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Savannah's New South: The Politics of Reform, 1885-1910


My dissertation is a cultural and political history of Savannah, Georgia. Exploring the role of ethnic and racial groups in movements for municipal reform, this work complicates historical interpretation of the processes and experiences that shaped political development in the South. Many historians view white supremacy as the only animating feature of southern politics, obscuring the dynamic interaction of immigrant communities, religious minorities, and black southerners within the region's political culture. At the turn of the twentieth century, Savannah was striving to be a progressive, prosperous, and modern city. While still beholden to the broad outlines of the South's racial hierarchy, Savannah's political movements for municipal reform created a fluid political climate. White ethnic minorities carved out a prominent place for themselves in the city's factional political culture, which also provided space for black residents to influence politics and hope for greater enjoyment of their citizenship rights. While ultimately the forces of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation would temper the depth of reform in Savannah, further examination of municipal politics reveals important contingent moments in the history of the New South.

To illuminate varying political perspectives and experiences, I employ a biographical approach, focusing on the careers of two of Savannah's most influential leaders, Herman Myers and Sol C. Johnson. Herman Myers was a German Jewish immigrant and prominent businessman who served as mayor of Savannah for ten years at the turn of the century. At the forefront of a local progressive political realignment, Myers played a formative role in Savannah's transformation into a modern city. Sol C. Johnson, editor of the weekly African American newspaper, The Savannah Tribune, was a community leader and fierce advocate of black rights both in Savannah and the South. Johnson used the Tribune as way to encourage black political participation and protest Jim Crow segregation, and helped lead an eighteen-month boycott of Savannah's segregated streetcars. Drawing primarily from newspapers, pamphlets and public records, this study traces the careers of Myers and Johnson, and the political colleagues and opponents they encountered, through several major local political contests. The story of Myers, Johnson, and Savannah's distinctive New South evolution, highlights the power of the rhetoric of reform, and the saliency of racial, ethnic and religious identity in southern political culture.

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