The Deep South

United States Geography

The region of southern culture - the Deep South - can be viewed as a geographic composite of beliefs, attitudes, patterns, habits, and institutions. Many of the early patterns and current changes are explicitly geographic; many others have geographic consequences.

Strong differences exist within the South. The Gulf Coast, the southern highlands, the Georgia-Carolinas Piedmont, and many portions of the northern interior South each possess their own versions of southern culture. But they are also clear about the "southern-ness" they share.


The earliest European colonization in America was commercial and exploitative. And the coastal plain south of Delaware Bay, especially that south of Chesapeake Bay, contained many areas that appeared ideal for agricultural exploitation. The long, hot summers, regular rainfall, and mild winters permitted settlers a selection of crops complementary to those grown in northern Europe. The large number of rivers that crossed the plain, navigable by small boats at least, allowed settlement to expand freely between the James River in Virginia and the Altamaha River in Georgia.

Population densities remained low throughout most of the region, with urban concentrations larger than the village size limited to port cities (Norfolk, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia) or the heads of navigation on the main rivers (Richmond, Virginia, and, later, Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia). The strong rural and agrarian elements of southern culture established a pattern that remained significant until after the mid-20th century.

The greatest return for the effort expended by Europeans in settling the Atlantic southern lowlands was through highly structured cash crop agriculture. The plantation organization came gradually to dominate the early southern colonial economy. Production of tobacco along the James River and to the south in northeastern North Carolina, and production of rice and indigo in and around the many coastal swamps in the Carolinas and Georgia, were important from 1695 onward. Cotton production grew slowly in importance until about 1800 and spread rapidly inland, from the initial concentrations on the Sea Islands between Charleston and Spanish-held Florida. Although privately held small farms were numerous, the plantation form of organization was successful enough that it was carried westward with cotton production and reached its most prevalent form in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana during the first half of the 19th century. Tobacco was similarly carried westward into Kentucky and Tennessee by settlers migrating from Virginia and North Carolina.

The South's spatial organization was weakly developed, with small market centers serving as collection and transshipment points; larger cities containing a variety of economic activities were few in number. The transportation network accompanying this pattern was one that simply allowed the inland products to be moved most directly to the coastal export centers; interconnections between the smaller marketplaces remained few. A major consequence was rural isolation for most of the region's population.

Large-scale plantation agriculture required a sizable annual investment, and much of that investment was in the form of slave labor from Africa. Once this practice was established, it restricted population immigration because potential settlers and urban workers found freer opportunities in the North. Since early in the 19th century, therefore, the South's proportion of foreign born has been lower than any other region of the country. And because significant immigration to the United States from countries outside Britain did not occur until the 1840s, the overwhelming majority of southern whites are of British descent.

Two long-term resident populations that are neither British nor African in ancestry are the Cajuns of southern Louisiana and several American Indian groups. The Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns are descended from French exiles from Canada. The rural Cajun population settled in southern Louisiana and remained culturally distinct in spite of the gradual integration of the remainder of the state into Deep South culture. Most American Indian groups were removed from the South in much the same ruthless manner and at the same time as in the Midwest, but significant exceptions remain. The largest of these are the Lumbee in southeast North Carolina, remnants of the once powerful Cherokee in southwestern North Carolina, the Choctaw in central Mississippi, and the Seminoles in southern Florida.

Another strong element of Deep South culture took root in its agrarian communities and homesteads. The South's population has long been characterized by adherence to evangelical Protestant religions. Small, unpretentious church buildings still dot the countryside, consistently drawing their congregations every Sunday from the scattered rural and small-town populations. Methodist, Episcopal, and other Protestant congregations are numerous across the region, but it is the Baptists who have numerical dominion.

The heavy use of slaves in the southern colonies lies at the crux of both additional components of southern culture. One impact was the transfer of many elements of the African cultures to the region and the amalgamation of these elements with those of the white population. The first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, only 10 years after the initial James River settlement had been established. Although slaves were not imported in large numbers until the early 18th century, blacks were present in the region and were part of its organization and social environment from the beginning. The impact on patterns of speech, diet, and music in the South is undisputed.

The other indisputable cultural consequence of the slave presence is less positive. To justify the enslavement of other human beings, it is necessary to consider the enslaved group as inferior. The acceptance of this view of blacks by southern whites was no different from the dominant European view until late in the 18th century. By the turn of the 19th century, however, opposition to slavery had gained strength in those regions where it was of less importance. Justification of slavery became more intense and self-righteous within the region, as pressure to eliminate it arose from outside.

By the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1860s, in which slavery was an underlying issue that pitted the North against the South, the South's geographic pattern of population settlement and economic organization had changed dramatically from its colonial beginnings. Still, it was strongly rural--urban development was limited to numerous villages and small towns, the larger cities were almost all located on the coast or at major transfer points along interior waterways, and transportation and communication networks were sparse.

Production of plantation cotton had become so successful that the region's economy was dominated by this one crop. Other crops were grown--tobacco, rice, sugarcane, and hemp, for example--but primarily as a local food supply or a secondary cash alternative. In 1860, cotton dominated not only the South's economy but also, at least in terms of export income, the entire country's; over 60 percent of the total value of goods exported from the United States during that year was from cotton. Currently produced in significant quantity outside the South, cotton still ranked fifth in value of U.S. agricultural exports in 1996.

With the loss of the Civil War, the South's economic underpinnings were badly damaged. Railroads were torn up and equipment confiscated, shipping terminals disrupted, and most of the scattered industrial base destroyed. Confederate currency and bonds were worthless. Cotton stocks awaiting postwar sale in warehouses and ports were confiscated by northern forces. Farms and fields were in disrepair, and implements and livestock were often stolen or lost. The slave labor supply was formally eliminated, and large landholdings broken up or heavily taxed.


The first half-century following the Civil War was a period of readjustment for the South. The white population proceeded through several alternative reactions to the emancipated status of the large black population before finally settling into institutionalized segregation. Blacks, for their part, experienced changes in opportunity that were largely out of their control until more than a half-century after the war. This was also a period during which southern attitudes and feelings of isolation from the remainder of the country became even more inflexible.

The disintegration of the antebellum economic organization led to difficult times for most of the South's population during the 12-year period of reconstruction (1865-1877) following the Civil War. Quite aside from the destruction of transportation and manufacturing capacity, the plantation economy had become refined to the point of rigidity and overdependence on slave labor. After the war, a continuation of intense exploitation was necessary to meet heavy taxation and other costs of rebuilding. The resource most available for exploitation continued to be the land; thus, cotton production remained dominant in the region's economy.

The other factors necessary for production, however, were much less available. Local capital was scarce, with much of it consumed by the war effort or drawn off after the war by the North through taxation. Interest rates increased sharply, and farmers found themselves continually in debt. This tended to perpetuate the southern dependence on agriculture.

With few jobs available in the small towns, most rural blacks were forced to make whatever arrangements they could with the remaining white landowners. Sharecropping--in which blacks were provided with credit for tools, seeds, living quarters, and food in return for a share of the crops raised on another's land--became the means of subsistence and the way of life, just as it was for many poor whites who had lost their land. Once this pattern was established, it was enforced with "black codes" that restricted black movements outside the agricultural areas and with a continuation of low educational opportunities. Even when they owned their land, black farmers were hampered by poor access to credit, farm sizes too small to be highly productive, and the anti-black aspects of the regional culture.

About 1880, the environment for economic opportunities in the South entered a new phase. During this decade, manufacturing experienced rapid development led by the growth of the cotton textile industry. By 1929, 57 percent of the nation's cotton textile spindles were in the South, over two and a half times the share existing in 1890.

Natural and synthetic fiber industries began to appear in the region to produce the raw material for cotton and synthetic textile manufacturers, just as the textile industries provide the raw material for apparel manufacturing. Taking advantage of proximity, the growth in textile and apparel manufacturing across the Carolina Piedmont and in northern Georgia was followed by an increase in the number and output of fiber industries.

Cotton textile manufacturing was not the only new source of industrial opportunities. Reconstruction of the region's railroads and other public improvements stimulated the flow of money and the development of railroad towns. Cigarette manufacturing began to be focused in the tobacco regions of North Carolina and Virginia. With the establishment of a new federal land policy and a strengthened railroad network, the South's large timber resources began to be exploited. Much of the timber was taken out as a raw material, but furniture manufacturing in North Carolina and Virginia and (after 1936) pulp and paper manufacturing throughout the South also were an outgrowth of the exploitation. These industries continue to be important.

Also, during the last quarter of the 19th century, technological improvements in iron-making led to the rise of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an important center of iron production. At the same time, a large deposit of high-quality coking coal was discovered near Birmingham, Alabama, and exploitation of the seam was begun before the end of the decade. Numerous iron-making companies and iron- and steel-using industries accumulated in and around Birmingham and Chattanooga. These two cities combined with the transport focus and subsidiary industries in Atlanta, Georgia, to form an important industrial triangle by the end of the century.

This development was significant in the economic geography of the South because of the way in which iron and steel production tends to draw other manufacturers dependent on steel--industries that are not as low-skill and low-wage as textile and tobacco product manufacturing. Also, this centrally located region of nonagricultural economic development could have been an industrial focus for the South as a whole, stimulating increases in labor skills, income levels, and general economic welfare through each city's connections with other major urban centers.

This did occur to some degree, but discriminatory shipping rates imposed on Birmingham-manufactured products dampened the beneficial effects considerably. Even though this pricing practice was eventually ruled illegal and stopped, the policy severely restricted the competitive cost advantage of Alabama steel during the rapid economic expansion decades of the early 20th century and contributed to the slow growth of southern industry.

In the late 1880s and the 1890s, restrictive laws were passed in each southern state requiring racial separation in more and more aspects of southern life. Formal segregation had many geographic expressions. Two sets of schools were operated. Two sets of restaurants, recreation facilities, park benches, drinking fountains, restrooms, and other points of potential contact between blacks and whites had to be constructed and maintained. Housing was separated into white areas and black areas. Entry into certain occupations was restricted, and both overt and covert restrictions were placed on black efforts to vote.

For almost 50 years following the end of the Civil War, the slow trickle of black migrants who left the South increased very little. Thus, 91.5 percent of all U.S. blacks resided in the South in 1870 and 89 percent in 1910. During the next decade, however, the number of black emigrants increased sharply, "pushed" by restrictive laws, violence, and near-subsistence economic conditions. Too, World War I led to a strenuous effort by northern industries to "pull" blacks (and poor whites) from the South.

Prior to 1914, national industrial expansion had depended on millions of European immigrants to meet the large demand for labor. More than one-third of the U.S. population in 1910 was foreign born or had at least one parent born outside the country.

When the war shut off this supply, an alternative was found in the large unemployed and underemployed southern labor pool.

The southern economy might not have suffered from the exodus of blacks if the population involved had not also been selective. Most blacks who left were between the ages of 18 and 35. Raised in the South, this group's most economically productive years were then spent outside the region. Many of those who remained behind were in their later productive years, retired, or not yet in the labor force. Racial limitations on opportunities in professional occupations also resulted in a loss of many of the most highly trained young people from the region.

Another consequence of the Civil War was an intensification of the sectionalism already felt in the region. The South is the only part of the United States to have suffered occupation by a conquering army, and it has taken more than a century and a great deal of economic growth to temper the bitterness that followed.

The Civil War and reconstruction were also instrumental in unifying Southern whites. The "Solid South" was a term that indicated that the entire region voted as a bloc and often in direct contradiction to otherwise national trends. The war and reconstruction were associated with the North and the Republican party, so southern whites became stubborn opposition Democrats. When southern whites could no longer tolerate the ideological connection with the Democratic party, the explicit sectional label "southern Democrats" became common. Today, national political changes and southern cultural changes have made the South no longer solidly Democratic. The full range of the political spectrum is represented among southern elected officials, although the majority tend to continue some of the traditional orientations.


The spatial and regional characteristics of the New South have been built on patterns that evolved over decades and, in some ways, over centuries. The key to recent changes lies in the gradual loss of regional isolation.

Prior to the mid-20th century, most of the South's population, and certainly its leadership, appeared to react to events as though the South was a separate country, reluctantly required to continue dealing with a northern neighbor. Since the later 1930s, however, and especially since the later 1940s, trends and pressures external to the South began to infiltrate the region and break down its isolation.

The economy of the South in the 1930s was little different from that of 1870: dominantly agrarian, producing raw agricultural products primarily for export, capital deficient, supported by heavy use of animal power and hand labor, and operated through sharecropping and tenant-farming arrangements and a regionally distinctive crop-lien system. What industry existed was largely low-wage or oriented toward narrow local markets. The region's urban structure continued to reflect this orientation, with small market centers, railroad towns, textile mill towns, and county seats representing the pervasive urban form in the South.

Over the next half century, tremendous changes occurred. By the early 1950s, over half of the region's labor force was engaged in urban-based, nonagricultural employment; the proportion in agriculture has continued to decline. This paralleled a sharp increase in manufacturing employment and employment in service activities. Further, the industrial mix in the South has shown a strong trend toward diversification; no longer is southern manufacturing limited to the early stages of raw materials processing.

Within agriculture, diversification also occurred. Cotton remains the most important cash crop to the region; other crops include tobacco, sugarcane, peanuts, and rice. But the area producing cotton is only a shadow of its former size. This shrinkage was supported by the decay of old cotton-ginning institutions in sections of the former production area.

While cotton dominance declined, livestock industries and other crops, such as soybeans, increased sharply. Beef production improved greatly as farmers improved pastures with better grasses and fodder crops and with higher fertilizer applications. At the same time, new cattle strains were developed to survive and thrive in the hot, humid southern summer. Within the last 30 years, national broiler and chicken production has become industrialized and concentrated in the South.

Even more dramatic has been the transformation in the means of farm production. Wherever possible, machinery has been applied to the production process, and regional agriculture is now much more efficient than before. The traditional sharecrop system has almost disappeared since the mid-1930s, and there has been a sharp increase in the average farm size in the South.

Rural-to-urban migration within the South increased rapidly as the region's economy participated in the post-Depression expansion of the late 1930s. In 1940, there were only 35 cities with populations greater than 50,000 in the South. By 1950, the number had increased to 42, and by 1980 it had reached 75. Many other small southern places have developed a certain vitality from the larger growth centers.

The pull to the cities was stimulated by industrial growth and a diversification that promised to match that of southern agriculture and to produce a varied industrial mix. The proportion of the nonagricultural labor force in manufacturing jobs increased greatly, and in virtually every part of the region. The traditional industries--such as steel, tobacco products, and textiles--remained regionally important for a period but less dominant as other kinds of manufacturing activity appeared. Synthetic textiles and apparel industries, the former in the Carolinas and the latter primarily in northern Georgia, widened activities even within this broad industrial category. Chemical industries expanded rapidly along the Gulf Coast. Furniture production in the central Carolina Piedmont increased, and other wood-processing plants became more prominent throughout the eastern and Gulf coastal plains. Shipbuilding was continued at Norfolk, Virginia, and begun at several sites on the Gulf Coast; aircraft production at Marietta, Georgia, drew skilled labor and higher wages to the Atlanta area.

Most significantly, as the average southern consumer earned higher wages, the regional market increased enough to draw many consumer goods manufacturers into the South. This increased the demand for nonagricultural labor, spreading the income further and strengthening the local market.

The South's rapid industrial growth is a consequence of a growing regional market, gradually demanding and able to pay for more goods and services. But the question remains: Why did the market expand? One observer has proposed that the federal government's Agricultural Adjustment Acts (1935 and later) provided the main stimulus to the market growth.

Before the acts took effect, the prices that farm products could demand were set to a great extent by supply and demand in the international marketplace. To the South, this meant that prices for southern cotton, for example, fluctuated partly according to the production success or failure in other cotton-growing areas of the world. More important, farm labor in the cotton South was in competition with cotton producers in what was still largely a colonialized world economy. When agricultural wages and prices were adjusted upward under the Agricultural Adjustment Acts to reflect national industrial wage differentials, the sharply improved market in the South for manufactured goods initiated the upward development spiral still affecting the region.

In an act of federal intervention much more widely recognized as significant to the South's social structure, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 struck down the segregationist "separate but equal" doctrine permitted almost 70 years before. Changes in the South's social geography were initiated by this decision, changes that reverberated in every other part of the country where race affected opportunity, and the repercussions are far from settled today.

A thread common to many of the South's changes since the mid-1930s is the gradual decline of its regional distinctiveness. Economic diversity is replacing simple dependency on agriculture. There are indications that the region's supply of low-wage labor is almost exhausted; new industry and service activities will have to compete more actively and may continue to force wages upward slowly. A significant infusion of northern migrants, especially to regional metropolitan growth centers, has made some of these cities less distinctively southern in culture and more clearly just urban.

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Source: U.S. Department of State