1 : : The Deep South


[You can hear Episode 1 here.]

Welcome to Episode 1 of the Deep South History podcast. I’m your host, Robert P. Collins, in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Deep South. Where is that exactly? Where are the boundaries? Is there any real difference between the Deep South and, you know, the rest of what we call the South?

Some of you may be listening in from outside the United States, so let me tell you how to find the Deep South on a map of the world. Look at North America. On its southern coast, find the Gulf of Mexico, that big body of water bordered by Mexico to the west and south, and the peninsula of Florida on the east. Now look at the northern shore of the Gulf, where your map might show the city of New Orleans. The states on that coast form the heart of the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. But the boundaries of the Deep South don’t neatly match state boundaries.  West Tennessee, around Memphis, is very Deep South, but east Tennessee, around Knoxville — not so much.

So I’m suggesting that if your state has beaches on the Gulf, you might be living in the Deep South.

Texas is in the Deep South, but not all of Texas. There’s a border zone there that’s both southern and western.

Oklahoma is a western state, but its roots are in the Deep South. That’s because most of the indigenous people of the Gulf states (the Indians, or Native Americans) were forced to move to the territory that became the state of Oklahoma.

Arkansas is another hybrid state. Its eastern edge is on the Mississippi River, right across from Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, and that’s about as Deep South as you can get.

If you only know Florida as Vacation Land, you won’t believe that it’s a part of the Deep South. I mean, seriously, Miami? Fort Lauderdale? But you don’t have to dig very far into Florida’s past to find its Deep southern roots. Florida is the heart of the Spanish colonial legacy in the South, just as Louisiana is the heart of French Creole culture. They both belong to the Deep South. France and Spain both planted flags on the beaches from Texas all the way to what’s become South Carolina.

Before we go any further, I’ll just share the results of my own study that ranks the states on a scale of 1-10 according to their Deep Southiness. I’m going to put this here and y’all can argue about it later, if you want. On a scale of 1-10 the principal Deep South states are:

  • Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, with 10 out of 10 Deep South points
  • South Carolina and Louisiana, with 9 out of 10 points
  • Tennessee, with 8 out of 10 Deep South points
  • North Carolina, with 7 out of 10
  • And then there’s Florida, with 6 out of 10 points.

The Deep South’s boundaries don’t neatly match state boundaries, but if you think in terms of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and their neighboring states, you won’t be too far wrong.

We haven’t always been Deep. When George Washington was president, this was the Southwest, just as the future states of Illinois and Indiana were in the Northwest. We’ve been the Lower South, the Gulf States, the Cotton States, Dixie. Take it back to 1800, and earlier, and some of the names are in Spanish, French, and indigenous languages. Years after the American Revolution, this was still Ekvnv este-catē. Indian country. A few precarious towns hugged the coast, peopled by Europeans. To the east, a Spanish province, La Florida. To the west, a nominally French district, La Basse-Louisiane, la partie la plus méridionale de la Nouvelle-France. Lower Louisiana, the southernmost portion of New France.

Before that, centuries before, there were people who built cities and monuments of piled earth and carved stone. We don’t know what they called themselves. We only have some of their art, and other works of imagination, recovered from under ground.


So I still haven’t defined the Deep South for you, have I? Well, it’s not easy. Other people have tried to define it, of course, and when we compare their definitions, sometimes we end up in the middle of contradictions. For example:

The Deep South is the heartland of black life, culture, and history in America. And it’s been the region that is most inimical to black life, culture, and history. For Americans in other regions, the Deep South is the last stubborn stronghold of white racism. It’s so much worse there. Isn’t it? (Isn’t it?)

The Deep South has the most hospitable, generous, warm-hearted people in America — and also the most violent, jealous, and dangerous people in America.

The Deep South’s literary art is unrivaled. Its music has set the tune for all of America, and some say, even the world. How can you help but love it? At the same time, the Deep South is an artistic and intellectual wasteland, with nothing to teach anyone, and a good deal yet to learn for itself. How can you help but despise it?

Southerners, white southerners, have been called natural aristocrats, able to trace their ancestors back to Jamestown, to the Washingtons and other First Families of Virginia, to kings and queens of England and France, or maybe to Pocahontas or some other Native American, um, princess. And southerners, these same southerners, are supposed to be natural-born idiots, oversexed and inbred, or stultified by their oppressive climate and endemic parasitic infections.

The southern accent is the most charming style of American English; ain’t that right, honey? And a southern accent is a marker of ignorance and backwardness, if not innate stupidity.

Everyone knows the Deep South by reputation, at least. It’s often a stand-in for traits that most Americans don’t want to own. Say there’s an outbreak of deadly racist violence in New York City or Los Angeles. Expect the mayor to say, “This is not who we are. This is not the Deep South.”

So one way to get at the Deep South is to talk about what it isn’t, I guess. Let’s try that.

The Deep South is not the same as the slave states — the states where chattel slavery was practiced. If you go back a ways, New England was slave country, and even Puritans and Quakers held African slaves. Still, — if your state ever had an enslaved black majority, like Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, you are most definitely in the Deep South.

Deep South history is not Civil War history. The Deep South is not the same as the Confederacy. Now, just to be clear — When I say “Confederacy,” I don’t mean the Swiss Confederacy, the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Creek Confederacy, or A Confederacy of Dunces, which some people consider to be the great American novel. I mean the Confederate States of America, which was the southern side in the American Civil War, 1861 to 1865. Four years.

The Confederacy lasted just four years. But to hear some people tell it, the Confederacy is the South, and the South is the Confederacy. Now just the colonial history of the Deep South goes back some four hundred years. Four versus four hundred. I guess that means the Civil War should occupy about 1 percent of our attention.

OK, don’t flame me. I admit, the Civil War was like nothing else in American history. So let’s talk about it for just a minute.

Civil war

The Deep South is not the Confederacy. But the first states to secede, and to call themselves Confederate, were all in the Deep South. South Carolina was first, and a month later, Georgia: two of the original thirteen states. Ahead of Georgia came three Gulf states: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama. Louisiana was next, then Texas. Secession looked like a wave moving west along the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf states left the Union, and then there was a pause. Months would pass before any more slave states (TN AR NC VA) took the plunge and left the Union.

And the war came. The Civil War killed more Americans by far than any other event in our history. We have our simple ideas of why it happened and what it was for. We forget how shocking all the bloodshed was while it was happening. More people died in one day of one battle than had died in an entire year in previous wars. And the battle continued, for another day, another year’s worth of killing. Two more days. While people were still absorbing the shock, there was another battle, just as deadly. And after a while, another, that was worse. A lot of us learned to memorize Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg in November 1863 dedicating a national cemetery to honor the fallen. What we don’t learn is that there were marshals there that day, months after the battle, to keep the public off the battlefield and away from hundreds of still unburied skeletal corpses.

For four years, some three million American men took turns trying to destroy each other. It makes four years seem like a long time. So many of the dead were never recovered; it changed the way Americans think and feel about death. How did this happen? How to make sense of it? What was it for, really?

You can’t just pick one quotation or one factoid and say, “See, that’s it.” You can’t really understand the Civil War, or any event in our history, if you ignore what came before and what came after. So that’s the balance we’ll be seeking in this podcast. Yes, we’ll visit Vicksburg in 1863, as it starved, and Atlanta in 1864, as it burned, because General Sherman was right: War is hell. And we’ll examine the conduct of Sherman’s soldiers, because some people in the Deep South are still mad about it, or they say they are. We’ll look at the Confederate soldiers whose names are on U.S. Army bases today. Who were they? How and why did enemy soldiers get recast as deserving this honor?

Before the civil war, the Deep South had an economy that rested on slave labor, and that economy was booming. Now how can that be? Wasn’t the North the modern, industrialized part of the country, while the South was agrarian, and feudal, and backward? Wasn’t it crazy for the South to think they could win a war?

Didn’t Rhett Butler say that there wasn’t a single cannon factory in the whole South? He was wrong, but we shouldn’t blame him; he was a fictional character. We should ask instead how the author who created Rhett and his beloved Scarlett got such a distorted idea of the past.

I’m talking about Gone with the Wind, of course, the romance novel by Margaret Mitchell that became a best-seller and then a classic movie. That book and that movie have shaped the whole world’s idea of what the Deep South was like in days of old. The movie was a milestone in the use of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of the Deep South, and the South generally. (That’s the red flag with the white stars on a blue X.) Now, when you see that battle flag today, it doesn’t mean you’re in the Deep South. But if the flag of your state was ever based on the battle flag, then yes, you live in a Deep South state.

OK, now that we’ve dealt with the Confederacy, let’s go back a little further in time.

Further back, further out

The first American presidents were mostly southerners, but the Deep South is not their South. It’s not the South that Thomas Jefferson described to his correspondents in Europe, back in the early days of the United States. Jefferson knew all about Virginia. But Georgia was a strange country to him, probably a good deal more foreign than France. Louisiana was part of one foreign empire. Florida was part of another. As for Alabama and Mississippi, they didn’t exist yet. That land was still Indian country in Jefferson’s heyday.

That reminds me to mention the Five Tribes of the American South: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. They’re not the only Indian tribes in the Southeast, but they are the largest, and they each have a long and rich history, and very little of it is well known. Everyone, almost, has heard of the Trail of Tears, the forcible removal of the southern Indians by American troops beginning in the 1830s. It’s been described more recently as the ethnic cleansing of the American South. In fact, it’s commonplace for historians to state that, in the South, few or no traces remain of Native American life — that the South has purged the land of its original inhabitants and pretty much erased their memory from southern culture. Well, y’all can make up your own minds. I guarantee we’ll be exploring southern American Indian history on the podcast.

Mentioning the Cherokees brings me back to the question of boundaries of the Deep South. The Cherokee heartland was, and is, in the Appalachian Mountains. If any region of the country has been more stereotyped than the Deep South, it is Appalachia. Hillbilly country. The Appalachian Mountains form the spine of the eastern United States, running from the interior South up through West Virginia into Pennsylvania. The Appalachian Trail famously runs from Georgia all the way to Maine.

Appalachia is a region of great natural beauty. For most of American history, it has also been relatively isolated and impoverished. And there has been a good deal of mutual antagonism between the people of the Appalachian hills and hollers, on the one hand, and the people of the coastal plains and bayous and piney woods of the Deep South, on the other.

Yet Appalachia and the Deep South are often lumped together, especially in American pop culture. Often when people try to imitate a southern accent, they’ll give you an amalgam of Deep South and Appalachian sounds, and they end up sounding, well, unique. The Deep South is not Appalachia. It’s true that there’s some overlap, or you might say a cultural borderland, between the Deep South, the Upper South, and Appalachia. We’ll do some exploring there.

Well, so what? Why do a podcast about Deep South history? That’s easy: Because it’s important. It’s a crucial part of American history and world history. Deep South history is older than the United States. It’s a bigger subject, or should I say, deeper, a lot deeper, than most people realize. There are a lot of stories to tell.

How we’ll do this

I don’t plan to take three hours to tell them, though. Each episode should take no more than twenty minutes. I’d say fifteen minutes, but we talk slow down here.

For each episode I’ll put a transcript and notes on the website. When I make an error of fact, and I know it’s just a matter of time, I’ll correct the error on the website and on the podcast. So if you notice an error, and you have evidence that proves it’s an error, email podcast at deep south history dot com. Just remember, if you can’t cite a reliable source, I may not take your message seriously, OK? But I will try to answer it, kindly, and if I can’t manage that, courteously.

This is a non-commercial podcast, and I intend to keep it that way. If you’d like to support it, well, you’ll have to wait because I haven’t figured that part out yet. In the meantime, visit deep south history dot com and register for the newsletter. Send me your comments through the contact page on the website. Tell your friends about the podcast. I’m going to try to release an episode every two weeks, to start, but for now let’s just call this a semi-monthly podcast.

P.S. And if you happen to pass thru Birmingham, Alabama, take some time to look around. It’s 2021 and the city turns 150 years old this year. You can also look around Birmingham from the comfort of home, by looking up Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which covers several historic sites from the grassroots human rights struggle that peaked in Birmingham in 1963. And you can really get into the weeds if you want to. Birmingham happens to have one of the best local wikis anywhere, with more than 15,000 articles about our city and the surrounding district. Find it at bhamwiki.com.

[Hear Episode 1 at Podbean.]

1 comment

  1. I learned a great deal in listening to this. I had never thought about exactly how the “Deep South” relates to state borders, the Confederacy, the former slave states, the geographic regions, etc. Even raising these question is clarifying. You’ve spoken about our region in a way that is at once clear-eyed, appreciative, and loving. You’ve introduced many threads and cultures into the mix that I look forward to learning more about in future episodes. Thanks so much for sharing your work!

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