Columbia, SC Having dedicated his life to the study of the South and 19th and 20th century American history, Lacy Ford, is well acquainted with the economic glory years of South Carolina.
He has published a number of books, essays, and articles on the South and South Carolina. From his perspective, Ford can enlighten us on the mistakes of the past, and lay out a possible road map for the future.
South Carolina was able to ride some of the great, staple crop booms that occurred in the world in the 18th and 19ths centuries, particularly rice. Beginning in the 1720s and lasting for another 150 years, rice was the first great economic engine of the state. Enormous fortunes were made off rice along the coast and in the Lowcountry. These were made possible by the large number of slaves imported to work in the dangerous rice fields. The state’s second big economic engine was the cotton boom, which began in the 1790’s. You had booms on and off in the cotton economy as long as into the 1950s. Those early booms were driven by the emergence of world markets, of which South Carolina was a vigorous participant. But they were not economic engines that required positioning society for a strong economy in the long term. They were dependent upon the success of rice and the success of cotton, just like some Middle Eastern economies today are dependent upon oil. South Carolina next had a less significant, but still a 100 years commitment to the textile industry, which didn’t bring quite the wealth that the earlier agriculture booms had, but a critical contributor to the economy. That too did not leave the state particularly well prepared for economic change to transition into a new economy. It’s a cliche that change is inevitable, but if you want to have economic success, you have to prepare for it. And I think that is something South Carolina has not done as well as it could have, in part, because it succumbed to the temptation of what’s in hand, what’s easy to do; what makes us the most money the quickest, and not being concerned about preparing the society as a whole for durable economic success.
Historically, I think it’s because the state has been committed to the success of some of its citizens, but not all of its citizens. This of course refers to a long time reliance on slavery as a labor system and a continued segregation and disenfranchisement of African- Americans from the end of the Civil War into the 1960’s. For much of that time, African-Americans were more than half the state’s population. They’re now about a third of the state’s population. We have to be committed to opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, place, or economic background. You have to work harder to give everybody an opportunity. I think committing to human capital is the only option. Other portions of the country have done a better job than we have, and they’re profiting from it. The fact we did not have high levels of human capital has left us more vulnerable to global competition that we’ve lost a lot of jobs to. It’s one thing to complain about those jobs and maybe things happened in the loss of those jobs that wasn’t always fair, but it’s also true that those kinds of things are going to happen and you have to put yourself in a position to adapt. I’d say adaptability is the key to the state’s future.
I think to a striking degree for the early 21st century, South Carolinians, whether they’re native South Carolinians or newcomers who’ve arrived in the state, have a fairly strong sense of community identity. They identify with where they are, where they live, maybe where they grew up. I think that sense of community can generate a strong desire to give back to that community. I think we have communities in the state, including some of our larger cities, that are significantly different from each other. We sometimes perceive that as a problem, that there’s too much competition between the Charleston area, the Columbia area and the Greenville/Spartanburg area. But they really are different types of communities, and they provide an array of options for people in terms of lifestyle, in terms of the local economy and in terms of location. I think that amount of geographical, demographical diversity within a fairly small space can be a strength if we would learn how to play it as a strength. I think we need to realize it’s a small state that lags behind the nation in many indicators. We don’t need to be internally divisive. We need to pool together all of the resources and strengths we have.