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:

•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."