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

•Moundville. It was the center of the East Mississippian Indian culture long before the white man set foot on the continent, according to Vernon James Knight, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama.

In the 1830s, whites began settling in the region and discovered that cotton grew well here. Cotton remained king until after the Civil War.

•Montgomery. The First White House of the Confederacy was here. Jefferson Davis was sworn in on the steps of the state capitol as the only president of the Confederacy. Montgomery served as the first capitol of the Confederacy for a short time before the seat of power was moved to Richmond, Va.

•Monroeville. Harper Lee used her hometown of Monroeville in the region as inspiration for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Poverty is one of the many threads that tie Alabama's Black Belt counties together. Census Bureau figures updated through 2005, the most recent available, showed 36.6% of the people in Sumter County lived below the national poverty line. In neighboring Hale County, the percentage below the poverty line was 30.4%.

That's why the effort to go to Congress is so important, Jones says. Increased tourism means more opportunity for people to make better livings, she said.

"Getting the National Heritage Area designation won't solve all the Black Belt's problems, but it will be one piece of the puzzle," Jones says. "We have proof that endeavors in other heritage areas have worked."

According to a study by the National Park Service published in 2005, 68.3 million people visited national heritage areas such as Georgia's Augusta Canal in 2004. Overall, those visits generated $8.5 billion in direct and indirect sales and supported 152,324 jobs with an annual payroll of $3.2 billion.

Residents have begun to get on board, says Willie Lampley, county agent for Sumter County. He also serves on the Black Belt Heritage Area Task Force.

"There is a regional pride displayed by Black Belt people," he says. "It doesn't matter if you are black or white or what your economic situation is. There have been times when the area has been divided. I think everyone realizes now that it's going to take all of us working together to make the Black Belt better in the future."

"That's one of the benefits we didn't see coming," Jones says. "This has brought the entire Black Belt together in a cooperative effort."

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