Masterless Men: A New Book on Poor Whites and Slavery

This post is part of my blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Today is the official release date for Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, published by Cambridge University Press.


The author of Masterless Men is Keri Leigh Merritt. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.A. in History and Political Science from Emory University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. (2014) in History from the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Merritt’s work on poverty and inequality has garnered multiple awards. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South is her first book. She has also co-edited a book on southern labor history with Matthew Hild (Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, forthcoming).

She is currently conducting research for two additional book-length projects. One is on the vastly understudied Reconstruction era. It focuses on radical black resistance to coercive labor contracts, the failure of land redistribution, and the persistence of white supremacy. The second project examines the changing role of law enforcement in the mid-nineteenth century South. It will ultimately link the rise of professional police forces in the Deep South to the end of slavery. Follow Keri Leigh on Twitter @kerileighmerrit.

Analyzing land policy, labor, and legal history, Keri Leigh Merritt reveals what happens to excess workers when a capitalist system is predicated on slave labor. With the rising global demand for cotton—and thus, slaves—in the 1840s and 1850s, the need for white laborers in the American South was drastically reduced, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. These poor whites could not compete—for jobs or living wages—with profitable slave labor. Though impoverished whites were never subjected to the daily violence and degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socio-economic consequences as a result of living in a slave society. Merritt examines how these “masterless” men and women threatened the existing Southern hierarchy and ultimately helped push Southern slaveholders toward secession and civil war.

In Masterless Men, Keri Leigh Merritt offers a sweeping analysis of how we should understand the place of poor whites in the larger narrative of the Old South. Her detailed examination of the Deep South’s impoverished white class will deepen our understanding about the human and economic costs of America’s system of black slavery.” —Charles Bolton, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Ibram X. Kendi: Books have creation stories. Please share with us the creation story of your book—those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book.

Keri Leigh Merritt: As a white southerner, I grew up fascinated by what seemed to be the lingering history of the Civil War—as well as the almost palpable stain of slavery. As a poor white southerner, though, I attempted to understand the complicated intersection of class and race at a very young age. My parents had grown up in a small mill village in the foothills of Appalachia, and going back there to visit family always proved to be an eye-opening experience. I still remember realizing that my own grandmother was only barely literate; she was forced to drop out of school by the seventh grade to pick cotton. Although the upper- and middle-class sections of this town were highly segregated, the areas surrounding the mill village were populated by both poor whites and blacks, who may have resented each other but somehow managed to live and work together, struggling with poverty in remarkably similar ways.

As I grew into a teenager, I began reading as much as I could about southern history, and in college I immediately realized that poor whites were often completely omitted from story of the Old South. Yet there were a few historians who not only studied poor whites but also used class as a unit of analysis, and I was greatly encouraged by their scholarship.

My applications to graduate school explicitly stated my plan to uncover the lives of poor whites in the nineteenth-century South, and in my first graduate school seminar I began the research for what would eventually become the book. As I attempted to find poor whites in the historical record, I realized how difficult the task would be. Their illiteracy was a major stumbling block for me, and I did not even have a record group like the WPA slave narratives to draw upon for the most basic information. Luckily, Peter Charles Hoffer suggested I begin looking in county-level Superior Court Minute Books, and I immediately struck gold. From there, I used as many different sources as possible to form a more complete picture of the lives of the Deep South’s poor whites.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Masterless Men: A New Book on Poor Whites and Slavery

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    Congratulations on your new book Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt (my copy is in the mail). The reviews of the book and this interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is eye-opening. Until now, it has been easy (at least for me) to look at effects of (racial) slavery through a binary perspective: Blacks were the victims of slavery; whites were the heartless perpetrators who viewed the enslaved black men, women and children, not as humans, but as commodities.

    But as Dr. Merritt aptly puts it: “both poor whites and blacks, who may have resented each other but somehow managed to live and work together, struggling with poverty in remarkably similar ways.” That is, there are white people who suffered socio-economic consequences of slavery.

    Good job Keri

    James Alan Oloo

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