Southern history is like Southern cooking – it’s messy, and open to radically different interpretations. All can agree, however, that the South’s agrarian economy (run by white plantation owners who enslaved the first African Americans) laid the groundwork for the Civil War (1861–65), which remains a central period in Southern history. But it wasn’t the beginning.
European exploration in the South dates back to at least the 16th century and wreaked havoc on the Native American population. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which displaced some 50, 000 Native Americans from their homes. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president on an antislavery platform, all of the South’s nine states (except Kentucky) seceded, and most were devastated when Union soldiers blazed through and crushed confederate dreams.
After the attempted secession, the ‘war between the states’ became famously bloody and deeply personal, so much so that the South sometimes still seems defined by the conflict and its aftermath. The reconciliation and rebuilding process – formally known as Reconstruction – was slow indeed. Whites refused to integrate public spaces until the Civil Rights era, which was led by Atlanta-born preacher Martin Luther King Jr, and which ran through the 1960s. Many less famous activists joined King in the difficult and dangerous struggle, chipping away at institutionalized prejudice until African Americans gained equal treatment under the law. Much of Southern tourism now revolves around paying homage to the movement.
While the South – like most places in America – still has work to do in promoting tolerance, the region has made strides in embracing its mixture of African America, white and Latino cultures, along with an increasing number of overseas immigrants. It has also learned to celebrate its less divisive traditions – eg sports, arts and cuisine. Southerners take pride in colleges such as the University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1825), in companies such as Coca-Cola (founded in 1886), and in athletic traditions such as the Kentucky Derby (dating to 1875) and the Alabama-Auburn football game (first played in 1893).
The South’s political profile rose in 1977 when Jimmy Carter, a Georgia governor and former peanut farmer, was elected president. Arkansas native Bill Clinton followed in 1993. In 1996, the South hosted its first Olympic games, which was sadly marred by a park bombing in host city Atlanta. Then, in August 2005, the Gulf Coast was besieged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, and left much of New Orleans underwater. Rebuilding efforts were still underway at press time, and could seemingly go on forever.