Good Livin’ in the Alabama Black Belt

Posted March 9th, 2012 at 8:22 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

How’d a nice big piece of black-bottom pie taste right about now?

I’m talking crunchy ginger-snap crust, thin layer of dark chocolate, whipped rum-cream custard filling, shaved chocolate topping, and mounds of real whipped cream.

You can see all but the bottom of this black-bottom pie!  (Wikipedia Commons)

You can see all but the bottom of this black-bottom pie! (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s an Alabama Black Belt specialty, along with steam-fried okra, fresh catfish, banana pudding, and so many other succulent treats that there’s an actual culinary trail through the region.  You’re getting the idea already why I call it “good livin’” in that part of the state they call “The Heart of Dixie.”

Alabama’s Black Belt is a place just off the beaten path, a hurting place economically, whose amazing historical journey and natural splendor are just now coming into the national consciousness.  A place that for a century sustained the crop that made the area the nexus of the South’s Cotton Kingdom.

You should know, going in, that the name “Black Belt” does not derive from the area’s racial composition, though it is now majority African-American.

It traces to the region’s thin layer of rich, black topsoil, which actually stretches all the way west to Texas and north to Virginia.

Alabama's Black Belt is a wide one!  (Wikipedia Commons)

Alabama's Black Belt is a wide one! (Wikipedia Commons)

Alabama’s Black Belt reaches border to border across the state, from Mississippi to the Georgia line, as the adjacent graphic shows you in red.  (The pink counties, part of a larger “River Region,” are sometimes included as well.)  The people who live and work there are well aware that they move about in the place with “the richest soil and the poorest people” in the entire United States.  Their per-capita income figure of about $16,000 a year is as poor as it gets in America.  Six of the nation’s 100 poorest counties are smack in the middle of this region.

But it was not always so.  Once Alabama planters figured out that they could tap artesian water in the chalky depths below the loamy topsoil, they produced bountiful crops of what became “King Cotton” and grew rich in the years before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  Or more accurately, African-American slaves sowed and picked and ginned the cotton on which their masters grew rich.  Black Belt river ports such as Cahaba and Selma, from which bales of cotton were sent downriver to Mobile and the sea, were among the wealthiest small towns in America.

Then a number of factors turned those riches into rags:

• Other states, including Texas and California, and nations such as Egypt, mechanized and produced vast, superior cotton crops after the defeat of the southern Confederacy in the Civil War.

• What the voracious insect called the boll weevil, which infested the cotton crop in the 1910s and ’20s, didn’t destroy in rural Alabama, the Great Depression of the 1930s mostly did.  Many of the African-American community’s “best and brightest” left the Black Belt during a Great Migration to the industrial North that peaked in the years immediately after World War II.

• Back home in this remote backwater of the Deep South, institutional segregation retarded progress and stifled the region’s schools.  Eventually, African Americans challenged the South’s rigid, paternalistic racial climate, staging protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and marches in Black Belt cities such as Montgomery and Selma, which became civil-rights landmarks.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, a civil-rights landmark, carries the main east-west route, U.S. 80, across the Alabama River.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, a civil-rights landmark, carries the main east-west route, U.S. 80, across the Alabama River. (Carol M. Highsmith)

• And then the modern Interstate Highway System that transformed much of rural America into thriving tourism corridors largely bypassed Alabama’s Black Belt, reinforcing its sense of isolation.

But the people of the region tell me that all this did not leave the Black Belt with an inferiority complex.  Local pride runs deep, but fairly silent. Hard times left the region looking inward, at its own traditions and family orientation, hardly thinking there’d be much there to interest the outside world.

This is in contrast to other rural regions that turned quaintness into a tourist attraction, precisely because of their character and folkways.  I’m thinking of Southwest Louisiana’s French-speaking “Cajun County” and South Carolina’s coastal “Low Country.”

But in just the past five or six years, folks in the Black Belt have begun to realize  that there’s much to be admired about what Robert Gamble, the state historical commission’s senior architectural historian, calls the small-town “quirkiness” of Demopolis, Eutaw, Marion and other places that few outside Alabama have heard of.

Somebody in Washington, D.C., besides Carol and me has heard of them, however: The Black Belt has 26 little churches and 3 cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places.

It isn't just New England that has covered bridges.  The picturesque Alamuchee Bellamy Covered Bridge is in Alabama's Black Belt. (RuralSWAlabama.org)

It isn't just New England that has covered bridges. The picturesque Alamuchee Bellamy Covered Bridge is in Alabama's Black Belt. (RuralSWAlabama.org)

Whereas much of Cajun culture has been turned into almost a caricature of exaggerated accents and mass-marketed spicy food, Black Belt Alabama’s welcoming warmth, down-home ways, yummy taste treats, and ever-so-much better dealings between the races make it an unpolished gem, ripe for discovery.

Gamble told me that it eventually dawned on the men and women there in middle Alabama that they were in a heap of trouble economically and educationally. But that they were in it together.  “We learned to deal with, and to like, each other as human beings,” he said.  “And to put all the past bitterness and horror behind us and get busy.”

Without the Interstates, King Cotton, much industry, or any other obvious economic engine, what could this obscure, largely isolated region do?

With a lot of guidance from a new (2005) Center for the Study of the Black Belt program at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, people from one side of the state to the other got together, not to talk — though Alabamians are world-class storytellers — but to work.  They stepped away, took a magnifying glass to their humble surroundings, and decided that despite the poverty and high unemployment around them, they not only liked what they saw, but that others might as well.

There's a neat logo ready when Washington gives the heritage area the go-ahead.  (Alabama Black Belt Historical Area)

There's a neat logo ready when Washington gives the heritage area the go-ahead. (Alabama Black Belt Historical Area)

They convinced Alabama’s congressional delegation to press Congress for a declaration of the Black Belt as a National Heritage Area, a designation that is working its way through the approval process.

Blacks and whites and others in the Black Belt had come to the same realization: that their region has some remarkable allures.  Among them:

A living laboratory of the Civil Rights Movement and African-American achievement. Two examples: People of all races now walk hand-in-hand across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, near what would be the midpoint “buckle” of the Black Belt. That’s where, in 1965, Alabama troopers and local police attacked peaceful voting-rights marchers on their way to the state capital in Montgomery.

And to the east in Macon County, former slave Booker T. Washington and botanist George Washington Carver turned a one-room school with no money into the world-renowned Tuskegee Institute, a college for African Americans, whom no one else wanted to educate, in the backwoods of what at the time was the rigidly segregated South.

Here's lovely Gaineswood.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Here's lovely Gaineswood. (Carol M. Highsmith)

A generous slice of “Gone With the Wind”-caliber antebellum architecture that marauding northern Yankee soldiers somehow spared during the great Civil War. Examples include Gaineswood, an unusual Greek Revival-style mansion in Marengo County, whose owner — cotton planter and amateur architect Nathan Bryan Whitfield — modified the floor plan and decorative details several times over 18 years.  If you want to see all three styles of Greek columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian — on one sprawling home, Gaineswood’s your place.  There are a dozen more classic manor homes in the region, too.  And in Montgomery, the beautiful Alabama State Capitol — replete with columns as well — served as the first capitol of the Southern Confederacy in 1861.

This is Carol's "infrared" image of a haunting, and maybe haunted? live-oak cemetery in Selma.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Alabama’s very beginnings. A festival each October in little Moundville recalls the “Mississippian Period” of Native American culture, when mound-building people created a walled city that was the largest metropolis north of Mexico in the 13th Century.  As he wandered about, searching for gold along the Gulf Coast, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto marched his men from what is now Georgia into the Black Belt in 1540 and met Tuskaloosa, the great — and nearly 2.1-meter- (7-foot-) tall Maubilian Tribe chief.  And, tragically, it was from Alabama in the early 19th Century that thousands of Creeks and Choctaws were ousted after the U.S. Congress passed the “Indian Removal Act,” leading to their hard, forced march along a “Trail of Tears” to relocation camps out west.

Have you ever heard of lunker bass or crappie? They’re fish — prized and tasty game fish that swim in abundance in the Black Belt’s dozens of streams.  World-class specimens of quail, doves, deer, and turkeys bustle about in the thickets on land as well, and 50 or so lodges await the humans who come from around the world to hunt them.

This is a scene from the Pulitizer Prize-winning play "To Kill A Mockingbird," staged in author Harper Lee's Black Belt hometown of Monroeville.  (Carol M. Highsmith) A Gees Bend quilter and her "helper."  (Carol M. Highsmith)

•  An arts extravaganza. Take the tiny crossroads of Gees Bend.

When she returned from her expedition to Alabama, Carol told me about it, after which I told our friends I couldn’t wait to see “Cheese Bend!”

There, at a dramatic turn of the Alabama River south of Selma, women descended from slaves have developed a bold quilting style that’s something of a cross between African and Amish traditions.  Their quilts are hand-produced and highly prized.

Here's Charlie Lucas's place.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Here's Charlie Lucas's place. (Carol M. Highsmith)

So, too, elsewhere in the Black Belt, is the work of “Charlie the Tin Man” Lucas, an auto mechanic’s son whose folk art has been featured in Venice, Italy.  The work of these artisans and hundreds of others is displayed at festivals and artist-cooperative centers in small towns throughout the region.

And then there’s that food.  I neglected to mention the Black Belt’s killer hickory-smoked Conecah sausage, homemade cole slaw, fried dill pickles, black-eyed peas and pecan pies.  Pass me seconds, please, on all but the peas.

It was Linda Vice in Thomasville, who put together the Alabama’s Front Porches Web site [5]that highlights crossroads arts and cultural attractions, who got my mouth to watering by describing black-bottom pie.  She had stepped outside one of the Black Belt’s divine local eateries to call me while a busload of visitors enjoyed barbecue, pepper jelly on fresh-baked bread, homemade French fries, and some of that pie.

Couldn't resist showing you another of Carol's infrared images.  This is of Chasley Estate in Monroe County.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Couldn't resist showing you another of Carol's infrared images. This is of Chasley Estate in Monroe County. (Carol M. Highsmith)

But it was people, not pie, that she wanted to talk about.  “We’ve seen a lot of changes for the better here,” she told me.  “Maybe not economically as yet, in terms of a balance, but an amalgamation of black and white.  Everybody’s at the table, caring about each other, working together.”

If you want to see homogenized America, accent-free, full of national chain stores and banks and fast-food joints, you’d best go someplace besides the Alabama Black Belt.  It’s what Robert Gamble calls a “fly in the amber,” a gracious, quiet treasure that, like the insect trapped in tree sap, retains the essence of generations past.  Now not just visitors but its own people are beginning to realize that that’s rare and special in our fast-changing land.  In the quiet, naturally stunning, culturally rich, historically profound, delightfully down-home Alabama Black Belt, pride is spreading.

As my text has made clear, not every home in Alabama's Black Belt is a grand manse.  This the home of a tenant farmer in Boykin.  But it's part of the tapestry of a fascinating region.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

As my text has made clear, not every home in Alabama's Black Belt is a grand manse. This the home of a tenant farmer in Boykin. But it's part of the tapestry of a fascinating region. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Update

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about homeschooling and pointed out that many states allow homeschooled students to show up at the nearest high school and participate in its after-school activities, including varsity sports.  And I noted that the legislature in Virginia, the state on which I was focusing, was considering just such a measure.

This past week, however, a Virginia Senate committee killed the bill on an 8-7 vote.  Opponents said they worried that home-schooled youngsters would take team or club slots away from those in public school.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Amalgamation. A combination of two or more elements. The term is sometimes applied in business to the merger of companies.

Okra. A word of African origin that describes a flowering plant whose green seed pod is prized as a dish in the U.S. South. The slimy consistency of the pulp inside the pod is usually boiled out before okra is added to dishes such as gumbo.

4 Responses to “Good Livin’ in the Alabama Black Belt”

  1. Hi Ted ,

    Try some organic dark chocolate that´s not heated that has a high Flavonoid content.

    I eat a high flavonoid cacao that contains :800 mg FC at 10 gram that´s good for my heard and lowers LDL and CRP values in my blood.

    have a nice day

    Peter Langelaar

  2. linda vice says:

    Thanks for a good story, Ted!

  3. Tina Jones says:

    Thank you Ted. We enjoyed sharing the Black Belt with you.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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