How To Tell You’re In The South

How To Tell You’re In The South

By Richard K. Thomas

Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978, pp. 13-15

For two centuries students of regional science have engaged in debates over the existence of a Southern region of the United States. If one is willing to concede that there Is, In fact, a “South,” the question still arises as to where it begins and where it ends. Can some defining phrase be applied to the South in a manner similar to that by which the Mississippi Delta has been delineated as stretching from the lobby of the Hotel Peabody in Memphis to Catfish Row In Vicksburg? Or, are its boundaries too vague to be clearly defined? Is the transition from the South to the North, to the Mid-west and to the West too gentle to be noted or is there a sociocultural boundary noticeable to any traveler?

Since the 1900’s, a series of attempts have been made to set the boundary between the South and the non-South. Some of the more subjective criteria utilized in this process have been derived from popular conceptions of the region. An example often noted in the media is the Mason and Dixon’s Line. This 18th century demarcation, while initially serving to settle a boundary dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, came to be popularly accepted as the line separating the free and slave states. Despite the suggestion that the term “Dixie” is derived from this boundary, it is rather ineffective at setting even the northern perimeter of the region. (Not only that, but many of the stones implanted to mark its location have been stolen by souvenir hunters.)

A more scientific approach to the use of folk terminology in defining the region was attempted by John Reed, His analysis was based on the existence of the identifiers Southern” and ‘Dixie” as attached to places of business. By examining the telephone directories of nearly 100 U.S. cities for the existence of companies, storages and agencies which included one of these terms in their name, he was able to delimit the section of the country where “Southern” was most frequently utilized and another similar, but not coterminous, area where “Dixie” predominated.

Some have suggested that Southerners constitute a bona fide “ethnic group” just as do PolishAmericans or MexicanAmericans. This would connote a certain Internal cohesiveness founded on shared attitudes, beliefs and values that, for the most part, cut across lines of race, sex, age and Income. The most frequently discussed manifestation of a Southern ideology is the traditional emphasis placed on racial segregation stemming from the notion of White superiority. This emphasis, it has been suggested, more than any other factor has made the South, and Southerners, distinctive.

Early in this century the pioneer Southologist, Howard W. Odum, expounded a delineation of the South–he preferred the term “Southeast”–based on objective measures reflecting the economy of the region. Simply put, the South ended where agriculture ceased to be the major source of employment; the rest of the Nation began where non-agricultural pursuits became dominant. To this end, Odum utilized over 700 indicators of the economic characteristics of the South and its borderlands. These included such variables as pasture land, farm acreage, extent of erosion, characteristics of wage earners, government outlay and types of vehicles. By utilizing this method he was able to precisely outline the area popularly termed the “South.” Other of Odum’s persuasion now use similar criteria.

Finally (in significance if not vintage), there is the administrative delineation by the Bureau of the Census dating from 1942. The South outlined here is one of four grand regions into which the U.S. has been divided. It stretches from the East Coast to the western border of Texas–and as far North as the Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary. Thus, the South is drawn to include the likes of Oklahoma, West Virginia and Delaware.

This delineation is repugnant, of course, to the sensitivities of my real Southerner, who can only snicker when he reads the “states within each of these divisions are for the most part fairly homogeneous in physical characteristic, as well as in the characteristics of their population and their economic and social conditions.”

Admittedly, some East Texans are descended from the same Scotch-Irish bloodlines flowing throughout the Ozarks and the Appalachians, and Oklahoma is filled with Choctaw and Cherokee Indians whose traditional homelands were in the Deep South. But even given the fact that any real man in Tennessee owns Western boots and a hat, these states cannot be included with the likes of Alabama and Georgia. And what about Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia? Even if the last-named were admitted by default because of its Appalachian continuities to the South with Kentucky and Tennessee–let’s face it–Delaware and Maryland are as far North as central Ohio.

In an outburst of understatement one demographer has recently suggested that because of “changes In social and economic conditions” a different grouping might now be considered. Such a realignment was considered in 1955 when the distinction between regions was more obvious than today; the difficulty of changeover, however, was considered too great.

For my part each of these attempts to mark off what Is generally perceived as the South has serious deficiencies. First of all, folk categories are often derived from no-longer-appropriate historical distinctions, they are hard to measure (how does one

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quantify “Dixieism”?); and they may mean. different things to different people. Reed’s attempt is commendable but overlooks the fact that it is easy to adopt a name. Thus non-Southern cities are filled with companies bearing the descriptors “Dixie,” “Southern,” and “Rebel.” Reed himself points out that Chicago has more “Southern” entries than does Macon, Georgia. Although the acceptance of business names such as “Northern” and “Yankee” will be slow in gaining acceptance in the South, it is probable that the Southern region will have less of a monopoly on its traditional descriptors.

The use of psychosocial criteria in delineating the South suffers on two related grounds. In the first place, regional “character” as embodied by a generally accepted ideology is difficult to define and measure. Moreover, even the most tradition-bound ethnic group is certain to react and adapt (if not acquiesce) in the face of changing social conditions. The South is no longer isolated in any real sense and is, for all practical purposes, in the mainstream of 20th-century America.

A case in point is the traditional depiction of the South’s people as racist. In view of the wide media coverage of recent racial conflicts outside of the South, it may be redundant to cite the changing status of Southern race relations. Southern schools are now more integrated than Northern schools; Southern neighborhoods more integrated than Northern neighborhoods. And three decades of public opinion polls have demonstrated the following transformation: in 1940, 98% of White Southerners considered separate school systems essential, while in 1970, only 16% of this group would object to sending their children to a school which included some Black students.

Furthermore, the political ideology of the Southerner has undergone considerable metamorphosis. Once solidly Democrat,the voters of the South have cast off long-lived party allegiances and–if the polls are to be believed–Southerners are today slightly less “conservative” than are Westerners and Midwesterners.

The method of delineation using objective data is the most susceptible to the forces of change. The South has become industrialized to an extent not imagined at the end of World War II and the region now leads the rest of the nation in urban growth. The traditional Southern ties to the land have weakened, in practice it not in sentiment. The emergence of agribusiness and the neoplantation in the South has depleted the ranks of farmers and farm laborers to the point that the agricultural pursuit is no longer a distinguished attribute of the region.

In view of the failures of all other methods, I propose an alternative and, I believe, foolproof process for accurately demarcating the South. This method combines some of the best characteristics of earlier attempts–objectivity, an embodiment of the psychosocial character of the people, and a reflection of the economic system of the region. Furthermore, it overcomes some of the deficiencies of other approaches. It uses easily collected data; it allows for a sharp rather than vague delineation of regional boundaries; and its defining measure has remained unchanged in the face of modernization.

It is important, I feel, to describe the manner in which this “revelation” came to me. I had held an interest, off and on, in the notion of a Southern-ness existing around me and felt, like most residents of the region, that there were some, however vague, boundaries that set us apart from the rest of America. The first inkling of the existence of some defining characteristic came to me on an automobile trip three years ago from Memphis to St. Louis. Unquestionably, I was starting in the South with a destination in the non-South, but it could not really be deter-

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mined, I thought, where one ended and the other began. If one takes old Highway 61 into Missouri, a much better idea of the changing terrain–from Mississippi Delta to Missouri hills (the foothills of the Ozarks, I believe)–is evident. Not only does the topography suggest a transition is underway. Foreign-sounding names like Biehle, Weingarten and River Aux Vases appear on maps and roadsigns. Baptist churches give way to Lutheran and Catholic houses of worship. And what Southerner can forget the initial surprise at seeing St. Jude Acres subdivision beside the road? Although these changes are not abrupt and no clear-cut lines separate delta geography from Ozark-foothills or fundamentalism from ritualism, it is clear to the traveler that a transition is taking place.

It wasn’t until Perryville, midway between Cape Girardeau and St. Genevieve, that the full implication of the border crossing was apparent. And it was here at the Intersection Cafe in Perryville that I discovered the key to the delineation of the South. Sitting in the restaurant, I felt an uneasiness; something told me we were at the border, but I could not ferret out the source of this feeling. I was convinced that the transition was taking place, but I needed proof.

Then, in a most unlikely place–the menu–I discovered what appears to be the one most significant variable in setting off the South and the non-South. There, listed under “Beverages”seeming to leap out–was “Pop.” That was it! The line between the South and the non-South could be drawn at the point–a precise one, too–where carbonated beverages are no longer referred to as “cokes,” “colas” or “soft drinks” but are ordered as “soda,” ‘pop” or “soda pop.”

Subsequent research has borne out this significant breakthrough with such points being identified all along the border. On the west, as one passes from Dallas to Tyler, Texas, the same phenomenon is observed. A line can be drawn setting off East Texas and cutting through Oklahoma; likewise across the northern reaches of the Southland; eastward from Perryville along a line stretching across southern Indiana into northernmost Kentucky (actually through the Cincinnati metropolitan area), on across Southern Ohio, through the heart of West Virginia and-alas!-cutting the northern fifth of Virginia, the essence of the Confederacy, off from the rest of the state.

Admittedly, the research on this important topic is in its early stages and extensive data collection and analysis have yet to be implemented. The conclusions to date have been based on unsystematic observations and interviews with selected “experts.” Thus, the precise boundary-a border over 2,100 miles long, by the way–has not been established at every point. (It is probable that the final delineation will resemble more of a saw-tooth pattern than the smooth line suggested above.)

In any case, it appears that a foolproof method for delineating the South has been discovered. The faults df other methods are now really glaring. Anyone can name their company “Dixie Rents” or “Southern Leather”; ideology and beliefs are compromised in the face of changing conditions; agrarian lifestyles and occupation give way to urbanization and industrialization.

But the day when the boys who hang around the Red Ace filling station in Cullman, Alabama, walk into Grigsby’s Grocery and order an orange pop, we’ll know the South is dead.

“How To Tell You’re In The South” was first printed in Southwestern Journal Southwestern at Memphis, Spring 1977.