JACKSON, Miss. – Gene Dattel grew up in the segregated South and was one of the few Mississippians enrolled at Yale University in 1962 when his home state became ensnared in a bloody confrontation over integration.
More than 1,200 miles and a cultural universe away from the land of cotton, the White freshman found himself answering questions about the violent resistance to James Meredith’s court-ordered admission as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi.
“I was really put on the defensive,” Dattel, now 65 and living in New York, recalled recently.
He said his struggle to answer questions, and to understand what led to events of the day, prompted him to begin an intense course of study. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale in 1966 and a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1969.
Now, after decades of working in international finance and lecturing occasionally at universities, Dattel has written a book titled Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power. The publisher, Ivan R. Dee of Chicago, gave the book an initial print run of 7,500 copies.
Cotton and Race is a compelling story of how the cash crop shaped the 19th-century global economy and magnified the United States’ racial problems. His narrative begins during the framing of the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s, decades before the cotton boom. It ends in about 1930, when, Dattel says, subsidies made cotton “a permanent ward of the federal government.”
While Dattel’s work condemns slavery as “a tragedy of racial epic proportions,” the book focuses more on money than morality.
“Without cotton, slavery would most probably have been headed for extinction,” Dattel writes.
The book outlines changes in society, including Europeans’ demand for clothing made from cotton rather than wool, that made the crop the top U.S. export from 1803 to 1937. It also notes that the cotton trade helped propel New York to commercial prominence.
Dr. Charles Reagan Wilson, chairman of the history department at the University of Mississippi, said Dattel researched primary sources to create a “very sweeping,” narrative about how the rapid expansion of the cotton market in the early 19th century shaped history and reinforced slavery in the United States.
“It’s a global story,” said Wilson, who has known Dattel for years. “It’s extremely well-crafted.”
The book also makes clear that racial oppression was not limited to the South. Although there was significant anti-slavery sentiment in the North and the West, there were also strong anti-Black attitudes in those areas. Dattel notes, for example, that Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin were among the states with laws excluding Blacks from full civic participation.
“Someone who was anti-slavery could also be anti-Black – the same person,” Dattel said in an interview.
Dattel writes that “the blatant racial bigotry of the North played a vital role in consigning Blacks to a life in the cotton fields by impeding and even curtailing their physical and economic mobility, thus furthering the entrapment of most Blacks in the South after the Civil War.”
Lee A. Daniels, communications director for the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., praised Dattel’s book as an “epic.” He said it meticulously outlines how – by law and by social pressure – the U.S. carried out a policy of containment that kept Blacks in the South during and after slavery and in Northern ghettos later.
Daniels said Dattel challenges a broadly held belief that racial oppression was limited by geography or carried out only by certain groups of people – an assumption Daniels said is “one of the ways America takes comfort from its slave past.”
“In fact, all of America condoned, really, the oppression of all Black people,” said Daniels, who read Dattel’s book upon the recommendation of a friend.
Dattel worked in investment banking from 1969 to 1992 and his career took him to Tokyo, Hong Kong and London. Since 1998, he has been a financial-institutions adviser to the Pentagon.
He spent three years writing Cotton and Race – his second book after 1994’s The Sun That Never Rose, an analysis of Japan’s failed financial institutions during the 1980s. He had been researching the race and cotton since he was at Yale in 1963.
Dattel was raised in what he called a “very assimilated,” Jewish community in Ruleville. The Mississippi Delta town now has a population of 3,234, of whom 81 percent are Black and 19 percent are White. At the time he lived there, Dattel said, the population was more evenly split between Black and White.
From 1997 to 2004, he traveled to several states with Clifton Taulbert, author of the 1990 memoir, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. In a presentation they called “Parallel Lives,” they discussed what it was like for Dattel to grow up Jewish and White, and for Taulbert to grow up Black in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s.
Dattel was recently in Jackson to discuss Cotton and Race and about 60 people attended his presentation at the state archives. Meredith sat quietly near the back of the room, wearing an Ole Miss baseball cap. Dattel said later he was intrigued to see, in person, the man whose integration of Ole Miss helped propel his own first efforts at explaining race and history.
“The symmetry,” Dattel said, “was unbelievable.”