I.J. Schwartz's Yiddish epic poem Kentoki (1925) depicts the Jewish immigrant experience in a setting atypical of its genre. Joshua, Schwartz's protagonist, is a Jewish peddler who wanders into a Kentucky town--one that's never named, but considering Schwartz's biography, is likely Lexington. He is tolerated, and sometimes welcomed, by his native-born customers--they even start to call him "Josh," a thoroughly American name. He establishes a scrapyard enterprise. He purchases property, which makes him feel "as if he had taken root deep in the earth." A wave of Lithuanian Jewish immigrant peddlers joins him, eventually enough to form a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for communal prayer. As their town grows, so do their businesses, and soon they are able to purchase a former Protestant church, vacated by whites who had abandoned the neighborhood to African Americans and Jews. (1)
Kentoki is a searing portrayal of the pressures upon a Jewish minority in a thoroughly Christian environment; of generational conflict, as the children of Jewish immigrants become southern; of black-Jewish relations, and the terrifying brutality of white supremacy. But Schwartz's poem also illustrates the importance of small business ownership to the process of Jewish immigrant acculturation in the urban South. First as a peddler, and then as "a shopkeeper among the local farmers, black and white," as Hasia Diner has written, commerce offered Jewish peddlers like Schwartz's entry to southern life. (2)
But when Schwartz describes the local commercial district, we learn that Jews are not the only immigrant businessmen in Joshua's Lexington:
An Irishman opened a tavern at the corner, And nights became festive With lively shouts and banjo tunes ... A shrewd Greek opened A smelly restaurant; an Italian Displayed the finest greens and fruit; And Lee Hu-Tchung, with long stiff braids, In a black blouse with tassels, Installed himself in the white window And day and night he stood with a small iron, Pressing linens. (3) Did these men also anchor their communities, like Joshua did? Did their families struggle to maintain continuity with their old ways as they became more southern? How did they respond to Jim Crow? One wishes for the Greek, Italian, or Cantonese version of Schwartz's poem, portraying the experiences of this diverse collection of immigrant entrepreneurs and suggesting how they paralleled or diverged from one another.
The ethnically heterogeneous business district described by Schwartz was familiar to American southerners in the early twentieth century. Though most historians of the New South ignore the presence of immigrants in the region, some, like Blaine Brownell, have claimed that "the impact of foreign born groups," especially in southern cities, "was often greater than their numbers suggested." (4) Their economic activities, especially as proprietors of small retail and service businesses, magnified their impact on the urban South.
When historians do investigate immigrant entrepreneurship in the New South, they generally center their attention on Ashkenazi Jews, to the exclusion of other immigrant merchants. (5) This historiographie focus is partly a function of proportion: the majority of the South's foreign-born merchants were Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. A small but visible minority in every southern state, Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers were so frequently encountered throughout the region that some observers overstated their commercial ubiquity. "It is said, 'If there is a Jewish holiday, you cannot buy a pair of socks in this whole country,'" reported social scientist John Dollard of Depression-era Mississippi. This perception "illustrates how complete the control of retail dry-goods trade by Jews is supposed to be." (6)
Whether the majority of the South's foreign-born merchants were in fact Jewish, or their visibility as a commercially-oriented minority only made them seem omnipresent, it is certainly true that Jewish immigrants who settled in the South overwhelmingly made their living in the commercial sector. In a heavily agricultural region with limited employment opportunity in industrial manufacturing, as was the case in the South before World War II, self-employment was one of few options available to the region's newcomers. Petty trade offered a low-cost point of entry to the local economy, providing a chance at upward mobility and financial stability. Scholars who study southern Jewish history have recognized immigrant entrepreneurship--foreign-born residents who establish a business as a means of economic survival, often with the help of a network of common origin--as a crucial framework for both understanding regional processes of Jewish acculturation, and comparing the Jewish experience in the American South to other sites of Jewish settlement in the United States and elsewhere. (7)
As the scene set in I.J. Schwartz's poem suggests, however, immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean, the Ottoman Levant, and Asia also made a living in southern cities and towns, and integrated into their local economies, through petty commerce. Like their Ashkenazi immigrant neighbors, they clustered in particular commodity or service niches, creating networks of employment and capital that facilitated chain migration. In commercially open spaces, where retail opportunities were plentiful at a range of levels, they were able to experience what Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer-prizewinning observer of immigrant-owned restaurants in Los Angeles, called the "miracle of entry-level capitalism." (8) In an early scholarly investigation of southern Jewish entrepreneurs, Stephen J. Whitfield asserted that southern Jewish merchants "helped cultivate a taste for products of the modern world" in a part of the country "locked into agrarian habits of mind and conduct." (9) It stands to reason that Greek restaurateurs, Italian fruit stand men, and Chinese laundrymen, as well as Syrian peddlers and Armenian furniture dealers, also shaped southern processes of urbanization. Communities of immigrant entrepreneurs, whatever their religious faith or national origin, helped to create and expand southern towns and cities. They provided local residents with novel consumer goods, as well as a sense of the wider world beyond their relatively provincial environment. All immigrant entrepreneurs, regardless of the size of their community or the scope of their enterprise, should be counted as among the new men (and women) in the new cities of the New South.
This essay examines the experiences and contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs, and especially foreign-born retail businessmen, in Atlanta, Georgia, between 1900 and 1930. During these decades, Atlanta was one of dozens of southern cities where new immigrant communities gathered and flourished; though these communities were small, they played an important role in the development of the urban South. Their communities, and their commercial enterprises, were shaped by their relatively small numbers, as well as by the pressures imposed by the Jim Crow system of racial oppression and marginalization.
When we recognize the history of Jewish commerce in the American South within a broader immigrant context, foregrounding these immigrants' shared setting and similar trajectories, we find that Jews were not entirely distinctive in their motivations and decisions, or in the external factors that propelled them toward commercial endeavors. While this essay will take each community's distinctive cultures and experiences into account--as must any sensitive comparison between ethnic groups--it will also suggest that if we look beyond the southern Jewish experience, expanding our analysis to other immigrant groups who came to the region at the same time, we might discern patterns that can be applied more widely.
Atlanta's Immigrant Entrepreneurs: New Americans in a New South City
In the late 1880s, Henry Grady--editor of the Constitution, Atlanta's establishment newspaper--regaled audiences of elite northerners with his vision of a "New South." While the Old South had "rested everything on slavery and agriculture," he claimed, the New South would offer "diverse industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age." He espoused a movement toward economic and industrial modernization, connecting the former Confederacy to the North by railroads networks, commercial ties, and shared patriotic sentiment. (10)
Atlanta served as exemplar of the New South's modern economic aspirations. Founded as a railroad hub in the 1840s and wrecked during Sherman's March to the Sea, Atlanta was rebuilt and expanded during Reconstruction. Having already successfully lobbied to capture the title of state capitol in 1868, city leaders with an eye toward regional prominence sought to ensure Atlanta's centrality to the southern economy by extending its rail connections even further. Atlanta's reputation for commercial dynamism and entrepreneurial prowess was amplified by relentless self-promotion by its business and political elite, who believed that explosive economic growth was good for all Atlantans. By 1900, the city was a regional leader in commercial development, connecting agricultural commodity wholesalers to rural producers, and distributing manufactured products to far-flung regional retailers from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River. It had become, as described by Howard N. Rabinowitz, "the archetype of the New South ... A leading market for upper Georgia and the major distribution point for Western products, Atlanta was also a financial, commercial, administrative and light-manufacturing center." (11)
Though Grady's hope that Atlanta could become an industrial powerhouse never materialized, the city had established a solid foundation in the manufacture of consumer goods, such as food products, patent medicines, and furniture, as well as a substantial niche in printed materials and...