‘Sweet tea line’ across Virginia is getting blurry

The Washington Post
© January 18, 2011

By Steve Hendrix

Dixie Liquor stands alone. The Georgetown shop, which has been casting its neon glow for more than 50 years, is the only business in Washington, D.C., and one of the few left in the region, with the word "Dixie" in its name.

And it’s not just the D-word. The region’s Southern accent is also becoming measurably less pronounced, linguists say. The Confederate flag doesn’t fly much in these parts anymore. Korean barbecue has taken its place alongside the Southern pit-cooked variety in many neighborhoods, and the "sweet tea line" that once stretched across Virginia has gotten blurry.

In all, according to academics and cultural observers, the Washington area’s "Southernness" has fallen into steep decline, part of a trend away from strongly held regional identities. In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.

"The cultural Mason-Dixon line is just moving farther and farther south as more people from other parts of the country move in," said H. Gibbs Knotts, a professor at Western Carolina University who, with a colleague, conducted a survey of Dixie-named businesses as a way to measure the shifting frontiers of the South. (The Mason-Dixon line, which set the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, was the symbolic divider between North and South in the Civil War era.) "From what we’re finding, D.C. and Virginia are not appearing very Southern at all these days," Knotts said of the survey, published last year.

The trend has been decades in the making, of course. But some observers say the evolution is nearly complete, in good part because of the stepped-up migration of Northerners and immigrants into the Washington area.

"I do think we’ve reached a critical mass of some kind – we’re not a real Southern state anymore," said former Virginia state senator Russell Potts, 71, a longtime lawmaker from Loudoun County and an independent gubernatorial candidate in 2005. "I happen to believe that southern Virginia now actually starts down near Richmond. You can’t even say that Fredricksburg is Southern."

That’s about right, said Sharon Ash, a University of Pennsylvania linguist and co-author of the 2005 Atlas of North American English. A 1941 study placed the Washington area in the South for pronunciation purposes. But her atlas now draws that line about 45 miles north of Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy.

"We put Washington and the northern part of Virginia in what we call the Midland, which also includes Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," Ash said. "Migration patterns are changing things everywhere."

With all due respect to 18th-century surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, drawing hard lines around a cultural region is always an imprecise exercise, said Harry Watson, director of the Center of the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, which last month published several papers on the subject. Pockets of Southernness pop up far from the 11 states that made up the Confederacy, Watson said, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Bakersfield, Calif.

"We are never going to get any hard and fast answers on exactly where the South is unless, God forbid, there’s another Southern nation with fortified borders," Watson said.

But the frontiers of the core South are clearly shifting away from Northern Virginia and Washington, he said.

"That whole area feels more metropolitan than it does Southern," said Watson, who is based in another evolving corner of the South: Chapel Hill, N.C. "Down here, we make jokes about occupied Northern Virginia."

To northbound Interstate 95 lovers of Southern food, Northern Virginia used to mark the "sweet tea line," beyond which diners could no longer expect to find the hyper-sugared version of the South’s national beverage.

A researcher, looking at where McDonald’s franchisees stopped offering sweet tea, once mapped the line just north of Richmond. But the chain took sweet tea across the country in 2008 and it is now available nationwide.

In his own attempt to quantify the shifting sands of regional identity, Knotts and a colleague last year reproduced a 1970s study that looked at what names businesses choose for themselves (they excluded the widespread Winn-Dixie grocery stores so as not to skew the sample). The "Dixie" that once proudly figured on signs throughout the region has largely receded to a pocket of the old South in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"I would have been shocked to find much identification with Dixie in places like Northern Virginia," Knotts said. "And we didn’t."

Whether Washington should be defined as a Southern city has been a debate since the Civil War, when it was the seat of the Northern government but a hotbed of rebel sympathy. In modern times, the question has been more cultural than political. Washington’s split personality was forever summarized by John F. Kennedy’s worst-of-both-worlds description of it as a"city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

As the hub of the nation’s government, Washington is always home to thousands of newcomers, some of whom cling to their hometown identities. Those who arrive from the North often see the area as Southern, and those from the South feel a Northern vibe.

But Greg Carr, who grew up in Nashville, sees Southern markers here. Carr, chairman of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, said he recognizes the fading signs of the Old South in this region.

"For black folks, this is still very much a Southern city," Carr said. "D.C. has very little in common with a stereotypical Northern city."

Carr cited the presence of an entrenched black elite in Washington as a characteristic of Southern cities, along the lines of Atlanta and Charlotte. Its still-living history of sharply segregated neighborhoods is another sign, as well as the paucity of white ethnic neighborhoods, such as Italian or Irish sections of Baltimore, New York and Boston.

"Even the architecture is more Southern," Carr said. "You have no concrete canyons in Washington."

And at least one major retailer still views Washington as a Southern market. Although Safeway has no stores in the deep South, the supermarket chain says its cluster of stores between Culpeper, Va., and Frederick, Md., posts the company’s biggest sales of such regional offerings as fried chicken, ham hocks and other "country meats," collard greens and sweet potatoes, spokesman Greg TenEyck said.

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