Alabama’s Third World? Nature, Race, and Identity in the Physiographic Black Belt

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 3:30 PM
La Galerie 5 (New Orleans Marriott)
Mark D. Hersey, Mississippi State University
Alabama’s physiographic Black Belt overlaps with the South’s demographic Black Belt, but it draws it name from the soils that emerged from a geological perfect storm rather than from its predominantly black population. For a brief time, it represented a vital center of the Cotton Kingdom, bending even the political geography of the state in its direction, but the Black Belt’s prosperity faded rapidly and with crushing finality in the wake of the Civil War. Despite the hopes of myriad reformers, it has long represented a backwater within a backwater, home now to nine of Alabama’s ten poorest counties. Its schools are chronically underfunded, unemployment is astonishingly high, and life expectancy for its residents runs five years lower than those living in metropolitan Birmingham. In the words of the Birmingham News, the Black Belt represents “Alabama’s third world.” 

            Part of a larger project on the environmental history of the Black Belt, this paper takes a birds-eye view of the region from the 1830s to the 1990s to examine the connections between changing land use, historical memory, and the ways in which landscapes came to be defined in racial terms. In doing so, it teases out the tensions between the region’s position as a quintessentially southern place and its situation as an apparently anomalous island in the self-proclaimed Heart of Dixie. For if the region is idiosyncratic in many ways, its history was bound up in that of the state, and, for that matter, the nation. Indeed, the environmental history of the Black Belt is no less an American story than a southern one, and it merits considerably more attention than it has received to date.

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