Southerners of the Year 2018
From visionary entrepreneurs to philanthropic football players, from preservationists to pitmasters, these 25 Southerners represent the best of our region
Austin and T.J. Perine
In Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, an epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement, a plaque quoting Anne Frank reads: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Just two blocks away, 4-year-old Austin Perine is doing just that. With his trademark red cape, Austin (also known as “President Austin”) regularly hands out sandwiches and water bottles to the homeless outside Firehouse Ministries. He is aided by his dad, T.J.. After seeing an abandoned panda cub on television, Austin asked his father whether people could be abandoned too. The resulting conversation moved Austin to use his allowance to help the homeless in Birmingham. Now, their mission has grown beyond the block. T.J. and Austin have started a fund-raiser toward building a shelter of their own under Show Love Inc., reflecting Austin’s motto: “Don’t forget to show love.” Since he has been featured on CNN, SportsCenter, and the CBS Evening News, they have raised over $80,000 through the foundation’s GoFundMe page, surpassing their original goal.
Henry County, Kentucky
In more than 50 years on his farm—Lanes Landing in Henry County, Kentucky—84-year-old Wendell Berry has harvested some of the nation’s most profound and provocative work on agriculture and nature. Called the South’s Henry David Thoreau, Berry has examined his corner of Kentucky in hundreds of works, some as large as novels and others as delicate as an eight-line poem, and he has addressed topics as overwhelming as farm policy and as ethereal as rain in winter. (All were written longhand, because Berry has never owned a computer.) Earlier this year, some of his best-known, still-relevant writings were collected into The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, both a modern introduction to and a revisitation of his passionate perspective on the natural world and America’s agrarian roots. Meanwhile, Vermont’s Sterling College, in conjunction with The Berry Center, has developed The Wendell Berry Farming Program, which brings students to Henry County to pursue coursework in sustainable farming.
Like Mayberry or Yoknapatawpha County, fictional places become vessels to hold the distillation of American identity. In the mythical Mississippi town Bois Sauvage, based on her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, author Jesmyn Ward doesn’t filter her extraction. Thick with the contradictory feelings she has toward the state’s beauty and brutal history, Ward’s work builds on the true experience of her family, which she explored in her memoir, Men We Reaped, especially in the story of her brother’s death. Realized in her first two novels, including Salvage the Bones, Bois Sauvage is also the scene of her most recently published work, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Both titles received National Book Awards and made Ward the first woman to win the prestigious literary prize twice. She also received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as a “genius grant,” to pursue future work, including her next novel, focused on an enslaved woman as she is sent from South Carolina to New Orleans.
Jen Ripple's effect on fly fishing didn't begin intentionally. While she was working at the University of Michigan, impulsively took a class through a local fly shop for something to do during the winter. What she caught was an obsession. After meeting the editor of the fishing magazine A Tight Loop during a fly-tying class, she took a job as the publication’s executive editor and hoped to attract women readers. But in 2013, she took her mission to the next level and started her own digital magazine, made by and for women fly-fishers. Last year, Ripple and her nine-person staff put out the first print issue of DUN and followed it up with four more, each highlighting locations, guides, essays, and even fishing gear designed for women.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, trial lawyer-turned-hotelier Liz Lambert has seen her surroundings—in her case, Austin’s South Congress Avenue—transform from a stark stretch of pavement to a Technicolor promised land. Before her flagship Hotel San José became the beacon of the city’s most desirable address (now lined with juice bars, indie bookstores, and restaurant patios) South Congress was a seedy spot for unsavory characters. Still, Lambert looked at the property with possibility. After asking the owners on a whim if they would ever sell it, she suddenly found herself in a dizzying storm: Owning her own business came with daily drama from local drug dealers and prostitutes. With a business plan, a few intrepid investors, and a whole lot of courage, Lambert gave South Congress not only the hotel but also its heart. Now, she owns some of Texas’ most iconic destinations, from El Cosmico, the Airstream-dotted dream of a campground in Marfa, to San Antonio’s Hotel Havana. Her aesthetic—one part desert mystique, one part design-minded minimalism—has become a lifestyle with guests who buy the hotels’ custom serape robes and desert-scented incense to take home with them. Last year, Lambert opened her first international outpost, Hotel San Cristóbal, alongside the Pacific Ocean in Todos Santos, B.C.S. Mexico. In June, San Francisco got its own taste of Texas with the completion of a renovation of another reimagined motor court, the Phoenix Hotel.
Blanton Museum of Art
From transposed candy-colored shapes to a brightly hued stack of squares, Ellsworth Kelly’s hard-edge paintings and color fields have been projected in art history classes and displayed at museums for decades. But the New York-based artist’s final work came to fruition in Austin, Texas, in February, thanks to the Blanton Museum of Art’s director, Simone Wicha. Donors close to Kelly approached Wicha about building the artist’s color-field sculpture, an idea 30 years in the making, at the Blanton on The University of Texas at Austin’s campus. But this was no modest piece of public art. Together, Wicha and Kelly turned his vision of an arched chapel with prismatic, tinted windows into a hyperdetailed architectural plan. Its name: Austin. Unfortunately, Kelly passed away soon after the groundbreaking, but Wicha saw the work through to its completion earlier this year. Now, Austin has become not just the city’s newest photo op but a bellwether piece that Wicha hopes will herald a new era for the artistic community.
Joel and Linda McKinney
Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank
McDowell County, West Virginia
When the late Anthony Bourdain filmed one of his last episodes of Parts Unknown in West Virginia, his first stop wasn’t a restaurant. It was the McKinney family’s table. Over a piece of Linda McKinney’s locally famous spaghetti pizza, they talked about an innovative approach that she and her son, Navy veteran Joel McKinney, have taken to end the hunger crisis in McDowell County, West Virginia. Here, much of the population is food insecure, and even the local Walmart has gone out of business. At their Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank (the only food bank in the county), the McKinneys use hydroponic towers that can grow exponentially more fresh produce—like strawberries, squash, and tomatoes—than traditional methods would yield. They’re helping provide food for up to 1,800 people a month. Joel has also started a community market to connect residents with produce sold by local growers. The food bank’s roof suffered extensive damage after heavy rains earlier in the year, and the people that rely on the organization arranged fund-raisers toward fixing it—a testament to the importance of the McKinneys’ mission. Then, later in the summer, in the season finale of the Facebook series Returning the Favor, host Mike Rowe brought a crew to the food bank that replaced the roof and donated a huge truckload of refrigerated food.
April and Lance Ledbetter and William Ferris
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Lance and April Ledbetter’s Instagram account for their record label, Dust-to-Digital, is a patchwork quilt of music history, especially of Southern song. From fuzzy footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe wailing on her electric guitar or Maybelle and Sara Carter strumming an Autoharp in the mountains to film of blues legends and Sacred Harp singers, followers can spend hours tracing sonic lineages. It’s Dust-to-Digital’s contemporary approach to resurrecting the sounds of the past that has made its reissue label so popular, even earning Grammy nominations for its collections of archival recordings. This past June, the label released a box set called Voices of Mississippi, a selection of field recordings made in Mississippi between 1966 and 1994 by William Ferris, the legendary folklorist and historian who helped develop the academic field of Southern studies. Much of the archival tapings were made in the sixties and seventies when Ferris, a native of the state, went in search of bluesmen and gospel singers during the Civil Rights Movement, but they also include interviews with writers like Barry Hannah, Alex Haley, and Alice Walker. The set has become a capstone to Ferris’ career, as he retired from teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this year at age 76—a career Hannah summarized on one of the tracks on Voices: “[William Ferris is] the one who came down and said, ‘What about our culture? What about our musicians? What about our writers? Let’s make a place for that.’ And that’s why he’s a genius.”
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
New Orleans, Louisiana
Charlie Gabriel, clarinet and saxophone player for New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, often says, “The sweetest sound that’s yet to be heard is in some child’s head.” The fourth-generation musician carried that message to Cuba in December of 2015, when he and the band’s leader (as well as bass and tuba player), Ben Jaffe, delivered instruments to students whose schools couldn’t afford them. In his hometown, Gabriel also plays an important part in student outreach, where he helps explain the history and importance of jazz to students who come to the Preservation Hall Foundation’s Kids in the Hall Field Trip program. Although Jaffe’s nickname for him is “the professor,” 86-year-old Gabriel—often dressed in a suit, fedora, and shades—exudes an effervescent energy that fuels him for a grueling tour schedule that would exhaust musicians a third his age. In honor of his birthday this year, the New Orleans City Council gave Gabriel a special proclamation recognizing his contributions to keep a true American art form playing on.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texans player J.J. Watt made use of his training to take obstacles head-on off the field. In a series of cell phone videos he posted to his Twitter account, Watt asked his followers to help him raise $200,000 (in addition to his own $100,000 pledge) through an online fund for relief organizations in his city. Instead, the beloved defensive end brought in $41.6 million. The people’s player, Watt didn’t just distribute money; he unloaded semitrucks of water and food and helped rebuild houses for displaced families, all of which earned him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in February, which the NFL gives to honor a player’s charity and volunteer work. “[This award] is about the city of Houston and its ability to overcome adversity at a time when it all seemed lost,” he said in his acceptance speech. “It is about the hundreds of thousands of people...who donated to a city they may have never been to, to people that they may never meet. But they donated simply because they saw their fellow humans going through a difficult time, and they wanted to help out.”
Rodney Scott and Dr. Howard Conyers
Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ
Charleston, South Carolina
Television Host, Pitmaster
New Orleans, Louisiana, and Manning, South Carolina
When Rodney Scott’s name appeared as a finalist for the James Beard Awards’ Best Chef: Southeast category, it marked the first time an African American pitmaster had been nominated both in the country and in a region where the black community’s contributions to barbecue endure as invaluable and immeasurable. After he won, Scott—who has grown his business from a roadside, cult-followed family restaurant in Hemingway, South Carolina, to a full-service destination on Charleston’s King Street—solidified that chef and pitmaster are equitable titles. Scott was recently featured on Nourish, a new PBS web series hosted by Dr. Howard Conyers, another expectation-erasing pitmaster, who is both a NASA rocket scientist and barbecue evangelist. While aeroelasticity engineering satisfies his mind’s technical side, slow-smoking hogs feeds his soul and connects him to his family and community, who have done the same for generations—a history he connects to through the stories on his show. So far, more than a million viewers have tuned in to watch Dr. Conyers roast cochon de lait in Cajun country and stir up gumbo with New Orleans legend Leah Chase; he plans to feature two new episodes of Nourish each month on YouTube channel.
Todd Richardson and Christopher Miner
At Memphis Grizzlies games, you can hear the NBA team’s cheer, which has become a city motto: “Believe Memphis!” In 2010, when Todd Richardson and Christopher Miner stood in front of the abandoned 1.5-million-square-foot Sears, Roebuck and Co. facility towering over North Cleveland Street, they, too, believed in a vision that others couldn’t see yet. Erected more than 90 years ago, the former warehouse and retail store employed over 1,500 people to fulfill more than 45,000 orders a day. The success led to multiple expansions, but in 1993, the campus was closed, a harbinger of a shifting economy and hard days ahead for the city. Richardson, an art history professor, and Miner, a video artist, originally set out to use the building as a home for their nonprofit, multidisciplinary contemporary arts center (Crosstown Arts), but recruited eight other health and education organizations, like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, to create a cross-industry ecosystem. Now known as Crosstown Concourse, their vision has become a “vertical urban village” including arts, education, and healthcare, as well as loft apartments, restaurants, shops, and even a local grocery store, designed to serve the existing neighborhood and attract newcomers to a comeback city.
Meherwan Irani, Asha Gomez, Maneet Chauhan, Cheetie Kumar, and Vishwesh Bhatt
Brown in the South
Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee
Just 20 years ago, the idea that chaat (a tangy-savory Indian snack mix) would become a popular restaurant dish in Oxford, Mississippi, would have sounded crazy. But chef Vishwesh Bhatt has built a bridge between Southern food and the South Indian recipes from his childhood using common ingredients (like fried okra, the base of his chaat recipe) and a shared love for big flavors. Almost 10 years after taking the helm as executive chef of Snackbar, Bhatt is still continuing to explore those connections and what it means to be both Indian in the South and a Southerner of Indian descent. Those discoveries sparked Bhatt and a new generation of chefs to share how they cook with both cultures in a dinner series called Brown in the South, including Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh, North Carolina; Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, and Decatur, Georgia; Asha Gomez of The Third Space in Atlanta; and Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville. Their collaborative dinners make for meatier exchanges about an immigrant cuisine that can often take side dish status in conversations about Southern food.
Bryan Stevenson and Catherine Coleman Flowers
Equal Justice Initiative and Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise
When the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery this April, many Southerners shared a common refrain of disbelief that a city with such a dark past before and during the Civil Rights Movement would now be home to a 6-acre memorial park to the thousands of African American lives lost to lynching in the South. The reality of the monument, blocks from the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded, is credited to Bryan Stevenson and his team of lawyers and advocates at the Equal Justice Initiative, who researched the more than 4,400 names etched into the memorial and raised the funds to build it. Stevenson hopes that the memorial, despite its gravity, will help liberate Americans to create a future that confronts and learns from the past. His colleague Catherine Coleman Flowers is also working to rectify generations of poverty and disenfranchisement, specifically in Alabama’s Black Belt. A daughter of Lowndes County (one of the poorest in the country), she detailed the problems facing its residents—including the lack of systems for sewage and clean water—in an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this year. Through her organization, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, she is digging up the long-buried root causes of poverty. Flowers hopes that by working with members of Congress on rural wastewater initiatives and erasing laws that criminalize the poor for not having a sewer system, she can plant new seeds of dignity.