Life Story: Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas2021-02-11T12:07:05-05:00

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Life Story: Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas

Economic Ruin and the Rise of White Supremacy

The story of a Confederate woman who lost everything and turned to white supremacy.

Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas

Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas. Private Collector, F. Michael Despeaux, Easley, South Carolina.

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Ella Gertrude Clanton was born in 1834. Her father was one of the richest plantation owners in Georgia and a member of the state legislature. His wealth was firmly rooted in the institution of slavery—he claimed ownership of 400 enslaved people who worked his 12,000 acres of land. Because of this, Ella’s childhood was one of great privilege. She enjoyed the finest things and lived a life of leisure. As a young woman, Ella received an excellent education, graduating from Wesleyan Female College in 1851. She was raised to expect that she would one day be the wife of another very wealthy plantation owner, and she looked forward to fulfilling that role.

In 1852, Ella married James Jefferson Thomas. Her father gave her 23 enslaved people as a wedding gift. This gift would give her new husband a foundation to build his future wealth. Ella took the enslaved people from her father’s plantation to her new home near Augusta, Georgia.

The first nine years of Ella’s married life went as she expected. Her father generously funded her husband’s dream of becoming a wealthy and powerful plantation owner. She gave birth to four children, securing her family’s legacy. Ella continued to live a life of ease and privilege, supported by the labor of people she and her husband enslaved. She genuinely believed that the enslaved people in her household were devoted to her and that they felt honored to be a part of her family.

In 1861, Georgia seceded from the United States and joined the newly formed Confederate States of America. Within months, the American Civil War began. Ella was initially enthusiastic about the war because she and her family supported slavery. She named her fifth child, born in 1861, Jefferson Davis in honor of the president of the new Confederate states. She supported her husband when he joined the Confederate Army. But as the war dragged on, she came to understand that the Confederacy had little chance of winning. She worried about how a defeat would affect her on a personal level.

In November 1864, Union soldiers, led by General William Tecumseh Sherman, brought the war to Ella’s neighborhood, and she got her first taste of the radical changes that were coming. She was pregnant with her seventh child and she fled to the city of Augusta. An enslaved man named Henry who lived on one of her family’s plantations seized the opportunity to escape. He found Union troops and led them to each of the Thomas family plantations. He helped the soldiers burn the fields, mills, and buildings where he had been forced to work. He also helped the troops find and take all of the horses and mules the family had tried to hide. Ella viewed Henry’s actions as a personal betrayal.

The majority of the Thomas family’s wealth was measured in the number of enslaved people they claimed to own. When the Confederacy surrendered and Georgia ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery in the United States, the people the Thomas’s had enslaved embraced their new freedom. Many left the family’s plantations while others stayed and worked for the family for pay. Ella resented negotiating salaries with men and women that she had once believed were devoted members of her household. When one formerly enslaved woman insisted on taking her child to start a new life away from their former enslavers, Ella was furious. She genuinely believed she was the child’s rightful family. She was so blinded by her own prejudice and privilege that she resisted every attempt made by her formerly enslaved workers to assert their independence.

But adapting to the freedom of Black Americans was just one of Ella’s post-war challenges. As a wealthy Southern housewife, Ella’s husband managed their finances. After the war, Ella realized that her husband had mishandled their money. Their pre-war prosperity had been an illusion made possible by her father’s generosity, gifts from other family members, and massive loans. After the war, Ella’s family sank further and further into debt. For Ella, the frustration of this long, slow failure was aggravated by the fact that nearly everything James owned had been given to them by her father. But U.S. marriage laws meant her husband controlled all of it.

Ella’s story demonstrates how Southern white people turned the anger and helplessness they felt at the end of the Civil War against newly freed Black Americans and carried those prejudices into the twentieth century.

Full of rage and shame, Ella and James blamed Black people for their family troubles. James became the captain of a militia group that rode the countryside in 1868, terrorizing Black men to stop them from voting in the presidential election. Ella was proud to see James taking a stand. She knew her children had lost the advantages of both wealth and the racial hierarchy of slavery, and she wanted Black Americans forced back into inferiority.

These hateful actions did nothing to solve the Thomas family’s financial troubles, which only got worse in the 1870s. Several family members that had loaned the couple money sued them. Bit by bit, the Thomas’s land and homes were sold off to settle their debts. By 1878, Ella was the mother of eight surviving children and living in plain wooden farmhouse. Her eldest son stopped going to school so he could work the fields. Her second son worked as a clerk for a Chinese merchant. Ella taught school and took in boarders to make ends meet. She was busy working when her seven-year-old son drowned in 1879, and she was never able to forgive herself. Ella lost all respect for her husband, who she had once believed would provide her with a lifetime of prosperity and happiness. The final, devastating blow came in 1897, when Ella’s oldest son sued his mother and father for wasting his and his sibling’s inheritance. The last of the Thomas estate was sold to cover the cost of the settlement, and once all debts were paid, the children received only $70.62—a tiny fraction of the family’s former fortune.

Before she died of a stroke in 1907, Ella became a vocal activist for women’s suffrage. She hoped that by gaining political power, white women could avoid the financial ruin and economic disadvantages that had destroyed her life. Ella’s activism, however, was deeply shaded by her white supremacist views. Her story demonstrates how Southern white people turned the anger and helplessness they felt at the end of the Civil War against newly freed Black Americans and carried those prejudices into the twentieth century.

Vocabulary

  • Confederate States of America: The name of the country founded by secessionist states that sought to preserve the practice of slavery.
  • militia: Volunteer army.
  • salary: A fixed sum of money paid to a person in exchange for their work.
  • settlement: The financial award a court gives to someone who sues another person.
  • sue: To bring a person to court to appeal for something.
  • Thirteenth Amendment: Passed by Congress in 1865, this amendment made the practice of slavery illegal in the United States, except in the case of convicted criminals.
  • Union: The name for the states that remained a part of the United States during the Civil War.
  • white supremacy: The belief that white people are superior to all other races and should dominate all other races.
  • William Tecumseh Sherman: A Union general famous for his March to the Sea, where he destroyed most of the state of Georgia to force the Confederacy to surrender.
  • women’s suffrage: The right of women to vote.

Discussion Questions

  • What was the source of Ella’s wealth and privilege before the war?
  • How did the Thirteenth Amendment change Ella’s life? How did she personally feel about this change?
  • Why was Ella at the mercy of her husband’s bad financial management?
  • Why did Ella support her husband’s involvement in a racist militia?
  • What does this life story reveal about the rise of white supremacy in the Reconstruction era?
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Themes

DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY; WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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