DNC Watch: Charlotte Businesses Play the Southern Card

As Charlotte inches closer to playing its role as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), stories of what makes it a southern city (or not) have been trickling in over the last month.  Many of the local news stories, and even stories appearing in other online news outlets, let us know that business owners in the Queen City are actively playing the southern card.

During the early part of the 20th century the musicians of Tin Pan Alley, many of them Jewish immigrants, wrote reams of sheet music about the South. The cover art lets you know exactly what is meant by “That Southern Hospitality.”

In this case, it usually means using phrases like “southern hospitality” or “southern charm” to describe what’s being sold.  As is often the case, these terms are tossed around without considering their historical antecedents in the plantation South.  Today, however, such terms are co-opted for purposes of profit, which is more in keeping with Charlotte’s identity as a “New South” city.

So, what does the “southern card” look like?

The Sacramento Bee (among many other news outlets) published the article “Fashion Travel Tips for the South” informing both RNC and DNC delegates what they should wear to their respective conventions.  “Whether you’re a first-timer or a convention pro, you may still be new to modern, Southern style,” says Arlene Goldstein, vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction for Belk stores–headquartered here in Charlotte.  Now we know this was a Belk PR piece that was picked up in several news outlets and ties back into the company’s re-branding of itself as the store with “Modern. Southern. Style.” Still, what is “modern, southern style” except brand messaging with a nice ring to it.

The DNC logo that Kelli Koepel describes, in part, as showing off Charlotte’s “southern hospitality.”

Then there’s Charlotte’s SouthPark magazine, which recently published the article “The DNC Means Big Business.”  In it, Kelly Koepel, owner of the branding agency that created the Charlotte DNC logo played the southern card this way: “Woven throughout the image is this message: ‘Charlotte is a beautiful, clean city with a high quality of life where you’ll find both the expected comforts of Southern hospitality and exciting evidence of a forward-thinking, can-do Southern culture.'” There’s the hospitality again, with some “can-do” thrown in.

African American business owners are also playing the southern card in ways that may surprise you.

Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, is hosting a plantation party for DNC delegates from southern states. Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer

Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, was hired to host a party at Rosedale Plantation for delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. “I’m such a history buff, and I wanted to take the history behind Rosedale Plantation and incorporate it in every detail,” Caldwell exlained. “I wanted to make the guests feel like they were back in time.”  Does this mean there will be slave interpreters waiting on folks?  It is a plantation, after all.

Local television station WCNC recently showcased another African American business owner in the news feature “Southern charm on Display at delegate welcome party,” focusing on a venue in the city they claimed “oozes southern charm.”  The Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights will be hosting a party for the DNC.  Historically, ideas of “southern charm” and “southern hospitality” have been associated with well-to-do white women–quintessential southern belles.  Yet, the Wadsworth estate is owned by a black woman, Shirley Fulton, and even she is playing up the southern card of old.

As she puts it “I think it’s going to be a lot of genteel southern hospitality because we want to show them Charlotte, [in] particular, and North Carolina in general,” adding “People know that they’re stepping back in time and if you look around at the furnishing, there is almost nothing modern here, so you get that feel of southern charm.”  Genteel. Southern hospitality. Southern Charm.  Stepping back in time.  Say what?

I wonder if she considered what “stepping back in time” means for African Americans like herself?  As a business owner Fulton is indebted to the southern civil rights movement such that I doubt she really wants to step back in time, because instead of owning the estate she’d be cleaning it.  Yet, it’s a savvy business move since most of the delegates to the convention are white, some of whom probably expect to experience a version of “southern hospitality.”  (The white reporter added, “no doubt they’ll be saying ‘y’all’ on their [the delegates] way out.”  Um, I doubt it.)

Clearly, Charlotte-area businesses believe that playing the southern card is good for their bottom line.  Still, as a historian, I know that what people believe is “southern” can cut both ways–and not just the way of hospitality and charm.  I’ll be looking at the flip side in a future blog post.

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3 thoughts on “DNC Watch: Charlotte Businesses Play the Southern Card

  1. Dr. Cox,
    I should probably read your book, Dreaming of Dixie to better understand this paradox of the “southern card” in this case, but as a new resident of Oxford MS from Charlotte (I graduated from UNC Charlotte and am a graduate student at the University of Mississippi) this selective reach into the past is saturated in almost everything here. I have noticed this growing in Charlotte over the last few years, and how it in many ways is becoming main-stream (especially in my generation). I understand pride in one’s location such as someone’s attachment to Charlotte or in another case New York City or a state or region (i.e. The South), but would like more help in finding the line between full anachronistic ignorance and tasteful appreciation of the past.

    In this, I am thinking of the plantation tours that are offered in many locations (my main thought is several in Charleston). When going to these locations for a “historic” tour many depict slavery though the stark contrast of the slave quarters and the mansion, but it seems that the real tour is the extravagant antebellum home. You spend more time learning about the lives of the wealthy and their possessions. In these cases its obvious that the general public is more interested in lavish early 19th Century homes than of the plight of slaves. I am probably generalizing about people’s attitudes, but there is always the “main attraction.”
    Second, there is a surge of popular culture marketing toward “The South.” On one hand there are companies like Old Try^1 that talk about the negatives and positives. In their write up about their “New South” print, Marianna and Micah Whitson point out,

    “There exist two Souths below the Mason-Dixon. One is the place of history, of the county and the proud families and the exploited slaves. The other is a place of the future, of the city and tomorrow, of the growing minority prominence and the exportation of culture to the rest of America. Two Souths, both right and wrong in their own ways, but both in existence since the Civil War, and in my belief, both will live always. It’s our legacy and our tormented soul, and it’s what we run from and run towards with equal conviction.”

    Are they walking that line, or are they safe?

    Then there are companies like Southern Proper^2. Their version of The South is much different. “Style, Tradition and Authenticity are the Southern pillars that inspired the creation of Southern Proper, Haberdashery for the Southern Gentleman.” This “Southern Gentleman” seems to fit into another theme (especially as the picture above this quote is a field of cotton). Despite this, they are playing on a fashion statement that is unique to “The South,” that is about bow ties (they call them beau ties) and dressing up for tailgates. After having been employed by a country club in Charlotte, I have found that this is what they wear from the young teens to the fathers. Are these and other brands (Southern Tide, Southern Marsh, etc.) simply finding employment in something that “pulls at the heart strings” of a “good ole Southern boy?” I must also point out that most of these brands pride themselves in being American made which also affects the price and the demographic marketed towards.
    Obviously these things exist and will exist, and they make up our current culture. How do we stay conscientious of anachronistic marketing (or anything)? Or do we push back?

    1. http://www.theoldtry.com
    2.http://www.southernproper.com

    • Well, yes, I’d hope you’d read my book! It seems to me that “the line between full anachronistic ignorance and tasteful appreciation of the past” may be in how you define it for yourself. Clearly, you are aware of those differences, but the fact remains that people who have a better grasp on the historical antecedents of this type of marketing will see it far different than the marketers themselves. This stuff sells. Plain and simple. And why change a marketing ploy when it works?

      If you read the chapter in my book on advertising, you’ll soon realize that it isn’t just southerners in on the act. A recent example: the commercial featuring two southern belles arguing over the Butterfinger Snakerz. Charleston and Charlotte offer differing versions of the past. There’s a lot more of the “New South” drum beat here than in Charleston, obviously, but even Charlotte is playing into it. Why? Because they know it works and not just for their fellow southerners, but for the thousands of people who come from other places expecting it to be this way when they come South! Are you writing about the “surge of popular culture marketing” you speak of?

      As for plantation tourism, please read the essay in my forthcoming volume on tourism & southern history by Ethan Kytle & Blain Roberts who write about both black and white tours of Charleston. If you want a different taste of Old South tourism in Mississippi, head to Natchez. As for your last question, “do we push back?” Why not? How we do it depends on how much it means to us. Maybe we don’t buy items from G.R.I.T.S (Girls Raised in the South). Or maybe, we write blog posts like mine. It may not change anything, but I still think it’s a useful discussion to have because it may.

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