As author Jacob Abbott traveled through Virginia and the Carolinas in 1835, he experienced something that he described as Southern hospitality.
Some people said that Abbott was the first one to coin that term as he was astounded by how welcomed he felt in the lower eastern portion of the country; complete strangers showed a willingness to make him feel at home. He noted that “the hospitality of southerners is ... profuse.”
Now, in 2013, would Abbott feel the same way? Is hospitality still a prevalent characteristic of today's Southern culture?
Southern hospitality was really just a fact of life during the Civil War era.
USC Aiken professor and author Dr. Tom Mack said that the South was not as urbanized as the North, especially during the War Between the States. The majority of the South was still quite rural, and there were few to no public houses, hotels or inns such as those in the North. Travelers to the South found themselves spending their nights in private residences.
Mack added that Southern hospitality can also be connected to religious practices, citing the story of the good Samaritan in the Bible and the idea of helping that stranger on the road.
As time passed, the concept of Southern hospitality seemed to stick.
Dr. Robert Freymeyer, an Aiken resident and professor of sociology at Presbyterian College, quoted John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, the authors of “1,001 Things Everyone Should Know about The South.” The Reeds described Southern hospitality as “legendary” and that Southern manners “have inspired a good deal of comment, usually favorable.” Southern hospitality appears to be something with which both people of the North and South identify when thinking of the states below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Freymeyer said the traditions and historical sense of Southerners are strong. He said although globalization and migration has changed a lot of aspects of the South, the notion of hospitality seems to still exist.
David McLeod is the owner of Social Inc., an organization that instills manners and life skills in young men and women in the CSRA. Classes include social dancing, but it's considered more of an exercise in teamwork than an art.
McLeod said many of the parents he has met over the years strived to teach their children the value of Southern hospitality, and Social Inc. reinforces what's being taught at home. He said they are combating a variety of distractions affecting current generations, including television, social media and movies.
“I certainly don't believe that Southern hospitality is dying,” McLeod said. “If it's anything, parents want it more because they see these forces working against their kids.”
Dr. Charmaine Wilson, communications professor at USC Aiken, works closely with today's generation of young adults and feels they are managing to keep aspects of Southern hospitality alive.
Wilson is originally from Montana and lived in many places before she moved to Aiken. Moving to a Southern city was a bit of culture shock, Wilson said. People would wait and hold doors open for her, even when she was quite far from the building. She noticed many students saying, “Yes, ma'am” or “Yes, sir.”
“My observation is that our students from this area are very polite and well-mannered by and large,” Wilson said. “Manners are still emphasized and important in Southern families.”
A Northerner's perspective
Elliott Levy, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, is originally from Maine and said he's experienced nothing but Southern hospitality since he moved to Aiken.
Levy said there are several residents who have helped preserve that bit of Southern culture. He mentioned the late Ola Hitt, who took World War II and Korean War veterans into her home. The veterans had nowhere to go, and Hitt made her home theirs, similarly reflecting the stories from the Civil War era.
He said that although Hitt has passed, the lessons of selflessness and treating others with kindness are still alive. He said Army Maj. Benjamin Van Meter, originally from Oregon, was based at Fort Gordon before heading to Afghanistan but found a home in Aiken.
Van Meter wrote in a letter published in the museum's newsletter that he had received a lot of support from the area through the many care boxes that were spread around to other soldiers and airmen stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The generosity inspired him to fly the South Carolina flag at the airfield.
“What comes from the heart is really hospitality,” Levy said.
Levy also mentioned The Willcox, about which Southern hospitality is always mentioned in the magazines that recognize the award-winning hotel.
“It's the hospitality that we offer in our stores and museums,” Levy said. “It's part of the ambience of Aiken.”
Southern hospitality in generations
Sissy Brodie and Cody Anderson come from two very different generations, but Southern hospitality is equally important to them both.
To Brodie, who is a native of Aiken, Southern hospitality is warm, welcoming and all about treating others with respect.
“There's no secret to it; no secret ingredient,” Brodie said.
Brodie has hosted tea parties for several decades and has trained young ladies on how to be good hostesses.
Brodie also believes in sharing her home with others. For years, she'd take in exhausted traveling cyclists and let them stay in her guest bedroom for the night.
She makes a concerted effort to interact with people, whether she's grocery shopping or strolling around downtown Aiken.
Brodie believes that many people in the South still believe in treating people respectfully, engaging in social interaction with others and having tableside manners.
Anderson, 26, is also a native Aikenite and said he's Southern by the grace of God. He said that Southern hospitality is the greatest asset to his heritage and lifestyle.
Recently, Anderson spent a week in Manhattan and noticed that the pace of life in New York is very different. Anderson said he made sure to greet any waiter or retailer he came across by asking how their day was going. He watched their faces light up because someone simply acknowledged their presence.
Anderson said that Southern hospitality is still alive – especially in Aiken.
“I think it defines us,” Anderson said. “It goes back to the golden rule. Southern people believe that we're here for such a short time, we have to value life. We have to enjoy it and make the most of it by loving those around us.”
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010.
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