White Southerners

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White Southerners
Southerners, Southrons
Painting of Robert E. Lee by John Adams Elder.jpg
Confederate general and Lost Cause folklore figure, Robert E. Lee, generally considered the epitome of the "Southern gentleman" and affluent Bourbon planter class.[1]
Total population
(2010 U.S. Census, White alone living in the South)[2]
Regions with significant populations
Primarily Southern United States, pockets of Southern populations found in the Midwestern and Western United States, diasporas found in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Honduras
Southern American English and General American English,[3] historically Older Southern American English
Christianity, primarily various forms of Protestantism
Related ethnic groups
Swamp Yankees, White Americans, Confederados, Confederate Hondurans, English, Scots, French, Irish, Ulster Scots, Scots-Irish, Native Americans, Five Civilized Tribes[4] African-Americans[5]

White Southerners, or simply Southerners, and historically Southrons[6] are the native white inhabitants of the Southern United States[7] descended from the predominately Northwestern European settlers who arrived during the colonial era, as well as varying waves of white immigration from various parts of Europe and the Caribbean.[8][9] Immigration to the Southern states between 1830 and 1860 was relatively low. Most white Southerners are of British Protestant descent, though significant isolate groups exist of Germans, French, and Spanish settlers.[10]

Confederate Major Arthur L. Rogers proposed a new altered Confederate national flag, the Blood Stained Banner, to the Confederate Senate in 1865, declaring its saltire design to represent the primary ethnic origins of the white inhabitants of the secessionist states, Scotland (Saint Andrews Cross), Ireland (Saint Patrick's Saltire), Spain (Cross of Burgundy), English Midlands (Saint Alban's Cross), and France (La Louisiane).[11]

Academic approach[edit]

Southerners are considered an ethnic group by some historians, sociologists and journalists, although this categorization has proven controversial and other academics have argued that Southern identity does not meet the criteria for definition as an ethnicity. This confusion has led to varying forms of white Southern identity since the founding of the United States, some focusing on the region's English heritage, while others on its large number of people with Celtic ancestry, and even some on its supposed Cherokee roots.[12] It's generally agreed, however, that white Southerners inhabit an American subculture that is both separate from and woven into the popular culture and history of the United States.

Early use of the phrase "White Southerner," Boston Liberator, July 18, 1856

After the Segregation Era brought the region to heightened national and international attention, many white Southerners began to distinguish their Southern identity from conflations of the South and the Confederate States of America. This has led to a Southern identity crisis, due in part to misleading or false equations between white Southerners, slave owners, Ku Klux Klan members, Jim Crow supporters, and Confederates as well as a disproportionately high number of portrayals in American academia and media depicting white Southerners as uniquely unintelligent, lazy, violent, and bigoted.[13] Groups like the League of the South and the Sons of Confederate Veterans still cling to the Lost Cause mythology, which arose in the years following the American Civil War and often downplays the role of slavery in Southern society and politics.[14] Other proponents of a Southern ethnic category often reference concepts like social equality, essentialism, critical pedagogy, generational poverty, cultural capital, implicit bias, internalized oppression, hegemony, social marginalization, acculturation, linguistic discrimination, and institutional prejudice as factors that distinguish Southerners from other regional groups, citing the South's turbulent history with the United States' most dominant region, the Northern states, and its views completely alien to that of Northern and Western states. In addition, there's a long-running disparity in socioeconomics, criminal justice, healthcare, education, civil infrastructure, and enduring stereotypes of white Southerners as morally, genetically, and intellectually inferior to other social groups, especially non-Southern whites.

Academic John Shelton Reed argues that "Southerners' differences from the American mainstream have been similar in kind, if not degree, to those of the immigrant ethnic groups".[15][16] Reed states that Southerners, as other ethnic groups, are marked by differences from the national norm, noting that they tend to be poorer, less well educated and more rural, as well as being "occupationally specialized." He argues that they differ in cultural and political terms, and that their accents serve as an ethnic marker.[17] According to the New York Times, a survey of ethnic images conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center in 1990 "found that Americans view Southerners almost like a separate ethnic group, and regard them as 'a little less intelligent, a little less hard-working' than whites in general".[18]

Sociologist William L. Smith argues that "regional identity and ethnic identity are often intertwined in a variety of interesting ways such that some scholars have viewed white southerners as an ethnic group".[19] In her book Southern Women, Caroline Matheny Dillman also documents a number of authors who posit that Southerners might constitute an ethnic group. She notes that the historian George Brown Tindall analyzed the persistence of the distinctiveness of Southern culture in The Ethnic Southerners (1976), "and referred to the South as a subculture, pointing out its ethnic and regional identity". The 1977 book The Ethnic Imperative, by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill, "viewed Southerners as a special kind of white ethnicity". Dillman notes that these authors, and earlier work by John Shelton Reed, all refer to the earlier work of Lewis Killian, whose White Southerners, first published in 1970, introduced "the idea that Southerners can be viewed as an American ethnic group".[20] Killian does, however, note that: "Whatever claims to ethnicity or minority status ardent 'Southernists' may have advanced, white southerners are not counted as such in official enumerations".[21] Precursors to Killian include sociologist Erdman Beynon, who in 1938 made the observation that "there appears to be an emergent group consciousness among the southern white laborers", and economist Stuart Jamieson, who argued four years later that Oklahomans, Arkansans and Texans who were living in the valleys of California were starting to take on the "appearance of a distinct 'ethnic group'". Beynon saw this group consciousness as deriving partly from the tendency of northerners to consider them as a homogeneous group, and Jamieson saw it as a response to the label "Okie".[22] More recently, historian Clyde N. Wilson has argued that "In the North and West [white Southerners] were treated as and understood themselves to be a distinct ethnic group, referred to negatively as 'hillbillies' and 'Okies'".[23]

The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, published in 1980, includes a chapter on Southerners authored by Reed, alongside chapters by other contributors on Appalachians and Yankees. Writing in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, social anthropologist M. G. Smith argued that the entries do not satisfactorily indicate how these groups meet the criteria of ethnicity, and so justify inclusion in the encyclopedia.[24] Historian David L. Carlton, who argues that Killian, Reed and Tindall's "ethnic approach does provide a way to understand the South as part of a vast, patchwork America, the components of which have been loath to allow their particularities to be eaten away by the corrosions of a liberal-capitalist order", nonetheless notes problems with the approach. He argues that the South is home to two ethnic communities (white and black) as well as smaller, growing ethnic groups, not just one. He argues that: "Most important, though, and most troubling, is the peculiar relationship of white southerners to the nation's history". The view of the average white Southerner, Carlton argues, is that they are quintessential Americans, and their nationalism equates "America" with the South.[25]


A distinct Southern identity formed in the years following the American Revolution. Various factors contributed to the cultural and ethnic divergance from the Northern United States, namely African slavery, geography, and immigration patterns. Similar to Britain, the antebellum South was extremely class based, less so than the increasingly industrial North. Several classes of whites existed, with the Poor White being on the bottom of the social scale, the Yeomen in the middle, and the Planter, or Bourbon, class at the top.[26] The original Southern settlers were Cavaliers who arrived in Virginia to establish a colony by the name of Jamestown which would go on to be the first successful English colony in the New World and their descendants would spread out to the rest of the South building up the Southern hiearchy for years to come.

The Cavalier-Roundhead English Civil War mythology, prior to modern times, was the foundation of a Southern ethnic identity in the Antebellum South. Southern writers in the years leading up to the Civil War built a Southern identity off the belief that upper class white Southerners (the Bourbons) were descendants of the Norman conquerors (known as Anglo-Normans) and the Yankees were descendants of the Anglo-Saxons. Southern extremists such as the Fire-Eaters even proposed enslaving the "Yankee race" as they believed they were inferior to Southerners, though this proposition was unpopular with most Southerners.[26][27]

Celtic hypothesis[edit]

Many sociologists, historians, and authors have emphasized the South's Celtic heritage, primarily from Northern Ireland and Scotland, to distinguish early Southerners from the early Europeans of New England and Mid-Atlantic states, whose predominately Germanic settlers hailed from East Anglia and the Netherlands. An overwhelming Anglo-Saxon Puritan population in New England led the persecution and eventual banning of Quakers, Baptists, and other Anglican theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries, driving their migrations to other British colonies farther west and south.[28]. The "Celtic hypothesis" accounts for the large Irish-American population in the Northern states as a later migration to Northern cities in the 19th and 20th centuries following a number of factors, most notably the Great Famine and the Southern diaspora. This hypothesis suggests the Celtic settlers who populated the South in the 17th and 18th centuries had a lasting impact on Southern culture, society, and even the behavior of white Southerners.[29][30][31]

Early 20th century American journalist H.L. Mencken believed Southerners were primarily descended from the Welsh, who he considered to be religious zealots following "dogmatic Welsh Methodism". He also believed this affected the intelligence and physical characteristics of white Southerners, citing their supposed dark skin, lean bodies, and lack of intellect.[32]

White Southerners of non-British origin[edit]

White Southerners are primarily English-speaking, Protestant, and of English or Scots-Irish extraction, though there are several groups of White Southerners of Mexican, Italian, French, Spanish, Sephardi Jewish, and German ancestry, who have been assimilated into mainstream Southern culture while maintaining some parts of their native culture, religion, and language. Creoles and Cajuns in Louisiana were heavily assimilated by the American settlers who flooded into the newly acquired territory following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The same occurred in Texas with the Tejanos, in Virginia with the historical German population in the Shenandoah Valley and the Moravians in North Carolina.[33]

Immigrants and Northern migrants[edit]

Many white Southerners can trace their ancestry back to post-colonial immigrants who arrived in various waves after the creation of the United States of America. Germans, Irish Catholics, Poles, Italians, Lebanese, Romnichal, Croats, and Ashkenazi Jews all arrived in droves before, during, and especially after the American Civil War[34], where they were met with a unique mix of acceptance and discrimination.

Along with immigrants, many white Southerners, most especially in the 21st century, have roots in the Northern United States. This is due to an increased Northern migration to the Southern United States in recent years and has been met with criticism by certain groups[which?].[citation needed]

Southern Jews[edit]

Jews have been present in what is now the Southern United States since the colonial era. Many prominent Southerners, such as the Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, Florida Senator David Levy Yulee, sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, as well as Georgia governor David Emanuel were Jewish. Thousands of Southern Jews fought in defense of the secessionist states in the American Civil War[35] and during the 19th century, Charleston, South Carolina was a hub of North American Jewry.

Royal and noble descent[edit]

White Southerners of planter descent have several documented ties to European royalty and nobility. Many First Families of Virginia were originally British noble families who established themselves in the Colony of Virginia.[36] Notable descendants include General Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, a descendant of George I of Great Britain, and General George S. Patton, a descendant of Welsh lords of Glamorgan and Edward I of England.


White Southerners speak a variety of American English dialects descended from various sources, though primarily British English in origin. Dialects vary from state to state and even community to community. Each retained features from its historic settler population, whether that be English, Scotch-Irish, French, German, or even African.[37]

Southern Diaspora[edit]

White Southerners, due to economic hardship and war, have migrated all over the continental United States for decades. In the early to late 1900s, white Southerners migrated in various waves to Northern and Western cities where they were met with discrimination from Northern whites and lived in harsh conditions, most notably in Chicago and Bakersfield, California[38].

Over the course of history there were numerous Southern ethnic enclaves, primarily in the Western United States and Latin America, the Confederados being one of the more well known groups. After the American Civil War, thousands of white Southerners, unwilling to live under Northern occupation, left the Southern United States for Mexico and Brazil, where they founded multiple colonies, though few prospered[39].

Prominent Southerners[edit]

White Southerners have contributed significantly to the culture of the United States of America, producing musicians such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, authors Harper Lee and Charlaine Harris, actors Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey. White Southerners have also held prominent positions in the American government throughout history, most notably George Washington (the first President of the United States), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton.


Traditionally, White Southerners have held conservative racial views, ranging from pro-segregationist views to outright support of violence against African-Americans.

Between the years 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings took place in the United States, most of which occurred in the South and most of the victims were African-Americans, though a significant minority were white[40] Lynching was a way to oppress the African-American minority in the Southern states and was thought necessary to protect white Southern women. Rape and murder were the most common reasons behind a lynching. Some lynchings were notably brutal and grotesque, such as the lynching of Sam Hose, a black man, whose slaughter was witnessed by 2,000 white Georgians who proceeded to slice off his ears, skin, fingers, and genitals. It has been recorded that post cards were sold of the mutilated bodies of black men who were lynched in the towns in which they were lynched and body parts were even sold as souvenirs.[41]

The high rate of lynching as well as the oppressive conditions created by the Southern-mandated Jim Crow laws were major factors of the Great Migration of 1910-1970, in which 6.5 million blacks fled the rural South to the industrial and urban Northern and Western states in search of economic, social, and political opportunities. Although the North and the West were hardly free from racism, southern blacks managed to find better-paying jobs, had a right to vote, and secure better educations for themselves and their families that were denied to them in the South.

The Ku Klux Klan and other white paramilitary groups[edit]

After the American Civil War, several white paramilitary groups arose to combat Black Southerners and Northern occupation. The fervently Democrat planter class was left impoverished and powerless after the destruction of the Confederate States of America and the institution of slavery. This led to the creation of the White League, Ku Klux Klan, and Knights of the White Camellia, groups formed by former Confederate soldiers and slaveholders with the shared goal of restoring white supremacy in the Southern United States. They succeeded in 1877, with the end of Reconstruction, withdrawal of Federal troops, and reelection of white supremacist Democrat politicians. This ultimately led to mass discrimination against Black Southerners and the ensuing Great Migration to the Northern United States.[citation needed]


The Scotch-Irish vote[edit]

It is thought that the descendants of Ulster Scots settlers formed the core of the politics of the Southern United States. Highly populist, rural, conservative, pro-gun, and Christian, the Scotch are viewed as an extremely individualistic, hardscrabble people that are main voting bloc for the Republican Party in the Southern United States.[42]


During the Antebellum era, the core of the Southern abolition movement resided in the Upland South, which also contained the highest concentration of non-slaveholding poor whites. In 1827, there were around 106 organizations spread across the Southern United States opposing the institution of African slavery in the region, compared to a mere 36 of such societies in the Northern United States. This number gradually increased in the years leading up to the American Civil War[43].

Many Southerners, such as the family of Abraham Lincoln[44], left the slave states for the North over the issue of Negro bondage and various Christian denominations in the Southern states specifically targeted slavery as a moral and Biblical evil.

Nearly 100,000 white Southern men served in the Union army during the American Civil War, with nearly every Southern slaveholding state raising at least one Yankee regiment. This number does not include the white Southerners who took up arms for the United States in the states that did not secede from the Union. Many peace and loyalist societies arose in the Southern states and were subsequently targeted by Confederates, with many Southern Unionists being forced into military service.[citation needed]

Heritage and political advocacy groups[edit]

Modern identity[edit]

Many White Southerners, following the end of the Civil War, began constructing a less racial and ethnic-based Southern identity, primarily focusing on the region's unifying culture, music, food, geography, mannerisms, and traditions as part of what became known as the New South movement.[45]

Due to a rise in right wing nationalistic movements, white Southern identity has come under intense scrutiny from certain groups recently, most notably various left leaning and left wing individuals and organizations. With the removal and re-branding of several Confederate monuments and criticism of the Confederate flag, many white Southerners feel their culture is under attack. Although, this has been met with equal support from white Southerners who wish to put the legacy of the Confederacy in the past and move towards a more unifying Southern identity, without regards to race, religion, or ethnic origin[46].

Certain Alt-right individuals and groups champion Neo-Confederate positions, though this support is controversial to certain Southern heritage groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Richard Spencer, a Southern white nationalist, is perhaps one of the most controversial figures supporting the history and heritage of the Confederate States of America.[47]


Southerners, regardless of race, are overrepresented in the United States Military, amounting to an astonishing 44% of the total population of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman once said, "they are the most dangerous set of men that this war has turned loose upon the world". White Southerners were seen as proficient soldiers with a long military history that spanned over two millennia, reaching back to their ancestral homeland in the British Isles.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bordewich, Fergus M. "Ghost of the Confederacy". NY Times. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  2. ^ United States Census Bureau. "2010 United States Census" (PDF). Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  3. ^ Graff, Michael. "The Death of the Southern Accent? (At Least in These Parts)". Charlotte Magazine. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  4. ^ "American History Scots in the American West 1790 - 1917 Scotland and the American Indians". Electric Scotland. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  5. ^ Gates Jr., Henry. "Exactly how 'Black' is Black America?". The Root. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  6. ^ Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/southron. Retrieved 30 April 2018. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Ray, Celese; Wilson, Charles R. "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 6: Ethnicity". Jstor. University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  8. ^ Berthoff, Rowland T. "Southern Attitudes Toward Immigration, 1865-1914". Southern Historical Association. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  9. ^ Battle, Mary. "Early Carolina Settlement: Barbados Influence". Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. College of Charleston. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  10. ^ Meyers, Michael R. "U.S. Civil War". Immigration to the United States. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  11. ^ Coski, John. "The Confederate Battle Flag". Harvard University Press. Retrieved 1 August 2017.
  12. ^ Smithers, Gregory D. "Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?". Slate. Retrieved 30 July 2017.
  13. ^ Rhines, Brad. "Southern Identity Crisis". Southern Glossary.
  14. ^ Lewis, Danny. "A Controversial Museum Tries to Revive the Myth of the Confederacy's "Lost Cause"". Smithsonian. Retrieved 30 July 2017.
  15. ^ Reed, John Shelton (1982). One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0807110386.
  16. ^ Reed, John Shelton (1972). The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0669810837.
  17. ^ Reed, John Shelton (1993). My Tears Spoiled My Aim, and Other Reflections on Southern Culture. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0826208866.
  18. ^ Applebome, Peter (10 November 1992). "From Carter to Clinton, A South in Transition". New York Times. Retrieved 30 June 2015.
  19. ^ Smith, William L. (2009). "Southerner and Irish? Regional and Ethnic Consciousness in Savannah, Georgia" (PDF). Southern Rural Sociology. 24 (1): 223–239.
  20. ^ Dillman, Caroline Matheny (1988). "The Sparsity of Research and Publications on Southern Women: Definitional Complexities, Methodological Problems, and Other Impediments". In Dillman, Caroline Matheny. Southern Women (PDF). New York: Routledge. p. 6. ISBN 0-89116-838-9.
  21. ^ Killian, Lewis M. (1985). White Southerners (revised ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. p. 169. ISBN 978-0870234880.
  22. ^ Gregory, James N. (2005). The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 166–167. ISBN 978-0807829837.
  23. ^ Wilson, Clyde (13 August 2014). "What is a Southerner?". Abbeville Institute. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  24. ^ Smith, M. G. (1982). "Ethnicity and ethnic groups in America: the view from Harvard" (PDF). Ethnic and Racial Studies. 5 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1080/01419870.1982.9993357.
  25. ^ Carlton, David L. (1995). "How American is the American South?". In Griffin, Larry J.; Doyle, Don H. The South as an American Problem. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0-8203-1752-6.
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  27. ^ "De Bow's Review". J.D.B. De Bow. 29 August 1861. Retrieved 29 August 2017 – via Google Books.
  28. ^ Rogers, Horatio, 2009. Mary Dyer of Rhode Island: The Quaker Martyr That Was Hanged on Boston Archived 15 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine pp.1–2. BiblioBazaar, LLC
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  31. ^ Barber, Nigel. "Is Southern violence due to a culture of honor?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  32. ^ Artuso, Kathryn. "Transatlantic Renaissances: Literature of Ireland and the American South". Rowman & Littlefield. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  33. ^ Pasquier, Michael. "Catholic Southerners, Catholic Soldiers: White Creoles, the Civil War, and the Lost Cause in New Orleans". Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  34. ^ Fleming, Walter L. "Immigration to the Southern States" (PDF). The Academy of Political Science. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  35. ^ Rosen, Robert. "The Free Air of Dixie". New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  36. ^ Roberts, Gary Boyd. "ANNOUNCING THE ROYAL DESCENTS OF 900 IMMIGRANTS". Genealogical. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  37. ^ Montgomery, Michael; Johnson, Ellen. "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 5: Language". University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
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  39. ^ Dwyer, Mimi. "The Brazilian Town Where the American Confederacy Lives On". VICE News. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  40. ^ "History of Lynchings". naacp.org. NAACP. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  41. ^ Devega, Chauncey. "The Brutality of Lynchings in America". Ebony. Retrieved 30 April 2018.
  42. ^ Sellers, Frances Stead. "Why a key to the 2016 Southern vote lies centuries ago on another continent". Washington post. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  43. ^ Finnie, Gordon E. "The Antislavery Movement in the Upper South Before 1840". The Journal of Southern History. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  45. ^ Thompson, Tracy. "Dixie is Dead". The Bitter Southerner. Retrieved 2 August 2017.
  46. ^ Morris, David Z. "The Century-Old Statue at the Center of Charlottesville's Tragedy". Fortune. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  47. ^ Laughland, Oliver. "White nationalist Richard Spencer at rally over Confederate statue's removal". The Guardian.
  48. ^ Braswell, Sean. "WHY THE U.S. MILITARY IS SO SOUTHERN". Ozy.

Further reading[edit]

  • Griffin, Larry J.; Evenson, Ranae Jo; Thompson, Ashley B. (2005). "Southerners, All?". Southern Cultures. 11 (1): 6–25. doi:10.1353/scu.2005.0005.
  • Lind, Michael (5 February 2013). "The white South's last defeat". Salon. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  • Moltke-Hansen, David (2003). "The Rise of Southern Ethnicity". Historically Speaking. 4 (5): 36–38. doi:10.1353/hsp.2003.0034.
  • Reed, John Shelton (1980). "Southerners". In Thernstrom, Stephan; Orlov, Ann; Handlin, Oscar. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.
  • Tindall, George B. (1974). "Beyond the Mainstream: The Ethnic Southerners". The Journal of Southern History. 40 (1): 3–18. doi:10.2307/2206054. JSTOR 2206054.