Black Belt (U.S. region)

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The location of the Black Belt (sociological sense) in the United States.
2000 Census Population Ancestry Map, with African American ancestry in purple.

The Black Belt is a region of the Southern United States. Although the term originally described the prairies and dark soil of central Alabama and northeast Mississippi,[1] it has long been used to describe a broad agricultural region in the American South characterized by a history of plantation agriculture in the 19th century and a high percentage of African Americans in the population.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, as many as one million enslaved African Americans were taken there in a forced migration to work as laborers for the region's cotton plantations. After having lived for several generations in the area, many stayed as rural workers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers after the American Civil War and emancipation.

Because of the decline of family farms,[citation needed][dubious ] the rural communities in the Black Belt commonly face acute poverty, rural exodus, inadequate education programs, low educational attainment, poor health care, urban decay, substandard housing, and high levels of crime and unemployment. While African-American residents are disproportionately affected, these problems apply broadly to all ethnic groups in the Black Belt. The region and its boundaries have varying definitions, but it is generally considered a band through the center of the Deep South, although stretching from as far north as Delaware to as far west as East Texas.


Upland cotton acres harvested as percentage of each county's harvested cropland acreage, 2007 (Agricultural Atlas of the U.S.)
Percentage of slaves in each county of the slave states in 1860. See Slavery in the United States.
African Americans as percentage of local population, 2000.
African American population density in the United States, 2000.

Black Belt is still used in the physiographic sense, to describe a crescent-shaped region about 300 miles (480 km) long and up to 25 miles (40 km) wide, extending from southwest Tennessee to east-central Mississippi and then east through Alabama to the border with Georgia. Before the 19th century, this region was a mosaic of prairies and oak-hickory woods.[2]

In the 1820s and 1830s, the region was identified as prime land for upland cotton plantations, made possible by the invention of the cotton gin for processing short-staple cotton. Ambitious migrant planters moved to the area in a land rush called Alabama Fever. Many brought slaves with them from the Upper South, or purchased them later in the domestic slave trade, resulting in the forced migration of an estimated one million workers.

The region became one of the cores of an expanding cotton plantation system that spread through much of the American South. Eventually, the term Black Belt was used to describe the larger area of the South with historic ties to slave plantation agriculture and the cash crops of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco.

After the American Civil War and Emancipation, freedmen worked on plantations generally by a system of sharecropping. The poverty of the South and decline in agricultural prices after the war caused suffering for planters and workers both. Although this had been a richly productive region, by the early 20th century, there was a general economic collapse. Among its many causes were continued depressed cotton prices, soil erosion and depletion, the boll weevil invasion and subsequent collapse of the cotton economy, and the socially repressive Jim Crow laws.

What had been one of the nation's wealthiest and most politically powerful regions became one of the poorest with the decline of agriculture. White Democrats continued to be part of a one-party system in the South, and in many states suffered malapportionment, with rural areas retaining political control long after demographic and economic shifts.

After regaining power in the state legislatures, at the end of the 19th century, Democrats in the former Confederate states completed disfranchising most blacks and many poor whites by passing new constitutions that provided for an array of discriminatory voter registration and electoral rules. The South became a one-party region, and whites controlled all Congressional representation allocated for the full population, although in many areas, the majority could not vote. Lynchings were frequent as whites used violence to impose white supremacy, and passed Jim Crow laws establishing racial segregation in public facilities.

During the first half of the twentieth century, up until 1970, a total of 6.5 million African Americans left the South in the Great Migration, which took place in two waves. They migrated to northern and midwestern industrial cities for jobs and other opportunities. The second wave of the migration began shortly before World War II, as thousands of blacks migrated to the West Coast for jobs related to defense industries.

Because of Jim Crow laws and disfranchisement, residents of the old Black Belt became supporters of the mid-20th-century Civil Rights Movement, seeking protection for exercise of their constitutional rights as citizens. Due to the rural economies, the Black Belt remains one of the nation's poorest and most distressed areas.

Most of the area continues to be rural, with a diverse agricultural economy, including peanut and soybean production. There have been many changes in the social, economic, and cultural developments in the South. Some blacks have considered the Black Belt as a kind of "national territory" for African Americans within the United States. In the 1970s, some activists proposed self-determination in the area, up to and including the right to independence.[3]

The crescent-shaped plot of land appears odd, yet there is a geological explanation for the black belt. During the Cretaceous period, about 145 to 66 million years ago, most of the central plains and the southeast of what is now the United States of America was covered by shallow seas. Tiny marine plankton grew in those seas, and their carbonate skeletons accumulated into massive chalk formations. That chalk eventually became a most fertile and suitable soil for growing crops. The black belt arc was just the shoreline of one of those seas.[4]


There are many definitions and geographic delineations of the Black Belt. One of the earliest and most frequently cited is that of Booker T. Washington, who wrote, in his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery:

The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later and especially since the war, the term seems to be used wholly in a political sense—that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.

W. E. B. Du Bois also wrote about the Black Belt in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, describing the culture of rural Georgia.

In 1936, prior to the population shift of the Second Great Migration (African American) from the 1940s to the 1960s, the sociologist Arthur Raper described the Black Belt as some 200 plantation counties with black population portions over 50%, lying "in a crescent from Virginia to Texas".[5] The University of Alabama also includes "roughly 200 counties" in the Black Belt.[6]

The US Census reported that in 2000, the United States had 96 counties with a black population percentage of more than 50%, of which 95 were distributed across the Coastal and Lowland South in a loose arc related to traditional areas of plantation agriculture.[7]

The United States Department of Agriculture in 2000 proposed creating a federal regional commission, similar to the Appalachian Regional Commission, to address the social and economic problems of the Black Belt. It defined the region, called the Southern Black Belt, as a patchwork of 623 counties scattered throughout the South.[8][9]

See also[edit]

Migratory waves:




  1. ^ "Black Belt". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  2. ^ Black Belt Prairie, Mississippi State University
  3. ^ Haywood, Harry (1977). For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question. Chicago: Liberator Press.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Black Belt", Southern Spaces
  6. ^ "Black Belt Fact Book", University of Alabama
  7. ^ "The Black Population", Census 2000 Brief
  8. ^ The Southern Black Belt
  9. ^ Federal Funds for the Black Belt

Further reading[edit]

  • Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935), ISBN 0-689-70820-3
  • Haywood, Harry. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978.
  • Wimberley, Ronald C. and Libby V. Morris. The Southern Black Belt: A National Perspective. Lexington: TVA Rural Studies and The University of Kentucky, 1997.
  • Washington, Booker T. (1901) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co.
  • Up From Slavery at Project Gutenberg

External links[edit]