"de good Lawd don’t keer whether he smart er not. Don’t nobody but white trash keer dat."
Poor white labourer from the Mississippi Delta
Public DomainPoor white labourer from the Mississippi Delta - Credit: Library of Congress

Despite black slaves’ position at the bottom of the social hierarchy they were, in some respects, slightly better off than poor white labourers. Since the latter were not the personal property of the plantation holder, he could have them perform hazardous work without risk of damaging his investment. This allowed for the emergence of the ‘white trash’ stereotype through which blacks elevated themselves above poor whites from the 1830s onwards. Contingent to this was the identification of African Americans with the social position of the white families to which they belonged, both as slaves and as servants.

 

Home of a poor agricultural labourer
Public DomainHome of a poor agricultural labourer - Credit: Library of Congress

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Civilization of the Old South (1916), Mildred Rutherford, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, paints this affiliation in typically sentimental and racially supremacist terms:

 

The master would boast, “My servants are the best on all the plantations round, best workers, best mannered, most contented, the healthiest.” And the servants in turn would say, “Our white folks are quality folks—they’re none of your po’ white trash. Aint nobody in the world like ‘ole marster’ and ‘ole Mis’.” (p. 6)