Featured Image: ‘Baltimore, MD’, Mike Von
It is recommended to read this article with a U.S. map.
During a trip to New Orleans, I had the great opportunity to visit the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The Ogden claims to have the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southern Art, with artists from states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. As I roamed around the museum, I took a mental note of all the different states the artists were from. I found it very interesting that Maryland and Washington, D.C. were not included. I found this interesting, but not surprising, as many people outside of D.C. and Maryland and Washingtonians and Marylanders do not consider themselves as “Southern.” While this may seem like a silly issue, personally, I think there is a lot at stake with this question. It deals with history, identity, race, and the complexities of American geography.
The United States Census Bureau labels both Maryland and Washington D.C. as “The South” and has done so since 1853, not because of some thought-out eco-socio map, but because the first census divided regions based on drainage systems. Maryland and D.C. share this with other Southern states, but this does not stop people from viewing both as Eastern states.
Many consider Maryland and D.C. as part of the East Coast because of their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. This makes sense in theory, but geographically there is a major issue with this. The issue with viewing Maryland and D.C. as part of the East Coast is that Maryland does not have much of a coastline; in fact, the only coastline Maryland has is the Eastern Shore. States such as North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have a longer Atlantic coastline than Maryland does. There is not much that is coastal or eastern about Maryland. As for D.C., well, it has no coastline whatsoever. So with that, calling Maryland and D.C. the East Coast is highly misleading.
Maryland may seem like a hustling and bustling place, but I promise you it is not. For example, Baltimore is Maryland’s most populated city, with about 600,000 residents. The most populated city in Florida is Jacksonville, with almost 900,000 residents. For a bit more context, Philadelphia has over 1 million residents. There is not a city in Maryland with close to 1 million residents. While Washington, D.C. is a major city with close to 700,000 residents, the pace of D.C. is nothing compared to New York — our metro actually shuts down at night. Even the busiest parts of D.C. are pretty tame at night.
One of the largest issues is how we define “Southern” and what do we do with these labels. Historically speaking, any state below the Mason-Didion line and west of Mississippi would be considered The South, which Maryland and Washington, D.C. are. If you are someone who views the prevalence of slavery as part of being “The South”, Maryland and Washington, D.C. also check those boxes. D.C. was designed so that presidents and other politicians could bring their slaves with them when they began their political terms in office. Maryland would become a blooming slave colony with over 40 percent of the population consisting of enslaved people. There is also a certain narrative that the prevalence of Historically Black Colleges is a staple of “The South.” If that is the case, Maryland and D.C. have six HBCUs combined. In comparison, Georgia, a clear Southern state, has ten.
Personally, as a native Washingtonian and someone who has also lived in Maryland for many years, I view this area as part of The South, but that comes with the fact that I view this from a historical perspective as well.
Maryland, as a state, was designed to be a home for persecuted Catholics from England, a refuge and a safe haven to practice their religion. Maryland also became a slave state, with many slaves working on tobacco plantations. If you have ever heard of Marlboro cigarettes, there is a town in Maryland called “Upper Marlboro” which was one of the main tobacco producers in the state and harbored a sizable slave population. In fact, in 2013, the bones of an African American man were found on a former tobacco plantation in Upper Marlboro. To put this in the perspective of numbers, in 1850, ten years before the Civil War, Maryland had a slave population of over 90 thousand, and D.C. had a slave population just shy of 4,000. In comparison, Florida had a slave population of 39,000. If you were an escaped slave from Virginia, Maryland would not be a safe haven for you — you would need to keep traveling north.
Another aspect that people see as being “Southern” is if a state was a member of the Confederate States of America, which Maryland was not. Maryland not being part of the Confederacy was not due to a lack of trying on the part of Marylanders and their legislators at the time. The Maryland legislation had every intention of meeting and voting to leave The Union. What prevented this from happening was Abraham Lincoln declaring martial law in Maryland, suspending habius corpis, and literally throwing legislatures in jail to stop them from voting. Baltimore, Maryland was a Confederate hotspot and also a major port city with direct access to Washington, D.C. If Maryland was able to leave the Union, the Civil War would have turned out very differently. Maryland as a political entity has much more in common with Virginia and Georgia than Pennsylvania and New York. For this reason, Maryland should be considered a Southern state simply based on the history of the state. It is worth mentioning that John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, failed actor, and assassin of Lincoln was born in Maryland.
Turning our attention to Washington D.C., the history is a little more complex, but a bit clearer in terms of the “Southernness.” Washington, D.C. had one purpose when it was mapped out: to house the federal government. The federal government was originally housed in New York and later Philadelphia, but issues with slavery were constant. The federal government was largely pro-slavery, and New York and Philadelphia were hostile to slavery. The government wanted a capital that not only was pro-slavery but also a capital that was suitable for the agrarian and farming lifestyle they wanted. For this, they looked further south and purchased land from Maryland and Virginia to create Washington, D.C.: a city owned and operated by the federal government where no state could interfere with the implementation of slavery. Slaves built the White House, The Capitol, The Smithsonian Mansion, and a few more buildings that are still in use today. It would be hard to believe a city named after a Virginia slaveowner, occupied by presidents from Virginia for the first few decades of American history, multiple Congresses that were heavily Southern, was not a city at the very least influenced by the South, if not Southern itself.
There are some stereotypes that come with being a Southern state which Marylanders and Washingtonians are terrified of. Being a Southern state means that you are a mostly rural state with poor education systems, Confederate flags raised in every part of the city, anti-progressive, and overall, a little slow on the uptake. I find this funny in terms of Marylanders because the Maryland flag is pro-Confederate insignia. The white and red crosses on the Maryland flag represent the pro-Confederate population of Maryland. As for D.C., if you take the federal government and the metro away you have a city that resembles Richmond, Virginia.
Maryland and D.C., unlike other Southern states, are missing the common themes of Southern hospitality, Southern charm, and Southern comfort. Maryland and D.C. do not evoke the imagery of the Southern belle or the Southern gentleman. But this goes to the question proposed at the beginning of this essay: what exactly makes a state “Southern”? There is no doubt that Maryland has some urbanized and city eras, but so do many Southern states. There is also no doubt that D.C. is a bustling city, but that in itself does not make D.C., a section of land that was once part of Maryland and Virginia, an “east coast city” mainly because it does not have an east coast.
It is time to rethink how we view “The South” and what it means, historically, to be part of the U.S. South.
When people say “The South”, there is an almost immediate region that comes to mind, but the question is never raised: what is The South south of? As mentioned before, it refers to the Mason-Dixon line, which Maryland and D.C. are below, and below not by a random stroke of a surveyor’s pen, but by design. Today, Maryland’s Republican Governor Hogan is seen on television begging people to wear a mask and somewhat standing up to Trump, which somehow moves him and the state in people’s minds into the realm of liberalism. All of this did not stop Hogan from writing in Ronald Regan for President in this past election and sporting a “Blue Lives Matter” flag. While this does not prove or even hint that Maryland is a Southern state, Governor Hogan acts and behaves more like a Southern mayor of a rural city than a bleeding liberal.
What has also happened is that Maryland and D.C. have been able to absolve themselves of their racist history. When you think of The South, you think of a certain brand of American racial injustice. But, the fact is, redlining was created in Maryland, and very little has been done to correct it. Maryland has been able to historically operate as a Southern state, vote as a Southern state, and effectively be a Southern state, without coming under the same political and historical scrutiny as other Southern states. While Mississippi has voted to remove the Confederate flag from their state flag, the Maryland flag flies high with Confederate insignia. The Maryland state song, “Maryland, My Maryland”, was written by a Confederate sympathizer. As far as D.C. goes, the flag depicts the coat of arms of George Washington and a Virginia slaveowner — what can be more Southern than that?
None of these historical facts or political actions make Maryland and D.C. inherently Southern, but I think there is a strong case for it. Despite the urbanism of D.C. and the seemingly mild manners of Maryland, there are too many commonalities for Maryland and D.C. to not be considered or at least reexamined in the public mind as Southern. Viewing Maryland and D.C. as an extension of Virginia that happens to have a little bit of shoreline makes more sense than viewing it as an eastern state akin to New York or any New England state. The fact is, like all borders, state borders are political and geographical. The term “The South” is not only geographical but political and historical. No matter where you place Maryland and D.C. on the geopolitical map we call the United States, do not forget history. Never forget history.