As longtime residents will attest, the decade of the 1950s brought enormous change to this part of the state. The advent of the Savannah River Plant, a 300-square-mile nuclear reservation with more than 200 buildings (including five reactors) and 6,000 permanent employees (mostly from other parts of the country) changed the social, political, and economic landscape.
Indeed, in her book “Cold War Dixie” (University of Georgia Press), professor and author Kari Frederickson argues that what had been a largely rural, agricultural, and staunchly Democratic region became, with the influx of the SRP (now SRS) engineers and attendant technocrats, a largely suburban, middle-class and Eisenhower Republican enclave.
This socio-political shift did not come without a price, and Frederickson, who chairs the history department at the University of Alabama, will be chronicling some of the more significant challenges that our local community faced with the construction of the huge hydrogen bomb facility on our doorstep when she visits Aiken next week.
The keynote speaker at this year's Pickens-Salley Symposium scheduled for Tuesday, March 25, at 7 p.m. on the main stage of USCA's Etherredge Center, Frederickson specializes in exploring those factors that contributed to the evolution of the modern South; an earlier book entitled “The Dixiecrat Revolt” focuses on the period 1932 to 1968 and how key players like the late Strom Thurmond reshaped Southern politics.
Her new book “Cold War Dixie,” however, has special significance for local residents because of how she uses the Aiken area as a microcosm for the discussion of major regional change. Each chapter focuses on a specific way that the joint venture between the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the DuPont Corporation transformed Aiken County.
There is, as one might expect, some attention paid to the thousands of displaced persons, particularly the residents of the six small towns and villages that were leveled to make way for the plant. Other chapters focus on the challenges neighboring communities, particularly Aiken, faced in accommodating the influx of new residents. In just three years, from 1950 to 1953, Aiken doubled in size; new subdivision were built; and national retail chains opened outlets in our town just to provide the amenities to which the “DuPonters” had grown accustomed.
Frederickson also devotes a chapter to race relations and the slow integration of the SRP workforce; she also details how those clinging to an image of “Old Aiken” made an attempt to exclude the new residents from certain aspects of civic life and how, in response, the newcomers formed some of their own clubs and created their own cultural organizations. There is also a chapter on how “Yankee transplants and defense workers” helped revive the Republican Party in this part of the state, making their candidates competitive in local politics by the mid-1960s.
As has become an annual feature of symposium programming, following the free presentation, there will be a reception sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association of University Women in the lower lobby.
The Pickens-Salley Symposium is named for two remarkable women who were both residents of the Pickens-Salley House, now located on the USCA campus. The only woman to have her image emblazoned on Confederate paper currency, Lucy Pickens, third wife of Governor Francis Pickens, was the First Lady of South Carolina on the eve of the Civil War. One of the first women in the South to become a licensed real estate broker, Eulalie Salley was an ardent advocate for women's rights and President of the South Carolina Equal Suffrage League.
Both women left their mark on our state and the house that now bears their names. Built in 1829 as the Pickens family residence and first called Edgewood, the house was purchased by Eulalie Salley and her husband Julian in 1928 and moved from the town of Edgefield to a 15-acre site on Kalmia Hill in Aiken in 1929. It remained in the Salley family until the late 1980s, when local developer Ronald Bolton bought the property and donated the house to USCA. In 1987, the house was moved in three sections to the USCA campus and reassembled on a circular drive opposite the Etherredge Center, and it is now occupied by a number of administrative offices.
The Annual Pickens-Salley Symposium on Southern Women is free and open to the public. For more information, call Dr. Deidre Martin at 641-3448 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.
His two books on local history, “Circling the Savannah” and “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC: The History Press) are available online and at local retail outlets.