Since Trump’s election the centre of gravity in the Republican Party has moved in the direction of the lower-middle and working classes. As ballots in the November 6 midterms are cast and tallied, a guide to the lineage of the lubbers, hicks, crackers and obsquatulators who may well decide it
On a Hudson Valley day in 1993, during a course I was running, I alluded to class in America and was politely contradicted by a student: “Ours is a classless society”—this was at Vassar, one of the Seven Sisters, Jacqueline Kennedy’s college. I mentioned the Winthrops, Adamses, Cabots, Lodges, Quincys and Thayers, New England names so far up the class ladder that they wouldn’t be caught dead in the social pages, but she was a scholarship girl from out west and hadn’t heard of them. Some of the others were related to them.
The American underclass goes back further than any of those names, to the late 1500s. Nancy Isenberg has written what claims to be the first book exclusively devoted to it. There are countless histories of the American working class and of poverty in America, but this book is about “white trash”. The category is folded in with, if not entirely co-extensive with, the poorest white urban and rural populations in the South (the term is not generally applied in the North or the West). It requires a set of descriptors all to be present, and Isenberg never delineates these clearly: bottom-class Anglo-Saxons, poorly or averagely educated, with few resources, in a stable mode of being (they are not becoming anything), fixed or transient, rural and urban-peripheral, careless in demeanour and manners.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant, now on sale.
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The early British colonial settlements in America, particularly in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas but also in New England, were largely developed by the use of unfree white labour—indentured servants (classed as chattels, movable goods and property, their contracts saleable and inheritable) and transported convicts (vast numbers; for an upbeat novelistic account read Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders: Moll, a criminal, and her criminal mother, were at separate times dumped in Virginia). This was an underclass seen as expendable human waste. It grew rapidly with inbound accretions through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was early viewed as a permanent breed: “waste people” was a common term for them, unwanted and unsalvageable. In each era the American mainstream distanced itself from its white trash, to whom were attached memorable labels: “lubbers”, “clay-eaters”, “crackers”, “rubbish”, “rednecks”.
From the time of Elizabeth I and James I, promoters of colonial settlement had to sell their idea to potential investors, whose purposes (in Isenberg’s words) settlement served:
In grand fashion, promoters imagined America not as an Eden of opportunity but as a giant rubbish heap that could be transformed into productive terrain. Expendable people—waste people—would be unloaded from England; their labor would germinate a distant wasteland. Harsh as it sounds, the idle poor, dregs of society, were to be sent thither simply to throw down manure and die in a vacuous muck. Before it became that “City upon a Hill,” America was in the eyes of sixteenth-century adventurers a foul, weedy wilderness—a “sinke hole” suited to ill-bred commoners.
John White in The Planter’s Plea (1630) put it succinctly: “Colonies ought to be Emunctories or Sinkes of States; to drain away the filth.”
The “Pilgrims”? A term not popularised until 1794—and from the 1630s only a minority were coming to Massachusetts for religious reasons, by which time a tight class hierarchy of “stations” had been established, from governing elite to domestic and indentured servants—plenty of those. “Plymouth Rock”? Discovered, if that’s the word, and designated as such in the late eighteenth century. “Thanksgiving”? A holiday invented during the Civil War to promote the struggling poultry industry, the “first Thanksgiving” “said” to have taken place in 1621.
Disregarding the intriguing lost colony of Roanoke founded in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh under royal charter, and whatever the character of its men and women was or became, one moves a little forward to the first years of Virginia’s Jamestown, founded in 1607, a bizarre place. People sat around inside the garrison, defecating in public spaces, starving and sickening, dropping like flies, or being given the drop for stealing vegetables, blaspheming and other bad things. The labourers and their children were treated by the authorities as commodities. Survivors lived on snakes and boiled their shoe leather for sustenance. Some deserted to the Indians. One man murdered his wife and then ate her, others dined on the naturally deceased. However, as all this was during the years 1609–10, in the midst of a terrible drought, it does seem unfair to imply that a considerable number of these unfortunates were white trash, though doubtless some were.
If Jamestown seems depressing, consider the more willing inhabitants who some years later settled south of there, in North Carolina’s Albemarle County, dominated by a dank and noxious, mosquito-ridden, cypress-forested quagmire of 2200 square miles known as the Great Dismal Swamp, through whose sunnier and less-soggy borderlands a scattering of Southern white trash—swamp trash—first begins to define itself in ways more familiar to us. Whereas South Carolina had a social hierarchy headed by a small oligarchy of wealth (based on slave labour), able to impose on its white society certain behavioural standards, its northern sibling, also known as “poor Carolina”, was different. “Surely there is no place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N. Carolina,” William Byrd II wrote in History of the Dividing Line (1728). “It approaches nearer to the Description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions, and the Slothfulness of the People.” The London- and Charleston-based proprietors of these lands hoped to recoup their investments in part via the quitrents (land tax) that their widely scattered tenants were supposed to pay, but there were two flaws in the reasoning: why would they pay? And if they were minded to, could they pay? Unsurprisingly, in 1729 the proprietors of this region gave up on the idea and sold their original grant to the British government.
At that time, of North Carolina’s population of just under 36,000, the great majority were on small grants of land or owned no land at all. Most of the poorer households, of course, had no slaves or indentured servants, and many had no sons to help develop the land. Already by 1709 the poorest of the squatters in Albemarle had been petitioning “your honers” for tax exemption because their land was no better than sand. An Anglican minister visited the district and reported a population “so careless and uncleanly” that there was “little difference between the corn in the horse’s manger and the bread on their tables”. The region was “overrun with sloth and poverty”, disorder everywhere. It was beyond rule.
Captain John Barnwell was sent there from South Carolina in 1711 to put down the local Indians. Disappointed of a sizeable land grant in payment, he sided with the Indians against the settlers, describing the latter as “the most cowardly Blockheads that ever God created & must be used like negros if you expect any good of them”. From the north, Virginia’s Governor Alexander Spotswood lamented Albemarle’s “total absence of Religion”; it was “the sinke of America, the Refuge of Renegadoes”. The men, William Byrd noted, were averse to labour, sleeping through the morning, sitting about smoking their pipes through the afternoon, preferring to “loiter away their lives, like Solomon’s sluggards”. Any work was done by the women.
Byrd came across Cornelius Keith, who with his wife and six children inhabited a roofless shack like a cattle pen; at night they slept under the hay. Byrd could not believe that Keith had chosen this life. The man had a skilled trade, good swamp-edge land and strong arms, yet he preferred to live worse than the “bog-trotting Irish”. Byrd had discovered a new kind of Englishman, or English American. He referred to this region as “Lubberland”. Productive only in begetting children, its squatters were marked by their “cadaverous complexion” and “lazy, creeping habit”. From eating swine they contracted “the yaws”, with symptoms matching those of syphilis: their noses and palates rotted, giving them hideously deformed flat faces. They wandered around with open sores on their bodies. Many seemed “to grunt rather than speak”. In their “porcivorous” country these folk were content to forage and fornicate. North Carolina’s unfortunate governor, Gabriel Johnson, described his people in 1737 as “the meanest, most rustic and squalid part of the species”. Forty years later a traveller found them unable to tell the name of the place where they lived, or in which direction the next family lived.
The familiar, upbeat vision of eighteenth-century Americans as presented in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) or Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-82, but published later) must be balanced against the observations of the celebrated naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (1749). “Swamp creatures” multiplied in his debilitating America, “moist plants, reptiles, and insects, and all animals that wallow in the mire” of a godforsaken wilderness where men devolved and only the hog truly thrived. Even Thomas Jefferson viewed the lowest classes of whites as human trash. He conceived a scheme of generous scholarships for poor children of demonstrated ability. “By this means,” he wrote, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.”
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, 20 per cent of Americans were living between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi, their migration there largely unregulated. The poor backwoodsman of these parts, Isenberg points out,
was a homespun philosopher, an independent spirit, and a strong and courageous man who shunned fame and wealth. But turn him over and he became the white savage, a ruthless brawler and eye-gouger. This unwholesome type lived a brute existence in a dingy log cabin, with yelping dogs at his heels, a haggard wife, and a mongrel brood of brown and yellow brats to complete the sorry scene.
This was “cracker country”. Squatters and crackers were landless, transient migrants living “off the grid”, seldom sending their children to school, rarely seen at church. They might grow crops, cut down timber, and hunt and fish—on land they didn’t own. “Their lineage, as it were, could be traced back to North Carolina, and before that to Virginia’s rejects and renegades.” Andrew Jackson, whose men slaughtered hundreds of British redcoats near New Orleans in 1815 and left them to rot in the swamps, became the first President to have risen from something close to white trash, and his speech and behaviour reflected it, though he owned land and some slaves; and Tennessee’s political ranks included Davy Crockett. In the eyes of easterners, both were Tennessee crackers. Jackson’s wife Rachel, a divorcée from the backwoods, smoked cigars and a corncob pipe. Crockett was self-taught, became a Congressman and died at the Alamo in 1833. Rising from the squatter class and defending their rights, he boasted he was “the savagest critter you ever did see”, could “run like a fox, swim like a eel, yell like an Indian, and swallow a nigger whole”. He could whip his weight in wildcats too, and as if that wasn’t enough, he’d jump higher and “squat lower” than “all the fellers either side of the Alleghany hills”. In Washington he was regarded as a vulgar sideshow, “a dancing bear dressed up in coat and breeches”.
Down in Mississippi the trash were called “screamers” from their love of whooping and squealing, in Kentucky they were “corn crackers” from their cheap diet of cracked corn, in Indiana they were “Hoosiers” (etymology obscure). The wild ways of the Hoosier were set forth in the 1833 poem “The Hoosier’s Nest”: filthy cabin, no manners, incessant breeding, forever running off at the mouth (“Jimber-jawed”), “ring-tailed roarers”, boastful and violent kickers and hair-pullers. A Hoosier was referred to as “chewed up” if his ear, nose or lip had been bitten off.
They were obsquatulators one and all. The term was defined in the “Cracker Dictionary” published in the Salem Gazette in 1830: “Obsquatulate. To mosey, or to abscond.” The local distinctions were without much difference, as Daniel Hundley’s essay “Poor White Trash” in Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860) points out: “Everywhere they are just alike, possess pretty much the same characteristics, the same vernacular, the same boorishness, and the same habits … Everywhere, Poor White Trash”. Increasingly they were seen as the diseased and degenerate products of a “notorious race”, identifiable by their physical defects, their skin the colour of tallow, their addiction to cheap spirits and their general dirtiness.
In the wake of the Civil War and into the twentieth century, well-meaning liberals applied their minds to a range of possible cures for this embarrassing and endemic class phenomenon, from the Darwinian principle of live-and-let-die, to removal of children into asylums, and all the way to the advocacy of forced sterilisation and application of Francis Galton’s brave new science of eugenics. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Buck v Bell (1927), summed up what had been in the minds of many for decades:
It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, had many prominent followers in the United States, and still has, in effect if not intention: Planned Parenthood, which is less about planning than execution, has achieved a massive reduction of America’s black offspring.
With respect to the poorest whites, however, the progressives’ lethal schemes largely remained dreams. The white underclass always had its southern Democratic Party defenders in Congress, men not of the rubbish but in Washington because of its support—for instance James Vardaman from Mississippi. On travels around the state giving stump speeches, he would turn up on a “cracker cart” in the middle of a line of cattle, mocking his opponent who had referred to Vardaman’s supporters as “an ignorant herd”. During his successful run for the Senate, he rode into a town on the back of an ox adorned with flags and streamers emblazoned with the words “redneck” and “lowdown”. He claimed to represent the “white trash” and “hillbillies” as if he were one of them. Looking and sounding like a carnival barker in his cowboy hat and white suits, he railed against the still-surviving planter elite of Mississippi (who despised him), and castigated President Teddy Roosevelt for having entertained Booker T. Washington at the White House: Roosevelt was a “coon-flavored miscegenationist”, his Presidential mansion “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stables”. Years later, the son of Vardaman’s Democratic primary opponent, LeRoy Percy, remembered the crowds:
They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They were undiluted Anglo-Saxons. They were the sovereign voter. It was so horrible it seemed unreal.
Nasty as Vardaman was, it was probably thanks partly to legislators like him that liberal promoters of eugenics never got to operate on Southern white trash, who they thought of as degenerates. In 1904 Charles Davenport, their leading scientist, established what became the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island. Isenberg says:
He identified two breeding grounds for diseased and degenerate Americans: the hovel and the poorhouse. The hovel was familiar, whether one identified it with the cracker’s cabin, the low-downer’s shebang, or the poor white pigsty. Echoing James Gilmore’s Down in Tennessee (1864), Davenport’s work expressed a grave concern over indiscriminate mating that occurred in isolated shacks. Brothers slept with sisters, fathers with daughters, and the fear of inbred stock seemed real. His attack on the poorhouse also pointed south. Mississippi did not provide separate facilities for men and women in their asylums until 1928. Poorhouses allowed criminals and prostitutes to produce all manner of weak-minded delinquents and bastards, he believed.
Many doctors and other professionals, progressive idealists all, were advocating castration of criminals and sterilisation of the diseased and degenerate. One Michigan legislator proposed that his state simply kill them off. A bright eugenicist, putting the cart before the horse, conceived the idea (based on deterrence and family fondness) of dealing with convicted murderers by executing their grandfathers. There were sterilisation laws on the books of twenty-seven states by 1931, with a wide range of specified types needing the knife. Harvard professor Frank William Taussig, in his Principles of Economics (1921), cut to the chase: if society would not seize the nettle and subject the degenerate to “chloroform once and for all”, at least they could be forcibly prevented from “propagating their kind”. All this in the land of the free—though it’s probable that by the early 1930s some of these idealists were looking to the USSR for inspiration, until Stalin literally killed off eugenics over there.
More hopeful prescriptions for alleviating the situation of the underclass emerged during the New Deal administration. Exemplary was Howard Odum, a sociologist from the University of North Carolina, author of Southern Regions of the United States (1936), the Roosevelt administration’s primary resource for regional planning in the South. Aside from its valuable revelations about the extent of soil erosion, it offered a new way of looking at poor whites. They had a culture—“folkways” of their own. They were not hopeless or degenerate. They could develop more meaningful lives by drawing on their own folk values rather than unrealistically trying to become a second-rate white-collar class. What they required was access to education, and their region needed a more diverse and technologically advanced economy. This prescription was set out by Odum fully fifty years before the development of the Sunbelt economy that has since transformed the South. His work, however, came under attack for patronising its subjects, who weren’t listening anyhow.
Isenberg doesn’t know much about Louisiana or, if she has been there, she has not travelled far beyond New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Otherwise she wouldn’t have endorsed the establishment view that populist Governor Huey P. Long “plundered the people at will”. Certainly the middle-class and moneyed people whom he taxed hated him, and he was a corrupt demagogue, though he did provide them with a new university, massive bridge works and a vastly extended mileage of paved roads. What Long plundered most of all was Standard Oil, who the poor thought had it coming. The material source of Long’s corruption was not the “hicks” with whom he identified (though he was from a well-off family). He fulfilled his promises to them with a massive program of new schools, free textbooks and decent country roads, all funded by massive borrowing, and is still revered among poor whites today, as anyone knows who has driven down the back roads and spoken with any of the people there.
By the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Hollywood was mining gold from the hilly folkways of Appalachia, and as Marlon Brando memorably pointed out in an interview, Hollywood never saw a stereotype it didn’t like (except one). “We’ve seen the nigger and the Greaseball,” he told Larry King, “we’ve seen the Chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap”, and to his list one could add the tactically-suicidal Redskins riding stupidly around circled wagons, the rag-head, and others that come to mind. Suddenly in the 1960s Hollywood discovered the Appalachian hick and his family, offering them up for laughs in The Beverly Hillbillies (and in a dark form in Deliverance, with its white-trash stereotypes including an inbred idiot-savant banjo player and scenes of the grossest sexual debauchery). In episode after episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, as this book reminds us, “Granny and her kin were stymied by the science of the doorbell and the unbearable complexity of kitchen appliances, giving viewers the saddest sort of reminder of the culture shock experienced by the real sharecroppers in FSA resettlement communities”, the story of which Hollywood mostly steered clear of, except in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). There is also the sympathetic scene with the dispossessed farmer and his family in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The Beverly Hillbillies banked on Americans’ extreme class-consciousness. There was some truth in the inability of the poorest country folk to sophisticate their behaviour, as exemplified by Elvis Presley, who used his new-found wealth to buy the Graceland mansion in Memphis, bring his parents in, buy his mother a pink Cadillac and build her a chicken coop in the backyard.
The poorest of white trash, as everyone knows, live in trailer parks. Here there are no roots or privacy, just “deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringe of the metropolis”, as Isenberg puts it, with “folks who appear on the way out, not up: retired persons, migrant workers, and the troubled poor”. In the late 1950s “more mobile homes were built than prefabricated homes”. Advertisers for trailers stressed mortgage-free “carefree living”, no lawn-mowing, no sweeping of the front porch, no fixing the shingles or the plumbing. By the late 1950s pulp fiction was mining these dumps with titles like Trailer Tramp, Cracker Girl and Trailer Park Girls, featuring low-down sex and voyeurism. In 1969 the thirteen Appalachian states were receiving 40 per cent of mobile home shipments and the cheapest models ($5000) were going into the hills—today’s version of the squatter’s hovel.
The North-Eastern liberal press has always despised these people. In 1957, Little Rock’s Central High School (but not the middle-class high schools) was forcibly desegregated under the rifles of the 101st Airborne Division and the federalised Arkansas National Guard. Press photographers delighted in capturing shots of the nasty, ignorant whites protesting against this. Accompanying articles mentioned the “many in overalls”, the “tobacco-chewing white men”, the “scrawny, rednecked man” who screamed insults at the soldiers. These men were accompanied by their “slattern housewives” and “harpies”. As one reporter put it, “Hell, look at them. They’re just poor white trash, mostly.” Later on, similar protesters in Nashville were described by Time as “vacant-faced women in curlers and loose-hanging blouses”, and there was the tattooed waitress hurling rocks. These were the kind of people consigned to damnation in the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), highly praised for its message, made stronger through caricature.
By the 1970s some white-trash elements were coming out and flaunting their culture, though it seems a stretch to say (as Isenberg does) that NASCAR racers epitomised it. Certainly their ace driver, Junior Johnson from North Carolina, was formerly an outlaw of sorts, running bootleg whisky flat-out through the wooded hills and valleys, staying just ahead of the ATF men. To the cheers of rebel yells from spectators downing beers, the stock cars at NASCAR circuited the tracks at 175 miles an hour, their drivers just down from the hills and soaking up mountains of cash from Detroit. However, a lot of these men were just “good ol’ boys”, not necessarily trash. We need a few more fine distinctions in this book.
Country music, too, displays pride in culture and helps others enjoy it vicariously. However, Nashville is not a white-trash phenomenon, it’s above that. Dolly Parton, a genius from a poor-white background who deliberately dresses in a flashy-trashy way, but was never white trash, composed her own songs, many based around her early life, as did Loretta Lynn. Parton celebrated impoverished Appalachia in “Coat of Many Colors” (1971), among other work. However, that song is about rural poverty, not human waste. A cleaned-up version of river trash features in Alan Jackson’s music video “Chattahoochee” (1992), but for a hard-core white-trash performance one goes to Gretchen Wilson’s music video “Redneck Woman” (2004), featuring the singer driving 4x4s through the muck, life in unseemly trailer parks, and raucous scenes in a sex-fuelled honky-tonk tavern:
Some people look down on me, but I don’t give a rip.
I’ll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip.
You might think I’m trashy, a little too hard-core,
But in my neck of the woods I’m just the girl next door.
Hey, I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high-class broad,
I’m just a product of my raising, I say “Hey, y’all” and “Yee-haw”.
She buys seductive underwear off “a Wal-Mart shelf half-price” because “I don’t need no designer tag to make my man want me”.
Merle Haggard’s music video “America First” (2005), his isolationist song opposing an Iraq war that was further impoverishing a derelict America, speaks for these people and was eleven years ahead of its time politically. Anyone watching it can see in which direction the underclass was moving even then. Donald Trump almost certainly saw it at some point before his campaign, and has frequently echoed its line, “Our highways and bridges are falling apart”. Gretchen Wilson’s music video “Politically Uncorrect” (2005), in which Haggard appears with her, is from the same year and on the same political page.
Over the past forty years there have been three people at or very near the top of the American political heap who to varying degrees were associated with the concept of “white trash”. One was Jimmy Carter, “first Cracker President”. He grew up in rural poverty, at least for a while, though he later owned a substantial peanut farm with sharecroppers working it. His embarrassing brother Billy, who brewed “Billy Beer” and said he would have “hid out in the swamp” in the Civil War, continually reminded people of the background. As Roy Blount Jr. observed (in Crackers, 1980):
The first Cracker President should have been a mixture of Jimmy and Billy … Billy’s hoo-Lord-what-the-hell-get-out-the-way attitude heaving up under Jimmy’s prudent righteousness—or Jimmy’s idealism heaving up under Billy’s sense of human limitations—and forming a nice-and-awful compound like life in Georgia.
Life in Georgia, though, is less a compound of classes than an assortment, as I discovered while staying with Philip Alston and his wife Elkin at their home on Georgia’s Sea Island in 1986. The extremes of the social spectrum in Georgia are mostly very separate. Alston, senior partner in a top Atlanta law firm, had been Carter’s personal appointment as US Ambassador to Australia in the late 1970s. On a stroll around a battlefield that Elkin told me “we” had restored, I asked who “we” were. “The Colonial Dames of Georgia,” she replied. I asked whether it was like the Daughters of the American Revolution. “Why, no. It’s far more exclusive.”
The second president with roots often associated with white trash, more for political effect than legitimately, was Bill Clinton, who escaped them once and for all when he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He grew up in a small clapboard house in the Arkansas town of Hope, under the eyes of grandparents while his mother was at nursing school, and had to suffer the violent and drunken behaviour of a gambling stepfather. Clinton loved cholesterol-rich hamburgers and fast food generally, and his trysts with Monica Lewinsky were worthy of a trailer park, as was his alleged rape of Juanita Smith/Hickey/Broaddrick, but he was never quite down to trash. The GOP’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 2008, Sarah Palin, had characteristics that associated her with the category too … and then there were the offspring.
Since the election of Donald Trump the centre of gravity in the Republican Party has moved in the direction of the lower-middle and working classes, even as the Democratic Party has sprouted its own populist wing—socialist, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, inimical to the party’s establishment. Within this fragmenting political world, Trump is often associated by his enemies with white trash and their prejudices. The crowds at his rallies, however, are visibly middle- and working-class, not white trash, and the wilder extremes of the Right that also admire him—the militia movements and the white separatists—are not white trash either. How much support he gets from trailer parks and the like has not been polled, though given their probable attitudes to the political establishment, perhaps 99 per cent. Isenberg has added a preface to the paperback edition, offering useful pointers to the reasons for the appeal.
This is a valuable book. It actually tells us things we never knew before.
Philip Ayres, described by Dyson Heydon as “one of the best biographers this country has ever produced”, has lived in the United States for extended periods. In addition to holding visiting professorial posts at Vassar College and Boston University, he has spent considerable time in the South, particularly in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana