Few people will ever truly understand the complicated and peculiar history of South Carolina the way that Dr. Lacy K. Ford Jr., does. Having dedicated his life to the study of the South and 19th and 20th Century American History, Dr. Ford, is well acquainted with the economic glory years of the state.
His vast wealth of historical knowledge has driven him to publish a number of books, essays, and articles on various aspects of the South and South Carolina. As a noted historian, Ford is well equipped to enlighten South Carolinians on the mistakes of the past, and a possible road map for the future.
Dr. Ford sat down with Envision South Carolina co-founder Phil Noble recently to offer an in-depth look into the culture and economics of historical South Carolina with a keen eye towards the state's future.
NOBLE: How was South Carolina "world class" in the past?
FORD: South Carolina like some of the other portions of the world in the 18th and 19th century was able to ride some of the great, staple crop booms that occurred in the world; particularly rice, which was the first great economic engine of South Carolina beginning in the 1720's and lasting for another 150 years or so. Enormous fortunes were made off of rice along the coast and in the Lowcountry. These were made possible by the very large number of slaves that were first imported to work in the very dangerous rice fields. The second big economic engine of the state was the cotton boom which began in the 1790's, and you had booms on and off in the cotton economy as far as the 1950's ... Those early booms were driven by the emergence of world markets, which South Carolina participated in very vigorously... But at the same time, they were not economic engines that required positioning in society for a strong economy in the long term. They were very much dependent upon the success of rice and the success of cotton, just like some Middle Eastern economies today are very dependent upon oil. And then South Carolina had a less significant, but still a 100 years commitment to the textile industry which didn't bring it the type of wealth that the earlier agriculture booms had but did become a critical contributor to the economy. That too, as important as it was, did not necessarily leave the state particularly well prepared for economic change to transition out of that economy into another one. It's a cliché that change is inevitable, but if you want to have economic success, you have to prepare for it. And I think that is something that South Carolina has not done as well as it could have in part because it succumbed to the temptation of what's in hand, what's easy to do; what makes us the most money the quickest, and not to be concerned about preparing the society as a whole for durable economic success.
NOBLE: You've said that we have to invest long term in human capital in this state. What are some of the historic barriers and the current barriers to our doing that?
FORD: Historically, I think it's because the state has been committed to the success of some of its citizens but not all of its citizens. This of course refers to a long time reliance on slavery as a labor system, a continued segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans from the end of the Civil War down into the 1960's. For much of that time African Americans were more than half the state's population. They're now about a third of the state's population. We have to be committed to opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, place, or economic background. You have to work harder to give everybody an opportunity. ...I think committing to human capital is the only option. Other portions of the country have done a better job than we have and they're profiting more from it. The fact that we did not have high levels of human capital left us more vulnerable to global competition that we've lost a lot of jobs to. It's one thing to complain about those jobs and maybe things happened in the loss of those jobs that wasn't always fair, but it's also just absolutely true that those kinds of things are going to happen and you have to put
yourself in a position that you can adapt. I'd say adaptability is the key to the state's future.
NOBLE: What are some other aspects of our state; the things that are special or unusual that can be assets in that long-term process of investing in human capital and economic prosperity?
FORD: I do think to a striking degree for the early 21st century South Carolinians, whether
they're native South Carolinians or newcomers who've arrived in the state, have a fairly strong sense of community identity. They identify with where they are, where they live, maybe where they grew up. I think that strong sense of community can generate a strong desire to give back to that community. I think we have communities in the state, including some of our larger cities which are significantly different from each other and we sometimes perceive that as a problem that there's too much competition between the Charleston area, the Columbia area, and the Greenville/Spartanburg area. But they really are different types of communities and they provide an array of options for people in terms of lifestyle, in terms of the local economy; in terms of location, and I think that amount of geographical, demographical diversity within a fairly small space, can be a strength if we would learn how to play it as a strength...I think we need to realize it's a small state that lags behind the nation in many indicators. We don't need to be internally divisive. We need to pool together all of the resources and strengths we have.