotton industry had on both legal and de facto segregation, not only in the South, but in the North as well.

Although Dattel's book ends in the 1930s, when cotton saw a resurgence during the Great Depression, he spent some time discussing the present state of cotton. America, once the leader in cotton production for 130 years, can no longer claim that title, which belongs to China where the industry has not been mechanized.