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Historically and culturally, the South is the most distinctive region of the United States. Once a center for African American slavery, the South is the only U.S. region to have fought for a separate national existence. Following defeat in the Civil War (1861-1865), poverty and legalized racial discrimination marked the southern states until the last decades of the twentieth century. While slavery and racial strife never dominated all parts of the South, they contributed to the economic, political, social, and cultural isolation of the entire region. As a result, W J. Cash expressed a broad consensus when he called the South “not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it” (1941, p. xlviii).
Like many other world regions, the South has no precise definition. It includes a variety of climates and geographical features, ranging from subtropical coastal swamps to the Appalachian Mountains, which include the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. The border between Pennsylvania and Maryland (the Mason-Dixon Line) divides North from South traditionally, but does not define the entire region. Eleven states seceded to form the Confederate States of America in 1861: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Four other slave states did not secede: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. The modern state of West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War, creating lasting disagreement over whether it should be considered southern. The U.S. Census defines the South as the former slave states (minus Missouri), plus Oklahoma and the District of Columbia.
The South became a discrete region by an extended process linked to African American slavery. Slaves worked in all the American colonies, but especially on plantations growing tobacco in Virginia and rice in South Carolina. By the time of the first federal census in 1790, slaves comprised 31 percent of the U.S. population south of Pennsylvania, but less than 2 percent elsewhere. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cultivation of the fiber expanded widely south of Virginia, spreading slavery and the plantation system across the southern interior and gradually tying the South together as the “Cotton Kingdom.”
Representatives of the free and slave states clashed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but regional self-consciousness did not spread widely until after 1820, as southern whites reacted to a growing abolition movement in the North and to northern opposition to slavery’s expansion. In 1860 a northern majority elected an avowedly antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln (18091865), prompting eleven slave states to leave the Union and form the Confederacy. Southern defeat in the ensuing Civil War brought the abolition of slavery, first by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and more fully by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865).
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), native southern whites used violence and intimidation to regain power over their state governments and the ex-slaves. The plantation system continued under tenancy arrangements that left blacks and many whites largely impoverished and uneducated. Beginning in the 1890s, white Democrats used poll taxes and literacy tests to strip most black men of the right to vote, followed by laws requiring the strict segregation of the races in all public facilities. In response, millions of black southerners fled to find better opportunities in the North and West. Until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought new federal legislation, widespread poverty, legal segregation, black disfranchisement, and exclusive control by an all-white Democratic Party characterized the so-called Solid South. Before these reforms, unique social and political institutions—and the prolonged struggle to maintain them— made the South unmistakably different from the rest of the United States, and fed a strong regional identity, especially among whites.
Despite these dominant regional patterns, diverse regional subcultures have long flourished in the South. The Appalachians and similar patches of hill country did not support plantations, but sustained a distinct white folk culture that became the seedbed of modern country-and-western music. Equally distinct African American cultures developed in the largely black plantation districts. African cultural survivals, including the unique Gullah language, marked the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, while other black communities developed special musical traditions, especially New Orleans jazz and the Mississippi Delta blues. Lying between the mountains and the coastal lowlands, the Piedmont South fostered industrial development with urban centers like Atlanta and Charlotte.
Isolation and distinctiveness have encouraged southern stereotypes. Racial prejudice and exploitation encouraged images of both black inferiority and universal white racism. Violence, ignorance, and laziness have been attributed to southern whites and blacks alike. Plantation owners have been credited with aristocratic gentility, and poor whites scorned for hopeless degradation. The roots of these stereotypes are slowly giving way, but popular images only die gradually.
The South has changed rapidly since the end of World War II (1939-1945). Vigorous industrial recruitment, often founded on low wages, weak regulations, and hostility to labor unions, attracted outside industry and led to massive urban and suburban growth. The civil rights movement ended legalized segregation and stimulated a two-party political system, as millions of new black voters entered the Democratic Party while many whites switched to the resurgent Republicans. Southerners of both parties acquired leading roles in national politics, as Democrats won presidential elections with Jimmy Carter (1976) and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996) and came close with Al Gore (2000), while southern Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Jesse Helms exercised a powerful conservative influence on Congress from the 1990s onward. Black migration reversed direction, lifting the region’s black population by 7.2 million between 1970 and 2000. Prosperity attracted millions of other newcomers as well, including northern-born whites and Hispanic immigrants, but the offshore flight of low-wage manufacturing has distressed many southern industrial communities.
Recent changes have led some observers to worry that the South may disappear as a distinct region, but change has come on top of deep-seated historical experiences that are likely to give distinct characteristics to southern development for a long time to come.
- Cash, W. J. 1941. The Mind of the South. New York: Knopf. Cobb, James C. 2005. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cooper, William J., Jr., and Thomas E. Terrill. 2002. The American South: A History. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Reed, John Shelton. 1974. The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds. 1989. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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