KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A University of Tennessee professor who spent eight years exploring plantations of the postbellum South has won one of geography’s most prestigious book prizes.
Dr. Charles Aiken, UT-Knoxville geography professor, received the J.B. Jackson Prize from the Association of American Geographers for his book, “The Cotton Plantation South Since the Civil War.”
Aiken’s book details the changes in Southern plantations from the Civil War through 1970 and the effects of those changes on the black population that provided the bulk of farm labor after the war. As the culture of the region changed over the period, Aiken traces the effects that the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty had on the South’s remaining African American population.
The award citation calls it “the most important geographical interpretation of the American South in over half a century. – It is a triumph of unblinking analysis tempered with sensitivity and love for the region.”
In the book, Aiken takes up two tasks: tracing the geographical changes in plantation agriculture from 1865 to 1970 and evaluating how those changes affected the region’s black population.
Aiken is not writing about life around the Big House, given mythic status in the classic book and movie, “Gone with the Wind.” The plantation he describes is a well-defined agricultural entity, a farm of more than 260 acres that employed at least five workers besides the owner and manager, that specialized in one or two agricultural commodities, and that had a substantial source of power, whether human, animal or mechanical.
The farm factory of today is the modern equivalent of the plantation, which has a long history that predates its presence in the 19th-century South, Aiken said. The industrial farms that mass-produce pork are the latest manifestation.
“The current geography of the plantation regions is one that was created, not only by changes in the plantation system, but also by the civil rights movement and the ‘War on Poverty,’ the second Reconstruction,” Aiken writes in the preface to his book.
Critics are hailing the book for its importance and academic competence and for the passion Aiken shows for his subject.
“The book seems as much personal odyssey for the author as academic work, and it succeeds at both,” writes John J. Winberry, a geographer at the University of South Carolina, in a review. “Charles Aiken has much to tell us, gives us a great deal to ponder, and prepares us well to probe the landscape of the South.”
Historian J. Wayne Flynt at Auburn University praises it for its “encyclopedic detail, perceptive insights, and the obvious passion of the author.”
Aiken grew up in Memphis, but his roots are deep in Mississippi’s east Tate County, where his grandfather and great uncle owned a plantation of 1,300 acres. Aiken continues to own a portion of that plantation, and one of his brothers is still a planter on that land.