The Answers Issue: Is the District of Columbia in or part of ‘the South’?

Is the District of Columbia in or part of ‘the South’? I get in the argument all the time. I believe that it is mostly due to its history and architecture. But I catch so much flack for saying “D.C. is the South” all the time.

There are no agreed-upon boundaries that make the American South the South. Just as Washingtonians will fight to the death over the precise boundaries of Ledroit Park or Park View, scholars have debated the identity of the South for decades. The Census Bureau has its own definition (which includes Maryland, Delaware, and Oklahoma), and it differs from what is commonly thought of as Dixie (the 11 states of the Confederacy) or the Deep South (generally, but not always, limited to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina).

The American South is wide and varied, but there are a few factors that seem to define its history and its present. Some of these—a large English and Irish population, an agrarian economy, large rural swaths, high church attendance, lower incomes and cost of living, and political conservatism—don’t bear much resemblance to D.C. Others—a large African-American population, some native flora—do. According to Tamika Richeson, a history Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia specializing in the 19th century who has studied the history of D.C., the time the District most resembled the South was before the Civil War.

“At its conception, it was very Southern,” she says. “It was very rural, surrounded by two of the largest slave-holding states in the country. Its customs were very informed by Maryland and Virginia. It had a very Southern way about it.”

The most Southern thing about Washington was slavery. “Slavery was very much part of the landscape,” Richeson says. “D.C. was a place, prior to the Civil War, where slaves came from everywhere. I mean everywhere.” Marylanders and Virginians with a surplus of slaves could “hire out” to the District, a practice that was popular in Southern cities like Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans. “It was built on the backs of slaves,” Richeson says, “which, in that way, would make D.C. very Southern.”

Abraham Lincoln’s election changed things. “I don’t think it became Northern,” Richeson says, “but it became distinctive.”

Of course when folks new to D.C. call the town “Southern,” they are probably not referring to the miserable legacy of slavery we share with Dixie but to more romanticized and difficult to quantify signifiers of Southern culture: friendliness, say, or a slower pace of life. (As in the famous JFK quote about “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”) Richeson again cautions that these are extremely subjective notions.

“I think it’s important to make the distinction of what ‘D.C.’ is,” she says. “Suburbs, transplants, actual Washingtonians.” Having said that, Richeson, who moved to Clarendon from Ohio a few years ago and now lives in Manassas, doesn’t find D.C. particularly Southern. “It’s actually a pretty fast-paced place compared to a lot of cities in the Midwest or the South,” she says. “People here I think are more polite, not because they’re more Southern, but because they’re more politically correct.”

Also our barbecue sucks. Sorry, we are not the South.

Our Readers Say

I have to disagree with Jenny Rogers, who I just take a wild guess is originally from Cambridge, Mass. or some like place. Having been born and raised in D.C. (1952, Columbia Hospital for Women) I grew up KNOWING that we lived in the SOUTH, i.e. BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE! Back in the day, the Mason-Dixon line was the line of demarcation that was the official dividing line of North and South. Check out the Wikipedia definition: "In popular usage, the Mason–Dixon line symbolizes a cultural boundary between the Northeastern and the Southern United States (Dixie). After Pennsylvania abolished slavery, it was a demarcation line for the legality of slavery." In addition, we ALL (until, say, 1977 or so) had roots in the deeper South. Habits, and even as many still SPEAK to one another in passing on the street (that's subject of another of your "Answer Issue" topics!) many in the "REAL South" of D.C. (Anacostia, Garfield, Hillcrest) remain fishermen, crabbers and are popular for our summer cookouts, even those in diverse areas such as Ft. Dupont Park and, yes, Rock Creek Park. Alas, many who descended from the slave population that predominated in Shaw after Civil War and even today being economically forced further "South:" Prince George's County/SOUTHERN MARYLAND!
Anyone who thinks DC is in any way -- culturally, linguistically, or politically -- Southern, has never been to the actual South.

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