- Category: English Language Arts
- Published: Thursday, 08 December 2011 11:13
- Written by Brian Jaeger
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I found this article and activity online a number of years ago. I did not create it, though I may have tweaked it a little. It is an excellent text to use at the beginning of the story, and the article could be adapted easily for skills-based questioning.
Read the following article and then complete the assignment that follows.
"Southerntown" By John Dollard
In order to share the shock of contact with a strange situation, I should like to wipe my vision
clean of the effect of wont and habit and to see Southerntown again afresh as I first visited it. It is
a small town, just about large enough to qualify under the census as an urban area. It is flat as a
tennis court but with a bit of a tilt, the white people living on the upper half. Should floods come,
the Negro quarter would be first under water. Southerntown is bisected by a railroad, and its
tracks divide people according to color, the whites living on one side and the Negroes on the
other. Some exceptions to this rule occur; there are a few Negro cabins behind the homes of
white persons for whom they work, and there are two Negro families with houses boldly fronting
on a respectable street on the white side. A yellow bayou filled with turtlebacks curls through the
town and separates the business and residential districts on the white side.
On the white side of the town the houses are, in general, commodious, well painted, shrubbed,
and neat. Fans buzz in them during the summer months. They are screened and as cool as they
can be in this climate. There seem to be few houses of poorer grade on the white side, and one
does not in fact see many unkempt white people in the town. The streets are paved in the white
area and telephone wires run through the trees. There is a cleared play-space for children around
most of the houses.
The other side of the tracks, sometimes called "n---- town," yields a different picture. Here the
houses are small and cheap. Walking along the street, one sees the flash of a big white bed in
most of the rooms and comes later to realize that is not from choice but from necessity that most
rooms must do duty as bedrooms in addition to some other function. A well-cropped lawn is a
rarity, as is a well-built house. At night one sees kerosene lamps gleaming through the windows;
in a few of the houses, electric bulbs. Only two paved streets traverse this area where fifteen
hundred people live. In the evening groups of people sit on their front porches to keep cool,
lacking the fans and electric refrigeration which are so useful in combating summer heat. Behind
the houses the frequent privies testify to the fact that these people are not wholly included in our
modern technology, as are those on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Another feature of life on the two sides of the tracks is immediately striking. In general the white
side is quieter, especially at night; there a fewer people moving on the streets, although the
number of whites and Negroes in town is about the same. A sense of discipline and order is more
apparent. People are more likely to move about in cars. There is less walking, loitering, and
laughing than on the Negro side. It is not true by any means that the Negroes are riotous in their
behavior, but they seem to be more on foot, more in motion, and a carefree tone pervades their
laughing and joking.
The small industrial section devoted to ginning cotton and pressing cottonseed is isolated at one
end of the town more or less in the Negro quarter. A square block of buildings and the four streets
around it make up the business district. One street has six or seven department stores, owned
and run almost exclusively by Jews. The thirsty traveler may stop and honk before one of the
three drugstores and receive courteous curb service, although the polite northerner is frequently a
little abashed at delivering a vulgar toot to a southern white man. He gets used to it, however, and
is glad to feel the cool shock of a "coke" in the throat while still sitting in his automobile. There is a
small and very hot hotel with an adjoining restaurant. The number of lawyers in Southerntown is
amazing until one remembers the important role of the lawyer-politician. One of the streets is
lined with stores serving Negroes, though very few are owned by Negroes. A single floor of one
building is reserved for the few Negro professional persons in the town.
Adjacent to the business block a domed courthouse is set in a little park-like space, a spigot for
administrative services to the county, for Southerntown is the county seat. On the cool side of the
building, on a summer's afternoon, a few white men lounge and talk.
Downtown of an evening, one of the streets is densely lined with cars. The center of this activity is
the movie theater, white downstairs and colored in the gallery, with separate entrances. People
are great moviegoers and discussers in this town. "Bank Night" in particular is memorable with
the excitement of the drawing and a very bad picture to identify it. On Saturday the movie is
invariably a Western picture, for then, we are told, the rural people come to town and they like
Saturday is by all odds the big day of the week. In the summer the stores are open all afternoon
and evening (though closed on Thursday afternoons). The country Negroes mill through the
streets and talk excitedly, buying, and enjoying the stimulation of the town crowds. The country
whites are paler and less vivacious; there are not so many of them, but still a considerable
number. "Rednecks" they are called, and their necks, it is true, are red, due to open shirts and
daily exposure to the sun.
Sunday is a quiet day on the white side. Through open church windows one hears organ and
choir music. The Negroes take Sunday solemnly, too, but there seems a little more activity on
their side of the town.
The other days of the week are much alike during the summer; but in September the high-sided
cotton wagons begin to rumble into the gin, drawn usually by poor and wiry mules. On the
average day, between six and seven in the morning, a little tide of traffic laps from the Negro to
the white side of town. The Negro women are going to work as maids and cooks in white houses.
An hour later the white businessmen go to work, and still later their wives go out to do their
shopping. The men usually come home for dinner at noon, and it is a big meal. Between two and
three o'clock, in the dead heat of the afternoon, the black tide reverses itself, and the Negro
women go home to get the main meal of the day for their own families. They return around five
and go back home again at dusk after the whites have finished supper and the dishes are done.
If the summer is hot, expectant, and marked by steady work for both whites and Negroes, the fall
is the season of intense activity. It is the time of the settlement on the plantations when the Negro
cropper becomes an independent buyer. During the three fall months Southerntown does most of
its retail business and lives its most exciting life. During January and February comes the dullest
season, when people work in anticipation of the next cotton crop, whose cultivation polarizes all
activity in this area. Then again the hopeful spring, the summer of steady work, and the
exhilaration of money to spend and good business in the fall.
Summer days seem long, still, and intensely hot. Well-to-do white people--they are but a few--
leave for the coast, the North, or the Carolina mountains. Occasionally thunderheads appear in
the great bowl of sky above the sweeping flat lands and a sudden passionate shower falls
through the bright sunlight; or a tumultuous storm lashes the sky with lightning, bends the trees,
and fills the lower roads ankle-deep with water. Winter is the season of heavy rains and it does
occasionally snow. The rainfall is fairly heavy, forty to fifty inches; and the growing season is long,
over two hundred and ten days.
Stretching out from the town in various directions are gravel roads. Now and then, surprisingly, a
few miles of concrete will appear and disappear without seeming reason unless one knows where
county lines begin. Through the car windows one sees flat cotton fields, an occasional puff of
woodland against the horizon, rain-blackened Negro cabins in great numbers along the road,
and, in the fields, the cotton crop in some stage of its growth or decay. Huddled store buildings
and gas stations appear every few miles, and here and there, but less frequently than the
sentimental northerner would imagine, a plantation mansion. On a summer night after rainless
weeks a mantle of dust hangs over the gravel roads, choking the driver and discouraging speed.
If one feels the lure of more concentrated town life, there are cities thirty or forty miles away. If a
car owner, one frequently drives there for a cold drink, a movie, or just for the ride.
John Dollard, "Caste and Class in a Southern Town" (New Haven, 1937), 2-6.
A Tale of Two Towns Activity Handout
List three adjectives used to describe Maycomb. How do these adjectives attempt to capture the feel of the town? Do you think that Harper Lee successfully conveys a sense of place?
When is the novel set? What clues are provided to tip the reader off about when the narrative takes place?
Contrast the description of Dollard's "Southerntown" with Lee's description of Maycomb. How are the descriptions similar?
Using both descriptions, draw a composite map of the town and a map of the county on separate sheets of paper. Each map must include a compass rose, a scale, a key, and a title. You may give your town any name you wish. Your town should be located near the center of your county. Your maps must include the following elements:
County Map: a river; bottom land in the river's flood plain; a railroad that runs through the town; woods, hills, and marshes; farm houses (your key should distinguish between independently owned farms and tenant farms that are not owned by the farmers who work the land); and four smaller towns.
Town Map: white part of town, African-American part of town, town square with courthouse in the middle of the square, residential streets, a cotton gin and warehouse, churches, and cemeteries.