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What is the Southside?

In his study Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945-1966, historian J. Harvie Wilkinson noted, "The Southside defies exact geographical designation." Wilkinson used "topography, population characteristics, congressional districting lines, and political history" to define the region. Generally speaking, the

Southside refers to those counties in the Piedmont of Virginia that lie south of the James River. The region extends roughly from Nansemond County (now Suffolk) west to the city of Lynchburg, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.      

    In the nineteenth century, the Southside was the heart of Virginia’s tobacco belt and the northernmost tip of the South’s black belt, the region extending from Virginia to Mississippi that focused on cotton cultivation and contained large numbers of African Americans. During the twentieth century, the Southside, an area of gentle, rolling hills, continued to be predominantly rural and agricultural. Farmers concentrated on growing tobacco and corn, as well as raising livestock. With its large African American population, the Southside elected several black men to public office in the late nineteenth century, including John Mercer Langston, who was elected to Congress in 1888. When Virginia Democrats rewrote the state constitution to disfranchise African Americans in 1902, the Southside quickly became a stronghold of the Democratic party political machine, run by Senator Harry F. Byrd from the 1920s through the 1960s. The Organization, as the Democratic party was called, relied upon "county courthouse rings," groups of local officials, to control voters and to dispense its political patronage. For much of the twentieth century, the Southside corresponded with the Fourth Congressional District in Virginia.