Ala. Black Belt Region Looks to Rich History for Economic Boost

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — From the birth of the Confederacy to the struggles of the civil rights movement, the Black Belt region of Alabama has been the center for much of the state's — and the USA's — history.

Now, a grass-roots effort is underway to give this historic region a brighter future by getting it designated a National Heritage Area.

The Black Belt, which includes Montgomery, Selma and 19 counties, is a crescent-shaped swath of dark, prairie soil that bisects central Alabama from Mississippi to Georgia. Nationally, the Black Belt region stretches from Virginia to Texas. Originally named for its dark soil, the region has taken on a political and social definition because of its large African-American population.

Designation as a National Heritage Area — a congressional decision — could jump-start tourism in the economically depressed Alabama part of the region, says Tina Naremore Jones, director of the University of West Alabama's Center for the Study of the Black Belt.

The process can take two to three years to complete, depending on how legislation travels in Congress, says Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., whose district covers most of the Black Belt.

Efforts by the Black Belt Heritage Area Task Force, which Jones co-chairs, have been underway for about a year.

"This is not something that will move through Congress in a few months," Davis says. "It requires a tremendous amount of groundwork and preparation before ever making it to Congress. The area has to be defined, (and) gathering community support is beneficial. Once it is introduced, I don't foresee any trouble in it making it through the process. These are usually non-controversial efforts."

Jones says she hopes Davis can introduce the legislation in Congress this year.

The designation would make grants available to help market and develop places of interest such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where civil rights marchers were beaten and tear-gassed by Alabama state troopers and Dallas County Sheriff's Department deputies on March 7, 1965. The event, known as "Bloody Sunday," brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma to take part in a historic Selma-to-Montgomery march for blacks' voting rights.

The grants available range from a few thousand dollars to about $100,000, Jones says. The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service awarded a state grant of about $18,000 to help the task force get the designation effort started.

"You can teach national history by walking through the Black Belt," Jones says. "The region has so much to offer. It's time we got the story out to the entire nation."

It's that history that stays with Black Belt residents, even when they move away, says Tina Mims, a retired elementary school teacher living in Atlanta. She grew up in Wilcox County, just across the Alabama River from Gee's Bend, home to the Gee's Bend quilters, a group of black women who help keep the art of quiltmaking alive.

The Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the women's efforts, and their quilts have been displayed at museums around the nation.

"Those quilts remind me of my mother, grandmothers and aunts growing up," says Mims, 63. "For all its perceived problems, the Black Belt will always be home."

In addition to the civil rights movement, the rich historic significance of the Black Belt region includes:

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