While colonial New Englanders gathered around town commons, settlers in the Southern colonials sprawled out on farms and plantations. The distinctions had more to do with the varying objectives of these colonial settlements and the geography of deep-flowing rivers in the South than with any philosophical predilections. The Southern colonies did indeed sprout towns, but these were places of planters’ residences, planters’ enslaved Africans, and the plantation economy, an axis that would persist through the antebellum period. Still, the aspirations of urban Southerners differed little from their Northern counterparts in the decades before the Civil War. The institution of slavery and an economy emphasizing commercial agriculture hewed the countryside close to the urban South, not only in economics, but also in politics. The devastation of the Civil War rendered the ties between city and country in the South even tighter. The South participated in the industrial revolution primarily to the extent of processing crops. Factories were often located in small towns and did not typically contribute to urbanization. City boosters aggressively sought and subsidized industrial development, but a poorly educated labor force and the scarcity of capital restricted economic development. Southern cities were more successful in legalizing the South’s culture of white supremacy through legal segregation and the memorialization of the Confederacy. But the dislocations triggered by World War II and the billions of federal dollars poured into Southern urban infrastructure and industries generated hope among civic leaders for a postwar boom. The civil rights movement after 1950, with many of its most dramatic moments focused on the South’s cities, loosened the connection between Southern city and region as cities chose development rather than the stagnation that was certain to occur without a moderation of race relations. The predicted economic bonanza occurred. Young people left the rural areas and small towns of the South for the larger cities to find work in the postindustrial economy and, for the first time in over a century, the urban South received migrants in appreciable numbers from other parts of the country and the world. The lingering impact of spatial distinctions and historical differences (particularly those related to the Civil War) linger in Southern cities, but exceptionalism is a fading characteristic.
Katherine R. Jewell
The term “Sunbelt” connotes a region defined by its environment. “Belt” suggests the broad swath of states from the Atlantic coast, stretching across Texas and Oklahoma, the Southwest, to southern California. “Sun” suggests its temperate—even hot—climate. Yet in contrast to the industrial northeastern and midwestern Rust Belt, or perhaps, “Frost” Belt, the term’s emergence at the end of the 1960s evoked an optimistic, opportunistic brand. Free from snowy winters, with spaces cooled by air conditioners, and Florida’s sandy beaches or California’s surfing beckoning, it is true that more Americans moved to the Sunbelt states in the 1950s and 1960s than to the deindustrializing centers of the North and East. But the term “Sunbelt” also captures an emerging political culture that defies regional boundaries. The term originates more from the diagnosis of this political climate, rather than an environmental one, associated with the new patterns of migration in the mid-20th century. The term defined a new regional identity: politically, economically, in policy, demographically, and socially, as well as environmentally. The Sunbelt received federal money in an unprecedented manner, particularly because of rising Cold War defense spending in research and military bases, and its urban centers grew in patterns unlike those in the old Northeast and Midwest, thanks to the policy innovations wrought by local boosters, business leaders, and politicians, which defined politics associated with the region after the 1970s. Yet from its origin, scholars debate whether the Sunbelt’s emergence reflects a new regional identity, or something else.