Who is the South?

The eight-state 2017 Southern Trip demonstrated the vibrant diversity of Southern culture. Two stops that initially seemed unrelated to me—the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina and the South Union Shaker Village in Kentucky—provided profound case studies for the ways in which the Anglo-American culture of the South collided with other cultural, ethnic, and religious identities to create a unique material culture in this fascinating region.

Chief Vann House

The Chief Vann House in Murray County, Georgia. All photos by the author.

First, a visit to the home of Chief James Vann just across the Georgia border opened my eyes to the centrality of the Cherokee story to the broader narrative of the American South. This site in particular brought out the complexities of the Cherokee story in the nineteenth century, as the powerful and wide-spread nation was impacted by deceitful American policies that ultimately led to the removal of thousands along the Trail of Tears. James Vann, first owner of the impressive, Federal style mansion, was himself a complex individual whose story is not easily digested.. Vann navigated many worlds: he was an extremely wealthy businessman, a Cherokee chief, an enslaver of hundreds of African men, women, and children, and a patron (though not convert) of Moravian missionaries.

Paint colors in the parlor of the Chief Vann House may represent Cherokee symbolism of nature.

Vann’s story is one of oppression from all sides– he and his fellow Cherokee faced severe oppression from white settlers in the region, and the mansion was left behind when the Vanns were forcibly removed to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Vann himself violently oppressed the enslaved individuals who worked his home, farm, and businesses. What from the road appears to be a “typical” plantation home is the result of an entanglement of several identities manifested in a single family, the product of a meeting of white plantation society with an ancient Cherokee culture in a time of a great crisis. 

South Union Shaker Village

The group explores the South Union Shaker Village with Director Tommy Hines.

The South Union Shaker Village in Auburn, Kentucky contributed to this theme. A Christian sect so called for the dancing that characterized their worship, the Shakers established their community here from 1807 until 1922. Today, the museum shares an incredible collection of Shaker buildings and crafts. Architecture, furniture, and food all demonstrate the blending of broader Southern culture with specific religious practice.

The Center House, built between 1822 and 1833, was the center of life at South Union.

The Center House generally follows a central passage form common to the region, but with bedrooms instead of front parlors to accommodate the needs of communal living, and with two sets of staircases, one for men and one for women. Their furniture utilized woods like walnut that were most available in the region, but were built in a simple and sturdy style, often referencing Southern regional forms with unique Shaker decorative touches. These tangible remains reveal a Shaker way of life with a regional flair.

Inside the Center House, two separate staircases for men and women speak to the influence of the Shaker mandate on their material culture.

When the South Union Shakers disbanded in 1922, two members further demonstrated the ability to live in multiple contexts. Taking their financial shares, these Shakers formerly bound to chastity joined their cash, married, bought a nice home, and furnished it with an oak table from Sears. Though once intentionally separated from The World, these two members, at least, quickly adapted to a consumer culture when their former lifestyle came to an end.

Shaker furniture? This dining set came from Sears, purchased by former Shaker members when South Union disbanded in 1922.

The trip succeeded in illustrating the diversity that shapes Southern material culture, proving that though geography itself is strong influence, it collided with a multitude of other forces to produce the rich complexity we experience today.


By Candice Roland Candeto, WPAMC Class of 2018

One response to “Who is the South?”

  1. Bill Hughes says:

    Very informative.

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