Some derided Morgan as being stuck in the 19th century. In some ways, he was. A few of his predictions were outdated before he wrote them. For example, even as interstate commerce expanded, he declared that “we probably shall not ship apples in quantity from the state of Washington to rural Ohio when Ohio can raise equally good fruit. Neither will heavy unspecialized equipment, such as cast iron stoves, be shipped from Ohio to the state of Washington.” Those predictions were plainly wrong. Other beliefs of Morgan’s are less likely to be forgiven in the present day: He also endorsed eugenics as a solution for recalcitrant criminality.
But while Morgan may have been off on some topics, he was sharp and forward-thinking on others. For one, he recognized that racial prejudice would haunt the United States until the country guaranteed equal rights for all. And, separately, some modern scholars think he had the right idea about the value of small places as lagoons that feed society’s ocean. “I think that the scale of life does permit kids to feel that they can be engaged in the community in ways that are pretty powerful for them later on in life,” says Steven Conn, an urban and intellectual historian at the Miami University of Ohio (who happens to live in Yellow Springs).
The Rutgers University sociologist Patrick Carr, the author, with Maria Kefalas, of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, agrees with Conn. “Our work looked at the mechanism of mentorship and nurturing you have in small towns,” he explains. “In fact, most young people we spoke with talked about how in a place like [the town they studied] ‘we kind of feel you are part of something bigger than yourself.’”
Angela McMillan Howell, an anthropologist and sociologist at Morgan State University, and the author of Raised Up Down Yonder: Growing Up Black in Rural Alabama, tells a similar story. In the small Alabama town she wrote about, “there was this heightened level of community engagement.” Since everybody belonged to one of two black churches, youngsters of different economic backgrounds got to know doctors, lawyers, and other prominent people. Many attended a local Rosenwald school, one of a string of schools founded by Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, to bring excellent educational opportunities to African American children in the South. “There is a sense of being a big fish in small pond,” Howell says.
There, as well as in the places Conn and Carr are familiar with, some young people moved on to universities and bigger towns and cities, carrying community values with them, adding to the talent pool of the nation’s urban economies, just as Morgan suggested. (Dwight Eisenhower, to name just one example, was raised in Abilene, Kansas, with a population under 5,000 when he was boy.) Ideally, after a time away, some would return to their towns to assume leadership positions there.