Comprising an elite group of bankers, industrialists, politicians, merchants, and newspapermen, characters such as Charles Collier and Rufus Bullock embodied the spirit of a place they insisted on calling the New South.
A rhetorical invention, the idea of the “New South” itself represented aspiration more accurately than reality: in 1895, thirty years after the close of the Civil War, the former Confederacy’s transition to an industrial economy from an agricultural one was not only not over; it had hardly begun.
Atlanta, as an industrial center and railroad hub, was one of the few economic bright spots in an otherwise bleak landscape. And in the 1890s, amidst nationwide depression, even the relative promise of Atlanta fell short of expectations.
The difference lay in the expectations themselves: in Atlanta, stakeholders and enthusiastic boosters labored tirelessly to keep them high. The city’s energy was so pervasive and persistent that visitors could not help but find it worthy of exclamation.
“Atlanta,” wrote W. J. Lampton for the New York Sun in anticipation of the exposition, “is the best town in the south, present and future…She doesn’t wait for other people to come along and reap the advantages, but she buckles right to herself, and the result is—well, it is Atlanta, the Imperial City of the Empire State of the South, the City of Unceasing Endeavor, the City of Get There, the City of Atlanta.”
Lampton’s words acted simultaneously as evaluation and challenge: though it might be the Imperial City of the Empire State of the South, Atlanta and her stakeholders had a way to go before becoming an imperial metropolis not “of the South,” but on the world stage.
It was a genuine revelation to me that the term “New South” dated back to the late 19th century.
Maybe they weren’t hustlin’ round Atlanta in their alligator shoes quite yet, but the archetype is evidently far older than I would have guessed. Fascinating.