Western culture is by and large Greek culture grown up and sporting a new hairdo. There is so much Greek in us—in the way we think, the way we govern ourselves, the way we approach the universe—that we don’t really even realize our own Greek-i-ness, and that goes for us Southerners as well. It does show up fairly blatantly from time to time, however—for example, in our historical architecture—and in the names of a fair number of some of our most interesting Southern towns.
And there is no city name more prominent among Greeks than that of Athens, the cultural capital of the ancient world, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. Not surprisingly, then, the name Athens is a favorite in the American South: no less than six cities bear it proudly.
- Athens, Georgia
View of Athens from Carr’s Hill by George Clarke, 1845
Athens, Georgia, was a college town even before there was a town—or an actual college. In the eyes of Thos. Jefferson’s good friend, the visionary John Milledge, this spot on the Oconee River was perfect for the cradle of learning the Georgia legislature intended for their premier state-supported college. Since the place was designed from its very genesis to be a center of learning and cultural development, it was only natural it should be christened Athens, whose Grecian namesake is world-renowned for its Platos and Aristotles and the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge they inspired. And while Athens GA is well-known in the South for its now-two-century-old University of Georgia (and a good number of rock bands to boot), it also has more than its fair share of that Greek-look-alike architecture—check out the county courthouse, the Taylor-Grady home, and the Cobb mansion for starters.
- Athens, Alabama
This Limestone County Courthouse in Athens, Alabama, sets the Greek tone for the city (photo by Carol Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Just to the northwest of Huntsville, tucked away in the Appalachian foothills and sitting within yelling distance of the Tennessee River, this Athens is also a county seat, a college town, and a haven for Greek-revival structures old and new. The city was a city before the state was a state, and the two of them are celebrating their respective bicentennials in 2017 and 2018. Athens was ravaged by Union forces in 1862, but there are several antebellum homes that survived to wow visitors today. Athens prides itself on maintaining small-town living within arms’ reach of Huntsville’s big-city conveniences, and they’ll let you hunt, fish, hike, ride your bike—or your horse—to your heart’s merriest content, and serve you up some of the best Southern cooking when you’re done.
- Athens, Tennessee
A road marker tells the story of the Battle of Athens in Athens, Tennessee (photo by Brian Stansberry)
The ancient Athenians who “whupped” the Persians at Marathon are not the only ones who can put up an impressive fight. When this east Tennessee mountain city got fed up with “politics as usual” in 1946—which meant trumped-up fines, false arrests, and strong-armed elections—recently-returned World War II veterans decided to organize their own party and ran candidates to oppose the powers-that-be. Come election day, sheriff deputies “guarding” polling precincts shot a black voter in the back, beat and arrested citizen poll-watchers, and at the end of the day whisked ballot boxes off to the jail for “counting.” The former GI’s had had enough. Hundreds of men who had just recently been fighting the enemy on foreign shores now laid siege to the county jail, demanding the ballot boxes. A gunfight ensued, lasting for hours and ending only when a dynamite explosion ripped through the front of the jail, which produced the sheriff’s men in short order, hands raised. The ex-GI’s, by the way, not only won the “Battle of Athens” but the election as well—by a landslide.
- Athens, Texas
Athens, Texas, is the (not undisputed) Home of the Original Hamburger—and we believe it
If you haven’t heard of this one, I’d be surprised—what? You haven’t? You mean you didn’t know that Athens, Texas, is the Birthplace of the Hamburger, the site of the Oldest Annual Fiddlers Contest in America, and the Black-eyed Pea Capital of the World? Well, now you do. Apparently, in 1904 Athenian Fletcher Davis (aka Uncle Dave and/or “Fletch”) took his locally popular beef-between-two-slices-of-bread on the road to sell on the midway at the St. Louis World Fair, and the rest, as they say, is history. Don’t believe it? None other than real-mcdeal Ronald McDonald verifies the story, and I reckon the guy who’s sold more of America’s favorite sandwich than anybody else ought to know what he’s talking about. And besides, the only other claimants to the hamburger invention are Northerners. Enough said.
- Athens, West Virginia
Athens, West Virginia, is home to Concord University, founded in 1872 (photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz)
Surprise, surprise, but this Athens also is a college-town-by-design and is also located in the beautiful Appalachians (Greece is mostly mountains, you know). The little community was called Concord Church to begin with (the original inhabitants envisioned a place of worship open to all denominations), but to avoid confusion with Concord, West Virginia, the town changed the name to Athens at the close of the nineteenth century. The town’s Concord University, however, still reflects the original name, and quite appropriately too: it was jointly-founded in 1872 by both Union and Confederate veterans. And speaking of veterans, not only has the school been voted the number one regional college in the state, but it is also widely respected as one of the most veteran-friendly campuses in America.
- Athens, Louisiana
The Methodist Church in Athens formed around 1830 and has one of the most beautiful old buildings in the state (photo by Billy Hathorn)
This Athens is the tiniest of them all—a village of around 250—but it has the honor of being the first Greek-named city in Louisiana (followed by nearby Homer, Sparta, and Arcadia). It was once a bustling town of over 500, and it even served as the parish seat for a short time—until apparently somebody who wanted to eliminate a few “embarrassing” records decided the best method was to burn down the entire courthouse. There is no university here, but the lay of the land might well remind somebody of Grecian Athens: the original town (“Old Athens”) was built on its own 456-foot “Acropolis,” only half a mile from the second highest point in this otherwise nearly-sea-level state.
SEE MORE “FROM ATHENS TO ZEPHYR: PART ONE” PHOTOS HERE