At the Border of the South: Alexandria, Virginia

Continuing with excellent posts from our excellent summer interns, history intern Caroline Kahlenberg considers the southernness of Alexandria, Virginia.

Two weeks ago, during our History Department research trip to northern Virginia, the same question continued to crop up: Is Virginia—and the northern border of the state, specifically—still considered the South? When we posed the question in our interviews with rabbis and long-time Jewish community members, the response was never simple. On some occasions, in fact, the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” took on a literal meaning.

Indeed, it’s a hard question. Defining the American South—and who is considered a southerner—has long been a topic of debate among journalists, historians, and social critics alike. It seems that everyone has their own criteria: some use the SEC football league as a guiding principle, while others prefer to base it on the sweetness of their tea.

Being neither a football fan nor a tea drinker, I turned to Virginia’s history to explore this question further. While discussions of southern identity surfaced in every congregation we visited, the city of Alexandria poses an especially interesting case.

Alexandria skyline
Photo: Creative Commons / Ser Amantio di Nicolao

Alexandria—today just 6 miles south of Washington, DC—was actually founded as part of the nation’s capital in 1791 and remained part of the city  until 1846. During that era, Alexandria’s economy was deeply involved in tobacco production and in the slave trade. Alexandria was also the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, when the Civil War broke out, most Alexandrians—including the city’s Jewish citizens—were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

Certainly, then, 19th century Alexandria aligned economically and politically with the Old South, and it remained culturally removed from Washington DC well into the 20th century.  But in the decades after World War II, as the greater D.C. metropolitan area grew to once again encompass the city, Alexandria lost much of its distinct southernness .

Posted on July 3, 2013

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