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The following story originally appeared on Medium.
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In any region with a history of turf wars, where power and identity are hard-won, a second battleground is often found in the stories we tell about ourselves, later, once the dust has settled. This goes beyond “the winners write history.” It’s not uncommon to see disparate narratives compete for domination of shared public spaces like monuments, parks, roadways, schools, and even symbolic spaces like holidays, literature, language and rituals.
This phenomenon doubles down in the American South, a region which — and I say this with great affection — surely loves to tell a story, especially when those stories are about itself. “Tell about the South,” wrote William Faulkner, in a line oft-quoted by those compelled to ‘splain the ‘splaining. “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
The history of the South is anchored by the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, two sea-change periods that rocked the region, shaping culture and identity not only through the events of the past but through memorials commemorating those events. The loss of the Civil War for the Confederacy erupted in what Charles Reagan Wilson called “the religion of the lost cause,” an outpouring of worship in defense of the Confederacy and the Southern “way of life,” often realized in public shrines to Confederate leaders like the ones carved into the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia. The most visible memorials, statues and buildings, are the subject of much recent debate.
The Civil Rights Movement represents another potent legacy, celebrating the work of leaders who risked their lives in the struggle for equality, and working, of course, against the key factor in the “way of life” those Confederate leaders had sought to defend: white supremacy. In recent years, Civil Rights tourism has grown in the South as sites of conflict — massive and passive, organized and spontaneous, degrading and empowering — have become memorials and museums.
How can we compare the force of these legacies? How can we evaluate the resonance of these narratives? What is the story of the South today?
Street names provide a good proxy for a quantified analysis of public memory. We all use streets; they are “for everyone,” though location and grouping of these streets often reveals a less-than-democratic system. Streets are maintained by government funds, but frequently named by private developers or community leaders, who have their own agenda. They are familiar and everyday, yet represent sites of significance historically, linguistically, geospatially and politically. As Edward Ayers writes:
“The first thing we have to recognize about social memory is that it is inherently political; it is about defining us against them — whether the ‘us’ is the nation-state, ethnic group, geographic population, family, or organization . . . Every group must tell a story to itself about itself, who it is and why it came to be, what memories it cherishes, why it deserves to be taken seriously and respected. Memory is more politically charged than almost anything historians can talk about right now.” [i]
Given the social capital invested in names of public spaces, the below examination of Southern street names and narratives provides a window into the larger story the region tells about itself.
Using data from the 2014 US Census Tiger Line files, I culled through 6.8 million street names using regular expressions written to extract streets named for Confederate and Civil Rights Movement leaders.
I ran a search for these Confederate names, many of which I pulled from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s excellent work cataloguing and mapping Confederate-named memorials across America. Their work locating 1500 government-sponsored symbols of the Confederacy inspired this project.
Jefferson Davis|Jeff Davis|J Davis|Robert E Lee|R E Lee|R Lee|Stonewall Jackson| Washington Lee|Washington-Lee|Washington and Lee|Confederate|Beauregard|Bedford Forrest|Jeb Stuart|Albert Sidney|John Reagan|Joseph E Johnston|Joseph Johnston|Joe Johnston|J Reagan|J B Stuart|Nathan Forrest|J E B Stuart|Braxton Bragg|James Longstreet|George Pickett|G Pickett|William T Anderson|John Mosby|A P Hill|Ewell| Jubal Early|Jubal Anderson Early|Kirby Smith|Bell Hood|J B Hood| JB Hood|Armistead| Porter Alexander|Quantrell|Cleburne|Nathan Forrest|Pettigrew|Slidell|Robert Toombs| Toombs|Thomas Overby|W T Overby|C M Winkler|McLaws|Bolivar Buckner|S B Buckner|John Morgan|J H Morgan|Hunt Morgan|James L Kemper|Earl Van Dorn| Magruder|Samuel Garland|Joseph Wheeler|John D Imboden|J D Imboden|Nicholls| William J Hardee|W J Hardee|William Hardee|John A Logan
I ran a search for these Civil Rights Movement names:
Martin Luther King|Rosa Parks|Booker T Washington|M L King|M.L. King|Booker T. Washington|Thurgood|DuBois|Abernathy|Coretta Scott|C S King|Medgar Evers|Malcolm X|Shuttlesworth|Hosea Williams|Emmett Till|Jesse Jackson|Marcus Garvey|Booker T Washington|B T Washington|Liuzzo|James Meredith|Fannie Lou Hamer|Fannie Hamer| Claudette Colvin |C Colvin|James Forman |John Lewis |Bayard Rustin |Joseph Lowery| James Earl Chaney|JE Chaney|J E Chaney|J.E. Chaney|Jimmie Lee Jackson|Lemuel Penn| M Garvey
NB: No doubt I have missed some names. There are likely scores of streets named for relevant local people that my analysis did not pick up. I also took a conservative approach: unless I could confirm that a street was named for the particular person in question, and not some other “Lee” or “King,” I did not include it. Thus, the many, many streets named “Abernathy” and “Colvin” for the most part were not included without a first name (i.e. “Ralph David” or “Claudette”) attached. I did the same for Lee, removing the standalone “Lee” without a first name, although it is important to note that Robert E. Lee’s family lineage is part of the reason so many counties and streets are named “Lee.” In other words, it’s still about that Lee, or his family, even if it’s not about the Civil War — but you won’t see those data points represented here.
I ran a national search, sorted each street based on its FIPS code to get the state, then categorized the states into regions for the sake of comparison. My regional categorization of the South includes the states of the Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Nationally, these two dynamic events are about equally represented in terms of street names. Across the United States there are 1426 streets named for Civil Rights leaders and 1417 streets named for Confederate leaders. And when we narrow it down to the South, things are . . . well, the same.
In the Southern states, there are 1132 streets named for Confederate leaders and 1118 named for Civil Rights leaders. Unsurprisingly, there are far more Confederate-named streets in Virginia; that was a primary battle site of the Civil War, and many generals hailed from the state of Virginia. Similarly, there are many more Civil Rights-named streets in Alabama, where more events of the movement took place and where more of the movement’s leaders originated.
Georgia, my home state, continues to be a hotbed of complicated heritage: as a primary site of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, it maintains its dual status by claiming both legacies, with streets named for both groups (slightly more for the Civil Rights Movement).
This is not meant to be a direct comparison of two historic events, which would be futile: one was a war, while the other was a nonviolent social movement; they occurred nearly a century apart; they didn’t take place in the exact same states to the exact same extent. My question is one of narrative and identity: which story dominates the present-day South in terms of felt presence, public feeling and shared memory? For now, it appears the legacy and public history representation of the South is far from being settled one way or another.
But wait: a bonus track! What about Dixie?
There are 1,697 streets in the United States, not included in my analysis above, that use some form of “Dixie” in their name. Though “Dixie” as a nickname for the South has antebellum origins, it grew in popularity when the Confederacy adopted the song “I Wish I Was in Dixie” as their national hymn. Abraham Lincoln ordered the song to be played at the war’s conclusion:
“There is a song or a tune which I used to hear with great pleasure before the war, but our friends across the river have appropriated it to their use during the last four years. It is the tune called ‘Dixie.’ But I think we have captured it. At any rate, I conferred with the Attorney General this morning, and he expressed the opinion that ‘Dixie’ may fairly be regarded as captured property. So I shall be glad to hear ‘Dixie’ by the band.”
Today, “Dixie” is considered perhaps an outmoded but still commonly-seen nickname, as nostalgic as it is divisive, representing an era and region where slavery reigned. Using street names as a proxy once again, I found that today Dixie is not only a metaphorical place in public memory, but a very tangible one:
The land of the Confederacy has the most streets named Dixie, more than twice as many as the Midwest does, and about ten times as many as the North and West. Florida tops the list by state, perhaps because of Florida’s higher population (18.9 million in 2014, compared to Georgia’s second-highest-in-the-South 10 million). Kentucky, apparently, possesses a rabid nostalgia for Dixieland although it was a fence-sitting border state in the Civil War and ultimately joined the Union side.
Even nostalgia has a limit: though Dixie streets are spread evenly throughout the South, few towns have more than one. Still, there’s no need for anyone to “wish they were in Dixie” — unless you live in North Dakota or Hawaii, the only two states without a single street named “Dixie.”
[i] Edward L. Ayers, “Memory and the South,” Southern Cultures Volume 2, Number 1, Fall 1995 pp. 5-8. Other citations hyperlinked.
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