Mercer University’s King Center to host symposium on ‘Cotton Modernity’

Cotton Modernity graphic

MACON — Mercer University’s Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies will host “Cotton Modernity,” a symposium about cotton culture in the 20th century American South, at 6 p.m. March 17 and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. March 18 on the Macon campus. 

At the symposium, scholars on the culture of cotton will discuss how cotton continued to define the socioeconomic culture of the South for the century after the Civil War. They will explain how cotton affected Southern life from the late 19th century to the 21st century in agriculture, politics, labor, music, literature and film. 

The event is free and open to the public. 

“Cotton was America’s most important commodity crop for decades, and cotton production influenced every facet of life in the South for nearly two centuries, but most Americans only associate cotton with the antebellum South,” said Dr. David Davis, associate director of the King Center and professor of English. “This symposium will reveal the importance of cotton in 20th century politics, race relations, labor movements, music, literature and film, and also expose the deeply embedded cultural memory of cotton.”  

Dr. Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, will deliver a keynote lecture titled, “The Touch, the Feel, the Sensory History of Cotton,” at 6 p.m. March 17 in the Presidents Dining Room. This talk will explore the complicated sensory history of cotton, focusing on the texture of the fiber and the feeling on the skin of the hands that picked it. 

Dr. Smith has authored and edited over a dozen books, and his work on Southern and sensory history has been translated into Chinese, Korean, Danish, German and Spanish. Additionally, his works have been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, The (London) Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  

March 18 will be a full day of presentations in the Godsey Science Center, Room 102.  

Dr. Adrienne Petty, associate professor at William & Mary and historian of the South, will deliver an opening essay titled, “Picking Cotton: The Pride and Pain of the Harvest During the Era of Southern Enclosure,” at 9:30 a.m. The essay will focus on the contradictory memories and meaning of cotton for Black and white Southerners who came of age during the Jim Crow era. 

Dr. Adam Gussow, professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, will deliver a talk titled, “Cottonfields and Cadillacs: Exploring a Blues Lyric Archive,” at 10:30 a.m. The talk will focus on the relationship between cotton sharecropping and blues music, with an emphasis on the way in which blues originated in cottonfields. 

Dr. Jim Giesen, associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, will read from his paper, “‘To Keep Cotton King:’ The Cotton Makers’ Jubilee and the Landscapes of African American Politics in Memphis,” at 1 p.m. The paper analyzes the African American response to the Memphis Cotton Carnival and the white supremacy it symbolized. 

Mercer’s Dr. Davis will deliver a talk about “Faulkner’s Cotton: Plantation Modernity in Yoknapatawpha County” at 2 p.m. The talk will discuss Faulkner’s depiction of cotton-producing areas adjusting to the processes of modernization. 

Dr. Jarod Roll, professor of history at the University of Mississippi, will read from a paper titled, “Modernizing Cotton Unionism: Revisiting the CIO’s Campaign to Organize the Cotton Industry, 1937 to 1953,” at 3 p.m. The paper will assess the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Depression-era effort to unionize cotton workers from field to factory across the U.S. 

Dr. Robert Jackson, James G. Watson Professor of English at the University of Tulsa, will speak about “Cotton Cinema: The Minstrel and the Manager” at 4:30 p.m. The talk will discuss the evolution of cotton and its career representation as minstrel and manager in American films. 

Dr. Jarvis C. McInnis, Cordelia and William Laverack Family Assistant Professor of English at Duke University, will deliver the closing address titled, “Much Ado About Cotton: On the Uses and Value of a Global Commodity,” at 5:30 p.m. The talk will explore African Americans’ complex relationships to cotton and cotton culture in the afterlife of slavery and the plantation. 

About the Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies 

The Spencer B. King Jr. Center for Southern Studies fosters critical discussions about the many meanings of the South. As the only center for Southern studies in the United States dedicated to the education and enrichment of undergraduate students, the Center’s primary purpose is to examine the region’s complex history and culture through courses, conversations and events that are open, honest and accessible. For more information, visit

About the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences  

Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences serves as the academic cornerstone of one of America’s oldest and most distinctive institutions of higher learning. The oldest and largest of Mercer’s 12 schools and colleges, it is a diverse and vibrant community, enrolling more than 1,900 students, dedicated to learning and service through the practice of intellectual curiosity, respectful dialogue and responsible citizenry. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers majors in more than 30 areas of study, including more than a dozen pre-professional academic tracks, with classes taught by an outstanding faculty of scholars. In 2015, Mercer was awarded a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society that recognizes exceptional achievement in the arts and sciences. For more information, visit

About Mercer University 

Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. With approximately 9,000 students enrolled in 12 schools and colleges, on major campuses in Macon and Atlanta; medical school sites in Macon, Savannah and Columbus; and at regional academic centers in Henry and Douglas counties, Mercer is ranked among the top tier of national research universities by U.S. News & World Report. The Mercer Health Sciences Center includes the University’s School of Medicine and Colleges of Nursing, Health Professions and Pharmacy. Mercer is affiliated with five teaching hospitals – Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Center in Macon; Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis-Emory Healthcare in Columbus. The University also has an educational partnership with Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. It operates an academic press and a performing arts center in Macon, an engineering research center in Warner Robins, and Mercer Medicine clinics in Sumter, Peach, Clay and Putnam counties. Mercer is one of only 293 institutions nationwide to shelter a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society; one of eight institutions to hold membership in the Georgia Research Alliance; and the only private university in Georgia to field an NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit