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Border Town
A charming Southern burg or a bustling Northern metropolis? Baltimoreans aren't sure— and never have been.
by Michael Anft

If there were any doubts as to Kitty Knoedler’s regional credentials, they are smashed to hominy grit-sized pieces when she chats with customers at Southern Accent Gift Shop and Petticoat Tearoom, her South Broadway business. As a couple from Colorado stops at the counter to buy some Dixie knickknacks to take back to the Rockies, Knoedler eyes them and asks: “Y’all ski?”

One can easily imagine the tourists returning home and wrongly regaling their unwary Western friends with tales of Baltimore’s down-home hospitality, cobblestone streets and “Southern charm” — Charm City as Charleston. If they do, one could blame Knoedler for her insistence on re-creating her bucolic, Deep South past (she grew up in Vicksburg, Miss.) along the post-industrial shores of the Patapsco.

Southern Accent’s gift shop is plumb full of Southerniana: wicker baskets, bottles of mint julep mix, dolls dressed in purple petticoats and gilded-framed paintings of demure belles with parasols. The adjoining tearoom boasts pre-feminist ambience— walls the color of Pepto-Bismol, immaculate white doilies— and offers five daily “teas,” barbecue imported from Mississippi and a dainty “Vicksburg tomato sandwich.”

Although she gets very few customers from the South— “The tearoom draws more people because it’s girlie, not because it’s Southern,” she says— Knoedler doesn’t buy the notion that her shrine to Dixie is an orphan lost in busy, belching-smokestack, urban renaissance Baltimore. “I don’t see a whole lot of difference between Baltimore and Alabama,” says Knoedler, who moved here from Alabama eight years ago. “Sure, it’s more metropolitan here and people are crankier because there’s so much more for them to deal with, but it’s pretty much the same.”

You can see evidence of that, she says, in the city’s African-Americans, many of them transplants from the Carolinas, who wait in long lines at the city’s farmers’ markets to buy fresh butter beans. There’s also evidence in the mostly mild winters and the friendliness of the people— at least when they’re not rushed and crabby.

Knoedler then ticks off a lengthy list of things— a slower pace of life and made-up women dressed to the nines, for example— the dearth of which can sometimes make Baltimore seem as Yankee as a bowl of New England clam chowder. Not that Knoedler’s complaining— not having to dress up for other Southern women is fine with her. “You’ve got to understand that, where I come from, my grandmother didn’t stop wearing a girdle until she was 90,” she says.

As a relative newcomer, Knoedler has taken her place in a cultural chasm that Baltimoreans, who live 40 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line and 45 miles north of the Potomac, have willfully inhabited for centuries. Ask a native whether the city is more Northern cosmopolitan or slow-moving Southern, and the answer usually is a well-considered “Yes.” Local versifier Ogden Nash hedged his bets as well, calling the city the “tip of the South and the toe of the North.”

Baltimore’s status as a border town is as much a part of its identity as the pageantry surrounding the Preakness (Southern) or blue-collar industrial work (Northern). “It’s like Miami in that it’s an interface between North and South, only it’s not as international,” says Madison Smartt Bell, a novelist and Nashville native who lives in Cedarcroft and teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

A freak of geography and circumstance, Baltimore has long been impossible to pin down. “What John F. Kennedy said about Washington could also apply to Baltimore,” says Frank R. Shivers Jr., a local historian and author. “He said that Washington is a town of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”

The city’s geographical status frequently lies in the eye of the beholder— and where they’ve come from. Immigrants from Europe and Central and South America have tended to see themselves as Northern, for example, as have Jews and expatriates of the old Confederacy. “Its manners, its food— the way it carries itself— Baltimore is definitely a Northern city,” says Elizabeth Large, restaurant critic at The Sun and a native of Knoxville, Tenn.

Those who come to Baltimore from the opposite direction tend to have an opposite reaction. Peggy Stewart, who moved from Portland, Ore., to Towson with her family last year, says she was taken aback when youngsters called her “Miss Peggy.” “It’s very polite, very Southern,” she says. Elsewhere around town, she has noticed “a formally informal way about people” that to her seems distinctly Southern, as well. People will chat in checkout lines at the grocery store, even though there’s an invisible social line both sides have learned not to cross. “I haven’t been able to figure out where that line is yet. It’s not something you see where I’m from,” says Stewart. “Then you go out on the parking lot and people almost run you over. It’s as if they used up their quota of politeness for the day when they were in line.”

Along with manners, food qualifies as a cultural Mason-Dixon line for some. “My wife says it’s a Southern town, but she’s from New York,” says Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a trio of books on the civil rights movement, a native of Atlanta, and a Mount Washington resident since 1986. “I think it’s Northern because I can’t find grits.”

Actually, you can get grits— but you usually have to go to diners owned by Greek immigrants or their children, another symbol of the city’s coupling of a Northern characteristic (a legacy of welcoming large numbers of European immigrants) with Southern people (the migrations of both a self-appointed aristocracy in the 19th century and sharecroppers to work in factories during the 20th).

Or you can go two miles northwest of Knoedler’s business, where you’ll find the Yellow Bowl, one of the city’s few overt manifestations of Southernness— along with Civil War monuments, Arabbers, maybe one-third of the Bawlmer accent and a mansion or two— that don’t feel like simulations of Dixie living. A Southern soul food restaurant that started slinging greens, hog maws and chitterlings, lake trout and stewed chicken in 1968, the Yellow Bowl has served a couple of generations of folks on Greenmount Avenue. Mostly natives of the South or the children of them, they go to the Yellow Bowl to feast on recipes handed down by Flora Fullard of Sumter, S.C., says her great-nephew, Jeff Fullard, the Yellow Bowl’s owner. The Fullards came north along with more than 30,000 other blacks during World War II.

Jeff Fullard says he sees signs of Southern living all around the surrounding Johnston Square neighborhood. “A lot of people up here drink corn liquor [moonshine],” says Fullard, a Baltimore native. Backyard and community vegetable gardens, relics of a Southern agrarian culture, are treated with the same respect as the insides of homes— another indication that all is not rowhouses and concrete, even in the city’s rough-and-tumble neighborhoods. “Folks here love their gardens,” says Fullard, who believes Baltimore is a Southern town.

All this Southern talk would likely make H.L. Mencken, who lambasted what he called the cultural desert of the South in his snide, elitist 1917 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” spill his martini.

Some locals like to tell jokes about Southerners and their fetish for the past: “How many Virginians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five— one to change the light bulb and four to talk about how great the old light bulb was.” But Baltimoreans can be a backward-looking lot, as well. “Longing for the past is seen as a Southern trait,” says Robert J. Brugger, history editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press and author of “Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980.” “Tearing down and rebuilding is a Northern idea. There’s always been a tension between the two [in Baltimore].”

In its earliest days, Baltimore and its mostly Episcopalian population looked South for a way of life, taking cues from its agrarian, mannered pace. And, by the turn of the 19th century, Baltimoreans were displaying skepticism about what they saw as Yankee craftiness and greed, as well as the North’s faddish embracing of new ideas. Southern leanings did not necessarily translate into pro-slavery ones, however. Several city residents had formed a chapter of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery by 1790.

Throughout the 1800s, Baltimore became home to thousands of European immigrants and free blacks from further North, developing into a true border town— the northernmost city with a significant black population, and the southernmost city that absorbed large numbers of foreign immigrants. It was also considered the northernmost city hospitable to slave owners.

Despite its acceptance of slavery, the city contained more free blacks (about 4,000) in 1810 than slaves (3,700). And, by 1860, more than 90 percent of the city’s 28,000 blacks were free, a number that should not, however, be taken as a sign of Northern abolitionist fervor and success. “Most free blacks bought their freedom rather than being manumitted [released from slavery],” says Harold McDougall, professor of history at Howard University in Washington.

As the Civil War loomed, the city became increasingly divided. “Baltimore, with its preference for free labor and its mercantile pragmatism, was embedded in a state founded on the economy of tobacco and slavery,” wrote Sherry H. Olson, author of “Baltimore: The Building of an American City.” Many of the North/South lines in Baltimore were drawn by white working folks. “If you worked with your hands, you were likely to be pro-Northern and anti-slavery because you’d see an enslaved workforce as competition,” says Brugger.

At the time, slave owners and abolitionists lived side by side, as did slaves and free blacks. Some of the city’s professionals and aristocracy met at stately social clubs, such as the Maryland Club (established in 1858), where the red and white colors of the Confederacy were flown from windows. Conversely, Baltimore philanthropists Johns Hopkins, George Peabody and Enoch Pratt remained true to their families’ Northern roots, joining B&O Railroad chief John Work Garrett in supporting the Union effort. (Hopkins sold horseshoes to the Union Army.) William Walters, a states-rights defender, sided with the South and, believing his sympathies endangered him, fled to Paris, where he came upon the works of Corot, Delacroix, Millet and others. After the war, he brought them back to Baltimore, where they later formed the basis of the Walters Art Gallery.

In the meantime, George Peabody refused to throw open the doors to his institute— now the Peabody Conservatory, part of Johns Hopkins University— following the fabled Pratt Street Riot in 1861, even though construction was completed that year. The fledgling institution’s board of trustees was as divided as the nation, so Peabody, who spent much of the war years in London, waited to dedicate the buildings until 1866, the year after the Civil war ended. At that time, he offered a speech that celebrated peace as much as the birth of the institution.

Following the war, the emergence of railroads loosened the economic ties between Baltimore and the South, but culturally the South’s hold on the city’s psyche grew firmer. Georgia transplant Sidney Lanier, a poet and former Confederate soldier who doubled as a flutist in the new Peabody Symphony Orchestra, became instantly popular here, as throughout the South. In 1942, the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore erected a monument to him on the Johns Hopkins University campus.

The boards of many local institutions were full of people with Southern roots or with Southern ideas. Many of these people, says Jean Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College, conveniently revised the city’s history to their liking, perhaps in hopes of claiming Baltimore as an extension of their Southern turf. “After the war, there’s this sense of historical memory that the city was pro-South, but it’s not true,” says Baker. “Some of the powerful people in town after the war were Southerners, some of whom wanted people to remember things their way.”

Every May, Baltimore offers a glimpse of that memory in the form of the Flower Mart, a Southern-styled celebration of spring that features elaborate hats, lemon sticks and milling dames, many of whom wouldn’t be caught dead in the city on any other day of the year.

Soon after the first Flower Mart in 1911, the event began to display an early form of multi-culturalism, including among its offerings Polish and Czech dancers and Greek food vendors. But that embracing of differences— at the Flower Mart and in the rest of the city— only went so far. Even as blacks were wooed to work in factories, the City Council in 1913 passed an ordinance that made segregated housing legal, pioneering legislation that would be imitated by eight Southern cities. As a result of the ordinance, blacks were crowded into an area bounded by 26 blocks centered around Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Royal Theater, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, and others helped create a rich but separate culture.

Within 40 years, the majority of the city’s tracts became either all black or all white, even though the segregation laws had since been dashed. Although the South hardly holds a monopoly on segregation— these days, the schools in several Northern states are much more segregated than those in the South— it is clear that Baltimore’s ongoing racial separation has its roots in Reconstruction-era Southern politics, particularly with regard to its labor force.

“Baltimore had a Southern segregationist inheritance,” wrote Kenneth D. Durr, author of “White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980.” “As Jim Crow descended on the border city, skirmishes between white and black labor heightened its effects, so that by 1910 segregation was more pronounced in Maryland than in any other border state.”

As World War II approached, Baltimore companies began advertising in Southern states to fill jobs at aircraft companies, shipyards and steel plants. From 1940 to 1943, roughly 150,000 migrants— more than 20 percent of them black— came north from (in order of prominence) Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee to work. Southern whites from Appalachia, many of whom had earlier seen family members move north to work in the mills of Hampden and Woodberry, followed suit. They brought Southern culture— music, gardens, food— to neighborhoods such as South Baltimore’s so-called “Kentucky Colony,” in the Fort Avenue area.

Soon Baltimore’s local politics— previously marked by a Southern sense of noblesse oblige— was taking on the look of Northern New Deal liberalism. Blacks took the opportunity to try to change their lot at the polls, where they were not subject to taxes or death threats, as was common in the Deep South. Laws against segregation helped, in part, to start the shedding of many of the city’s more obvious Southern facets, though vestiges of Southern white privilege persevered.

This clash of cultures led to more confusion. “When I was growing up [in the 1950s], it was all a hodgepodge,” says Larry Gibson, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and the mastermind behind the political career of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. “[Blacks] could go to public pools, on buses and into Memorial Stadium, but you couldn’t eat at certain restaurants. It was strange.”

Indeed, during the 1950s much of old “Southern Baltimore,” which included large parts of Bolton Hill and Roland Park, held on to its culture of choice. “When I moved to Bolton Hill from Cincinnati in 1951, there was a thick Southern accent here,” says Shivers, the 80-year-old local historian, who still lives there. “It had its own culture and you had to get used to it. The main reason to meet people was to find out where they came from. They were very interested in one’s background and if there was any Southern heritage to it. If you measured up, you were fine.”

Speaking of heritage, in the mid-1960s, the state historical society opened two rooms devoted to the Civil War in Maryland: one run by volunteers from the United Daughters of the Confederacy that covered Confederate history, and one run by daughters of the Union that featured Union artifacts. When, in 1986 the rooms closed in order to merge them into a single exhibit, “A House Divided,” several of the Confederate volunteers protested.

The city continued to be seen as Southern by some because of its ongoing racial problems, epitomized by the murder of a black serving woman named Hattie Carroll by a young white tobacco farmer from southern Maryland named William Zantzinger in 1963. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. But after civil rights laws were passed in 1964, and riots tore through Northern and Southern cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, geography began to play less of a role in how racial relations were perceived here. Still, restaurants, such as the House of Welsh on Guilford Avenue, kept a crew of solicitous black waiters on staff, seemingly as a tribute to the city’s Jim Crow past.

In the city’s black neighborhoods, where, seemingly, a majority of people claim a Carolina heritage, there has been change since then. Jeff Fullard says that 85 percent of his customers in the 1980s hailed from the Carolinas, or at least were full of Carolina blood. In the past 10 years, he’s seen a lot more people from up North, particularly New York and New Jersey. U.S. Census figures from 2000 back him up. Once a prime destination for Southerners, the city now pulls in many more people from the Northeast. The city is becoming more Northern by the day, even though the South can claim much of its past.

And these days Fullard’s down-home cooking has a little less down-home in it: He has swapped the pork he used to cook his greens with for turkey necks. The new customers are scared of the health effects wrought from pig meat, he says. “Plus, we get a lot of Muslims in here now. They won’t eat pork.”

Baltimore’s Southern culture may be on the skids, but there are still a few places to find the genuine article, such as family reunions among old Carolina and Virginia families under pavilions at Druid Hill Park. (Just look for a huge barbecue pit and a mound of greens.) Or the few remaining Arabbers who hawk their wares just as their free-black forebears did. Or at the Preakness, where women wear yellow cotton dresses and hats Carmen Miranda would consider gaudy. And at dinner parties, where home entertaining achieves high culture— and demands only a polite thank-you note in return.

Even though she promises to do her part to keep the genteel tradition alive here, Kitty Knoedler seems to know when she’s beaten. She and her husband will eventually retire to Alabama— which sort of undermines her theory that Baltimore is a Southern town, or not much different from one. In Alabama, she says, everything from cooking to running errands to traffic is a relatively warm breeze, and the people are kinder.

“Living is just easier there,” she says.

It is, after all, the South.

MARCH/APRIL 2005

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We are both Northern and Southern. There are things here that only occur in the north and vice versa for the south…we have southern country accents and northeast city accents. We are unique and need to stop labeling ourselves. We’re out of the box and can relate to both. I love the mix.

Posted by B.B.C. on 07/23/14 at 12:54 PM


This post about Baltimore is one of the most comprehensive among all the articles I have read so far. You did a great job on laying all the facts and ideas that are relevant about Baltimore. Thanks for this brilliant share.
Incredible Discoveries

Posted by Incredible Discoveries on 06/20/12 at 02:58 PM


Baltimore is a southern city. I am from Baltimore and once the thought seal is broken.. and you actually start thinking about it.. the south is all around us here. I mean, we are sitting in the country.

Posted by Geechun on 04/13/11 at 12:37 PM


I think Baltimore is nice, and very friendly.It has a few Southern charms, but mostly Northern delights.  Its the very definition of A Mid-Atlantic city. Northern city with Southern overtones. IMO, Washington, DC is the gateway to the South (If you’re on the East Coast).

Posted by Meade on 02/05/11 at 11:22 PM


This article seems to be written by someone that has a bias toward the South. In my opinion Baltimore is indeed a Southern town with northern characteristics.

Posted by Damien on 06/15/07 at 12:23 AM


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