Catawba College's first-year seminar class, The Food, the People, and the Art of the American South, took a field trip to the Museum of the New South in Charlotte on October 8th. The class, taught by Dr. Forrest Anderson, an assistant professor of English, was able to experience the South's recent past thanks to a docent-led tour of the Museum.
The Museum's VP of Education, Janeen Bryant, served as docent and opened the tour with the "southern plate": collards, grits, salted pork, and livermush. Each item on the plate represented a culture that contributed to the southern culinary tradition: collards from Africa, livermush from Germany, and stone ground grits from Native Americans.
Keeping in mind the diverse cultures that make up the South, the class was taken on a tour of the "New South." They saw how former slaves and tenant farmers lived shortly after the Civil War during Reconstruction. Typical families were two parents and eight to 10 children, all of whom worked on the farm and earned about $200 per year. One hundred of those dollars went to the landowner, and the remaining one hundred was needed to buy seeds and pay living expenses. Tenant farms were often seen as a way for the poor to move up in the world, but in actuality, the farms were designed to keep tenant farmers in indentured servitude.
The class saw the shift from an agricultural way of life to mill work. The mill became the center of the community. People worked spinning cotton, bought food from the mill store, and lived in sight of the mill. Children as young as 10 years old worked full days. Because of their developing lungs, they were susceptible to "brown lung," which occurs when cotton fibers are inhaled. Children would take a few days off work, cough out the fiber, and return to the mill floor. In many ways, the mill resulted in a de facto feudalism.
Unsurprisingly, given the racial politics of the day, African Americans were prevented from working in the mills. Times were changing, though, and Docent Bryant took the class on a whirlwind tour of the Civil Rights Era. They learned about bus boycotts and perhaps most movingly learned about the "sit-in movement" started by students. Sitting at a replica of the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC, students and their professor watched a video demonstrating the horrific treatment African Americans received while protesting "separate but equal."
The tour ended with an overview of the economic changes brought to the South and particularly Charlotte by the banking industry. And, finally, the class walked next door to the 7th Street Public Market where they sampled a wide range of southern cuisine: deviled eggs topped with chow-chow, pickled okra, pears smeared with Apple Butter, and Cheerwine Floats.
A lunch of soul food at Mert's Heart & Soul in downtown Charlotte, with cornbread, collards, fried chicken, and shrimp and grits, concluded the field trip.
Photos and content courtesy of Dr. Forrest Anderson