Black Belt in the American South
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The Black Belt in the American South refers to the social history, especially concerning slavery and black workers, of the geological region known as the Black Belt. The geology emphasizes the highly fertile black soil. Historically, the black belt economy was based on cotton plantations – along with some tobacco plantation areas along the Virginia-North Carolina border. The valuable land was largely controlled by rich whites, and worked by very poor, primarily black slaves who in many counties constituted a majority of the population. Generally the term is applied to a larger region than that defined by its geology.
After 1945, a large fraction of the laborers were replaced by machinery, and they joined the Great Migration to cities of the Midwest and West. Political analysts and historians continue to use the term Black Belt to designate some 200 counties in the South from Virginia to Texas that have a history of majority African-American population and cotton production.
By 1894, political commentators used the term "Black Belt" so often that the term was already very well known in the United States. The Nation reported in 1894:
- There are 12 counties in Alabama in each of which the Blacks are twice as numerous as the whites. These 12 counties, stretching across southern Central Alabama from Georgia and Mississippi, constitute the principal portion of the famous Black Belt.
By 1900 the term "Black Belt" was commonly used to denote a geopolitical region, much like later coinages such as snow belt, rust belt, sun belt and Bible Belt. Booker T. Washington wrote in his 1901 autobiography
I have often been asked to define the term "Black Belt." So far as I can learn, the term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the colour 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.
The boundaries of the subregion depend on the exact criteria being used. Census data is used to identify rural Southern counties with a large black population in a particular year. Which percentage and which year depends on the goals of the project—to look at history, or at current patterns, or to project future trends. In 1980, Southern counties with at least 25 percent African-American populations comprised 29 percent of the Southern United States' population, falling to 23 percent in 2005. The white population in the same counties fell from 23 percent to 17 percent. In total numbers, these counties included 6,700,000 blacks in 1980, and 8,400,000 in 2005. They included 10,700,000 whites in 1980 and 11,700,000 in 2005.
In 1936 sociologist Arthur Raper described the Black Belt as some 200 plantation counties where blacks represented more than 50% of the population, lying "in a crescent from Virginia to Texas". Black population decreased in some areas after the Second Great Migration, when 4.5 million rural blacks left the region from 1940 to 1970. But the University of Alabama in 2007 classifies "roughly 200 counties" as comprising the Black Belt, with significant black populations. The Mississippi Encyclopedia adds to this definition a long history of cotton production.
Political activists and historians continue to use "Black Belt" in considering politics in predominately black rural areas in the South. For example, in 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of his "People to People" tour through the Black Belt of Virginia: "The idea of "massive resistance" was spawned not in Georgia or Alabama—–but in the hearts of the Southside Virginia, commonly known as the Black Belt." 
In 1964 King met with black leaders in to find a target locale to publicize the civil rights movement in Alabama. Large cities were eliminated, so according to historian Charles S. Aiken, "King had only the state's small nonmetropolitan cities from which to select the place to focus the campaign for new voting rights legislation.... There was no other choice but the "open spaces" of the Black Belt, and in the Black Belt there was no alternative to Selma." In 2012, political scientist Seth McKee concluded that in the 1964 election, "Once again, the high level of support for Goldwater in the Deep South, and especially their Black Belt counties [where most blacks were still disenfranchised], spoke to the enduring significance of white resistance to black progress."
The "Redeemers", a Southern Democratic political coalition that sought to enforce white supremacy, came to power after Reconstruction ended in 1877 and ousted Black Republicans from political office across the South. Historian Edward L. Ayers argues the Redeemers were sharply divided, however, and fought for control of the Democratic Party:
For the next few years the Democrats seemed in control of the South, but even then deep challenges were building beneath the surface. Behind their show of unity, the Democratic Redeemers suffered deep divisions. Conflicts between upcountry and Black Belt, between town and country, and between former Democrats and former Whigs divided the Redeemers. The Democratic party proved too small to contain the ambitions of all the white men who sought its rewards, too large and unwieldy to move decisively.
During the period of disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era, mainly the years 1890–1907, whites passed new state constitutions and state laws, and used informal local practices across the South to prevent African-American citizens from registering to vote and voting. States became one-party Democratic bastions in which the general election was a formality. The real battles took place inside the Democratic Party primaries, which were made private by law and not open to blacks. The result was to thwart the objective of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which sought to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War. Congress did not object, and the Supreme Court generally approved.
The mostly black Republican Party of the South almost never won any elections in the Black Belt, but it did send delegates to the presidential nominating conventions every four years, thus giving blacks some voice in national politics. President William Howard Taft used black Southern support to defeat ex-President Theodore Roosevelt for the GOP nomination in 1912.
After 1900, African Americans, the majority of the population in most of the Black Belt, were rarely allowed to vote, apart from a few ministers, businessmen and schoolteachers. Political power was in the hands of a relatively closed white elite comprising the major landowners, along with local merchants and bankers. They had almost complete control of local government. Generally they also had control of the state legislatures, which gerrymandered political districts to strongly favor rural areas and under-represent the cities.
By the 1950s each county had a local Citizens' Council (the groups were commonly referred to as the "White Citizens' Councils"), which was part an associated network of white supremacist, extreme right organizations that directed white resistance to racial integration, especially against integrating the public schools.
Federal intervention changed the situation in the 1970s. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was strictly enforced, to expand the franchise. During the 1960s, the US Supreme Court ruled in several cases covering rural bias in legislatures, saying that under the Equal Protection Clause, states needed to redistrict based on the principle of one man, one vote for equitable representation. As a result, states were prohibited from having bicameral legislatures in which one house was elected by county. In addition, the Court required the states to redistrict every decade to reflect census data, which many had neglected to conduct. The result was to shift political power toward the more populated and industrialized urban areas.
Until the mid-20th century, the predominant agricultural system in the Black Belt involved interdependent white land owners, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers; most of the latter groups were African Americans. Tenants typically owned their own tools and work animals, while the sharecroppers provided no capital and paid fees with crops. Very little cash changed hands. The few existing local banks were small; cash was scarce and had to be saved by the landowners for paying taxes.
The early 1920s were especially difficult financially in cotton regions, as the price of cotton plunged from 37 cents per pound in early 1920 to 10 cents in mid-1921. Land prices plunged 80% and tax rates went up. Tenants could not repay the storekeepers. Land owners were squeezed, for many had used credit to buy land during the World War bubble; and many farms were foreclosed—all this before the Great Depression struck in 1929. Raper's analysis of Black Belt banks shows that deposits plunged by half or more from 1918 to 1932. As a result, most local people became "very shy of banks." New Deal programs helped the land owners much more than the tenants.
Landowners needed a great deal of labor at harvest time to pick cotton. The typical plan was to divide old plantations into small farms that were assigned to the tenants. Throughout the year, the tenants usually bought food and supplies weekly, on credit, through the local country store (sometimes owned by the planter).
At harvest time, the tenants picked and sold their cotton, paid the merchant, and gave the landowner his one-third. There seldom was much cash left over. For sharecroppers, the landlord supplied all their needs during the year and then took the crop. The annual cycle started again, often with a large turnover of sharecroppers. Landowners also worked some of the land directly, using black labor paid in cash. The white landowners held all the political power, and fought vigorously against cash-dispensing government welfare programs that would undermine the cashless system. Economic historians Lee Alston and Joseph Ferrie (1999) describe the system as essentially an informal contract that bound employer and worker through the provision of housing, medical care, and other in-kind services along with cash wages. At its heart, it guaranteed a stable and adequate labor supply to the planter. Though restricted by the directives of the planter, workers in return received some measure of economic stability, including a social safety net, access to financial capital, and some physical protection in an often violent society.
There were few alternative jobs in the Black Belt region. When factories opened or retooled to supply the war effort in World War II, and the military draft was introduced, large numbers of African-American farmers left for the army or cash-paying jobs in nearby or distant cities, particularly on the West Coast. This population movement was called the Great Migration. With the beginning of the war, outbound migration increased significantly.
A decade after the end of the war, a practical combination of more efficient machinery and chemical herbicides finally became available to cotton planters. Their reduced need for resident farm labor resulted in an even greater black emigration to the North and West. Diversified agriculture replaced much of the cotton and tobacco, and gradually industrial-scale agriculture became dominant in large areas of the region.
Quality of life
The rural Black Belt, with its largely African-American population, has historically ranked toward the bottom of American regions in terms of quality of life indicators such as poverty rates, median incomes, mortality, unemployment rates, and educational levels. For example, since before the 1950s transportation routes have historically been inadequate in this region. To this day, air transportation facilities are limited.
In the late 19th century, formerly enslaved African Americans in Alabama, now freedmen, were concentrated in the Black Belt, which ran across the central part of the state, mainly in Greene, Hale, Perry, Sumter, Marengo, Dallas, Wilcox, Lowndes, Montgomery, and Bullock counties. Freedmen established churches independent of white supervision, and their own Baptist state and regional associations. Baptist membership grew rapidly in the Black Belt, from a total of 71,000 in 1890 (of whom 86 percent were African-American), to 215,000 in 1916.
The planters in the region had been affluent before the Civil War, and typically belonged to the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Methodist churches. After the war, facing economic losses and disruption to the economy, many of the owners sold out and moved to distant cities. Presbyterian and Episcopalian membership fell. Among the whites, Methodism grew, as did Baptist congregations. In addition, new fundamentalist sects, such as Holiness and Nazarene, began to emerge, but their rapid growth came after 1900.
In the white community, Baptist church services were typically held Sundays at 11 AM and 6 PM, with an earlier Sunday school for children. During the week, there were prayer meetings and meetings of the ladies' society and missionary organizations. Smaller rural churches shared a rotating pastor and had a lighter schedule. Occasionally the Baptists would hold rallies promoting membership drives, domestic missions, Christian education, religious literature, prayer in the home, Christian citizenship, and one outside issue, laws to promote temperance. Until the late 19th century, the preachers continued to focus on the need for revivals, and Sabbath observance, on the evils of Catholicism, card playing, dancing and personal sin in general. Every few weeks the churches held trials of their own members for sins such as drunkenness, dancing, or adultery; the usual participant punishment was humiliation or expulsion from the congregation. The theology was traditional, with no trace of modernist readings of the Bible. Unlike the Methodists and Presbyterians, few Baptist pastors were educated. Instead, the local congregation selected and ordained ministers on the basis of their religiosity and ability to articulate God's word. By 1900, the range of sermons and editorials had been enlarged to cover new social themes. Baptists still opposed Catholicism, but now they talked of cooperation with other Protestant churches. There was less emphasis on card playing and dancing, and more interest in issues of underpaid laborers, coal miners, and workers in sweatshops. This indicated a newfound interest in the Social Gospel, although not nearly at the level of Northern Protestant churches. Racial tensions and discrimination was not mentioned, nor the rate of lynchings, which peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many, probably most, slaves had become Christians during the antebellum period. Their religious preferences focused on evangelical religion with strong participation by the congregations, and led by a strong minister who typically was also a political leader. By 1867, freedmen, with help from the Freedmen's Bureau, began organizing their own separate all-black churches. Northern Methodist missionaries helped organize such churches as were affiliated with the national Methodist Church. More popular were the African Methodist Episcopal Church and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first independent black denominations, whose missionaries planted thousands of new churches.
White southern Methodists had a separate body, and they sponsored the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. Small numbers of African Americans belonged to the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches. All the Methodists had a hierarchical organization led by bishops.
Many blacks organized independent Baptist churches, quick to establish congregations without white supervision. At their first state convention in 1868, the 60 Baptists attending represented 32 churches. By 1881 the church had 50 district associations, 600 churches, 700 preachers, and about 90,000 members in the state, and operated a small seminary in Selma; most of the ministers were strong orators but barely literate. Although the revivalist camp meeting movement was fading away in the white churches, it grew more popular in the black community. In addition to all-day Sunday services, many Black Baptists became active in Sunday schools and missionary societies.
Although racial tensions often grew violent during the Reconstruction era (1863–1877), in the Alabama black belt some compromise was reached through a sharecropping system in which local black farmers were under the protection of rich white landowners. According to a review of a 2015 history of Reconstruction in Alabama:
The strength of African-American activism and, to a lesser extent, the moderation of elite planters meant that in the black belt Reconstruction essentially worked. Sharecropping developed as a compromise that allowed white planters to make money while black workers preferred its relatively greater autonomy in comparison to slavery. As a result of the labor compromise that developed, the black belt saw less terroristic white supremacist violence than did northern Alabama. Fitzgerald’s work thus adds specific teeth to the arguments of Steven Hahn—and before him, W. E. B. Du Bois —about the political acumen and solidarity of rural African Americans. White planters obviously were at the top of economic and political ladders, but black tenant farmers were real agents of power.
William J. Northen (1835–1913), was the Governor of Georgia from 1890 to 1894. A leading Baptist minister, Northen was president of the Georgia Baptist Convention from 1892 to 1910, and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1899 to 1901. His political rhetoric was based on his religious outlook. He often addressed racial issues at a time when the rate of lynching was growing rapidly. Northen believed that advances in medicine and health would ultimately help African Americans achieve salvation. He promoted the ideology of the modernizing New South, but did not abandon the policy of white supremacy.
The study of women's history and gender roles in the Black Belt has been a recent development. Chrissy Lutz and Dawn Herd-Clark in 2019 explored the situation of black housewives in Georgia's black belt in the 1920s and 1930s. They worked with outside agencies to improve their own work efficiency and economic opportunities. Fort Valley State College, a historically black college, collaborated with the segregated unit of the Cooperative Extension Service, an educational arm of the United States Department of Agriculture. They trained and supplied black organizers, set up and funded local clubs, and gave farm and home demonstrations. They focused on the integral domestic work of cooking, hygiene, sewing, garden cultivation and food processing, and poultry raising. Not only did they teach new skills, they helped isolated rural women to meet each other and form supportive friendships. The systematic end of rural isolation meant that black rural women could affirm that "no one was on their own."
Collapse of the Black belt plantation system
Economic historians of the South generally emphasize the continuity of the system of white supremacy and cotton plantations in the Black Belt from the late colonial era into the mid-20th century, when it collapsed. Harold D. Woodman summarizes the external forces that caused this disintegration from the 1920s to the 1970s:
When significant change finally occurred, its impetus came from outside the South. Depression-bred New Deal reforms, war-induced demand for labor in the North, perfection of cotton-picking machinery, and civil rights legislation and court decisions finally...destroyed the plantation system, undermined landlord or merchant hegemony, diversified agriculture and transformed it from a labor- to a capital-intensive industry, and ended the legal and extralegal support for racism. The discontinuity that war, invasion, military occupation, the confiscation of slave property, and state and national legislation failed to bring in the mid nineteenth century finally arrived in the second third of the twentieth century.
Historiography and memory
W. E. B. DuBois
The most prominent analyst of the Black Belt was sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, who engaged in statistically based studies of family life, economic cooperation, and social conditions as editor of The Atlantic University Publications in the early 20th century. His 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk contains extensive analysis and reflection. Du Bois calls Albany, Georgia, in Dougherty County, the "heart of the Black Belt". He says: "Here are the remnants of the vast plantations."
How curious a land is this,- how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, and big with future promise!
Yet, he notes, it is not far from "where Sam Hose was crucified" [in a lynching], "to-day the centre of the Negro problem,-the centre of those nine million men who are America's dark heritage from slavery and the slave-trade." He continues: "Careless ignorance and laziness here, fierce hate and vindictiveness there,—these are the extremes of the Negro problem which we met that day, and we scarce knew which we preferred."
Restoration of old dwellings
The civil rights movement and related changes in the production of history of African Americans raised new interest in elements of their history in the South, including during slavery times. Since the late 20th century, there has been a new emphasis on the restoration, preservation and historical analysis of African-American dwelling units in the Black Belt, especially those surviving from slavery days. Ashley A. Dumas, et al. explain the rationale:
Slave houses are artifacts. Their attributes can be recorded, analyzed, and broad patterns about their historical context, their builders, and inhabitants revealed. The methods of construction, for instance, often indicate climate, economy, and available technology. Ethnographic and archaeological studies demonstrate that houses, yards, and landscapes reflect cultural values and social relationships and changes to these. The organization of labor may be inferred from the placement of houses in relation to one another and to non-domestic buildings.
- Wilson, Charles Reagan (10 October 2017). "Black Belt/Prairie". Mississippi Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
The Mississippi Black Belt is part of a larger region, stretching from Virginia south to the Carolinas and west through the Deep South, defined by a majority African American population and a long history of cotton production.
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- Dale W. Wimberley, "Quality of Life Trends in the Southern Black Belt, 1980–2005: A Research Note*", Journal of Rural Social Sciences 25.1 (2010) updates the data into the 21st century. Online
- Derrick Shapley, Isolation in the South: Poverty and Transportation Infrastructure in the Black Belt (Mississippi State University, 2015).
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- Glenn N. Sisk, "Churches in the Alabama Black Belt 1875-1917", Church History 23#2 (1954), pp. 153-174 online
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- Casey Cater, "To Pick Up Again the Cross of Missionary Work: W. J. Northen's Politics of Race, Religion, and Reform, 1890-1911" Georgia Baptist History (2008), Vol. 21, pp 23-41
- Chrissy Lutz, and Dawn Herd-Clark, "'No One Was on Their Own': Sociability among Rural African American Women in Middle Georgia during the Interwar Years." Agricultural History 93.3 (2019): 437–451.
- Harold D. Woodman, "Economic Reconstruction and the Rise of the New South, 1865-1900" in John B. Boles and Evelyn Thomas Nolen, Interpreting Southern history: Historiographical essays in honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham (LSU Press, 1987) pp. 273-274.
- Katherine Adams, "Du Bois, Dirt Determinism, and the Reconstruction of Global Value". American Literary History 31.4 (Winter 2019): 715-740. doi:10.1093/alh/ajz036.
- The Souls of Black Folk pp. 93–94, 96, 100.
- The Souls of Black Folk pp. 92, 106.
- Ashley A. Dumas, et al., "Cabins as Far as the Eyes Can See: An Introduction to the Black Belt Slave Housing Survey". Alabama Review 70.1 (January 2017) pp. 22-49.
- Adams, Katherine. "Du Bois, Dirt Determinism, and the Reconstruction of Global Value." American Literary History 31.4 (2019): 715–740; explores the studies of black belt history by W.E.B. DuBois.
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- Johnson, Charles S. Statistical atlas of southern counties: listing and analysis of socio-economic indices of 1104 southern counties (1941). excerpt
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- Raper, Arthur F. Preface to peasantry: A tale of two black belt counties (1936, reprinted Univ of South Carolina Press, 2005), a classic study of Black Belt life; Online free
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- Wimberley, Dale W. "Quality of life trends in the Southern Black Belt, 1980-2005: a research note." Journal of Rural Social Sciences 25.1 (2010) Online.
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