On this day in 1838: English actress Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble, traveling by stagecoach from Philadelphia to Georgia, records her impressions:
“North Carolina is, I believe, the poorest state in the Union. . . . The few detached houses on the road were mean and beggarly in their appearance; and the people whom we saw when the coach stopped had a squalid, and at the same time fierce air. . . .
“A custom prevalent in North Carolina [is] the women chewing tobacco, and that, too, in a most disgusting and disagreeable way, if one way can be more disgusting than another. They carry habitually a small stick . . . in their glove, or their garter string, and, whenever occasion offers, plunge it into a snuffbox, and begin chewing it. The practice is so common, that the proffer of the snuffbox, and its passing from hand to hand, is the usual civility of a morning visit among the country people. . . . ”
“The term [“white trash”] came into use before the Civil War. When the English actress Fanny Kemble visited a Georgia plantation in the 1830s, she reported, ‘The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as “poor white trash.” ’ The term was also in use at that time in the Washington, D.C., area, where blacks and Irish immigrants competed, viciously, for the same lowly jobs.
“I experienced a similar three-tiered social system while living in North Carolina in the 1970s. There was still a strong after-taste of the state’s three pre-integration school systems: one for whites, one for blacks, one for Lumbee Native Americans. The fiercest fighting was never about who would reach the top because it was understood that white people, the non-trashy ones, would always run the show. The fiercest fighting was about staying off the bottom. I even saw this expressed by some unknown poet on the wall of a toilet stall in Lumberton, North Carolina:
Black is beautiful.
Tan is grand.
But white is the color of the big bossman.
— From “The Riches of White Trash” by Bill Morris at themillions.com (April 5, 2012)