Power of the Southern Porch

Power of the Southern Porch

21st-century observance of the veranda’s historical magnitude

Words by Candace Dantes
Photos by Kevin Dantes

It has made a cameo in some of the most iconic Southern films: 

“Mudbound.” “Selma.” “Forrest Gump.” “Fried Green Tomatoes.” “Steel Magnolias.” “Gone with the Wind.”

Applaudable movie credits carrying on for generations. 

The porch remains an architectural hallmark that continues to endure in the American South and pop culture.

Most distinctive are those that anchored plantation houses, commanding pre-Civil War days, when African-American labor sustained an agricultural economy. 

Antebellum and colonial porches sheltered stories of a complicated cultural, social, and political history—unbearable, adored, and oftentimes romanticized events.

“Southern porches come with so many past experiences for us,” said Georgia Benjamin-Smith, storyteller at Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, Georgia.

The enslaved constructed porches onto their quarters, originating the idea to white owners as far back as the 18th century.

Porches were a plain indicator of social status and quality of life. Benjamin-Smith, the 81-year-old small-town historian recounts porch life in the 1940s and ’50s as if it were yesterday--but nothing close to those Old South motion pictures on grandiose estates.

For Black Southern families, porches signified an escape from the realities of racism. They were somewhat of a protective barrier.

Benjamin-Smith’s family members lived on what’s now Willie Bailey Street in a wooden house with a wooden-plank porch, one that creaked with each entrance and exit. Yet it ironically provided this sense of therapy, she said.

Stories about Black Southern porches paralleled one another throughout the Southeast region. They typically sat high off the ground, were mounted on bricks, and extended the width of the house. 

The front porch is where pressing and casual conversation sparked. High-back rocking chairs and that traditional hanging swing gave adult discussions comfort to stretch out. 

Porches welcomed silent moments and people watching as well. Some Black residents exercised it to ping-pong information to neighbors, the local news about what was cooking in the kitchen next door.

Children frequently imagined the space as an outdoor classroom for homework and to play games. It was where moms fashioned hair-braiding styles. Benjamin-Smith personally used the front porch to scissor the Sunday newspaper into paper dolls.

The back porch got chores and hobbies done. “We mostly shelled peas and peeled peaches back there,” she said.

The neighborhood ladies would gather to sew quilts on the back porch, gossiping and reminiscing. Whichever location, the porch pulled Black families together during the good and bad.

Moving into urban Southern settings, early 20th-century bungalows and houses of middle-class white families featured porches of more stylish plans. 

Leila Ross Wilburn, one of Georgia’s first female registered architects, designated the porch as “a summer living room,” featuring massive columns railing the front and ample tables and chairs for socials. Her two-story home designs even offered a sleeping porch from above.

“Although most travelers are mesmerized by the elegant two-story, white-columned porches of the South’s Greek Revival homes—and later interpretations of these grand homes—most experienced the one-story front or back porch,” said James P. Marshall Jr., president of the Eatonton-Putnam County Historical Society. 

Regardless of the occupant or occasion, porches have always taken climate and nature into consideration. Before air conditioning debuted, the porch’s primary intention: shade. Left open to draw a breeze. Best achieved early mornings or late afternoons. Soon, screened porches of one-story houses became a widespread response to mosquitos and gnats.

However, the Reconstruction Era razed much of plantation porch lifestyles. When older generations passed away, those family members who followed either moved away from home or weren’t in a position to keep ancestral properties alive. Many left homes, porches, and American South lifestyles behind. Swampland and woodland took ownership.

Unfortunately, the scale-down in house sizes after World War II resulted in a reduction in porches, Marshall said. They became more decorative, rarely accommodating outdoor furniture or even room to entertain.

Some Southern homes converted into university buildings or commercial establishments, limiting the feature’s former uses. Now mostly memories.

The porch has recently attracted a new cohort of historians, societies, museums, and libraries wanting to preserve its structure and the stories told from them. Restoration initiatives and TV shows have been in steady production throughout the South.

Bordering Putnam is Milledgeville in Baldwin County, which was the capital of Georgia during the Civil War and home to mammoth porticos. One being the 1838-built The Rockwell House (rockwellhousega.com). Named after former owner and lawyer Col. Samuel Rockwell, the loud-yellow historic home stood neglected for the past two decades. Three young investors purchased it in 2019. Now fully restored, the property’s journey recently aired on HGTV’s “Life Under Renovation.”

“As more people discover the joy of living in the many historic residential districts that still exist, porches provide a place to escape the rushed pace of modern living,” said Marshall. “A place to enjoy an evening cocktail. Great hospitality when friends and neighbors gather to discuss matters at hand.”