Tuesday, February 20, 2024

7 scarring facts, figures about America’s Black Belt Region people

It’s a documented tract of high-yielding land. And if you were white, an opportunity for agricultural growth — continuous wealth. America’s Black Belt Region has been historically known for its plantation lifestyles and overt acts of racism. Formerly dubbed the “Old Confederacy,” Southern counties from Eastern Texas to the Eastern Shores of Virginia relied heavily on Black soil and Black people to survive. Simply put: economic security for white land owners.

Replacing slavery, the Black Belt is now honeycombed with substandard education, high unemployment, weak infrastructure and unfavorable health care options. To piece together this difficult dwelling system for Black people, these facts and figures help reveal why the region’s Black communities remain behind the digital times. Why the Black Belt coursed from cotton king to the nation’s largest poverty parcel.

“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 naturaly 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.”

— Booker T. Washington, 1901


The Black Belt Region included roughly 623 rural counties from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi to North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Systematically underresourced and underserved, these counties have housed a large African-American population. According to a Population Reference Bureau report, the South also holds higher poverty rates than other U.S. regions. And the Black Belt South maintains the highest poverty rate. This distinctive Black population is what helped fuel the South’s agricultural economy during slavery. Producing free, forced and uneducated labor across each of these Southern states.

Mississippi laborers picking cotton, 1939. Photographed by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


During 1790, the United States’ first census recorded the Black population around 760,000 people. When the Civil War started in 1861 their numbers reached 4.4 million. Black free people only made up 2 percent of the Southern region’s population. By 1910, the census showed about 90 percent of the population lived in the Black Belt and 80 percent lived within the rural Black Belt.


Before the Civil War, slavery served as a dominant condition for Black people in the Black Belt. And when the adoption and official abolishment of slavery by the 13th Amendment came around, the chattel system still lingered. The Black Codes of the South became the new norm. Black people’s subordinate status extended far longer than the Native Americans, who too were at some point enslaved. These new 1865 and 1866 racial restrictions effectively blocked the freedom promised to roughly 4 million Black people. Black Codes impacted Black folk’s vocations, travel schedules, labor contracts, educational opportunities, married state and social health.


Historically, power over land belonged to white Southerners. However, Black land ownership peaked during 1910. Black people secured between 16 million to 19 million acres. Today, Black folks make up 13 percent of the population and own less than 1 percent of rural land. Popular reasons for the decline of Black land ownership: heir’s property disagreements, forced land sales, intimidation, theft and violence.

Cotton picking in Savannah, Georgia, 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


At the top of 1920, the census indicated the nation housed more than 100 million people. Black farmers also peaked that same year with nearly 1 million producers with Black-operated farms. These farmers actually worked on 41.4 million acres of land. But this number started to decline. Generational factors such as racial discrimination, shady lending practices and lack of institutional economic support became instrumental in Black land loss. Almost 94 percent of Black-owned farms have shut down operations since 1920. White-operated agribusinesses declined by 56.4 percent during the same period. Today, 35,000 Black farmers are around, holding onto just 1 percent of America’s farmland.


The centuries-old mistreatment to Black people of the Black Belt Region finally came to a national head when Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This 1999 lawsuit turned into the largest civil rights settlement in American history. In Pigford v. Glickman, Black farmers alleged racial discrimination in farm loan and assistance allocations between 1981 and 1996. And, they won. The case awarded $1.15 billion dollars in damages to thousands of Black farmers, including those from the Black Belt. But the damage to these farming families had already been done. Even though $50,000 payments may have served as some form of justice, the stolen land became hard for many Black farmers to gain back. The case only proved USDA continued the Antebellum South’s prejudicial practices toward Black people.


Black-owned farmland totals close to 4.7 million acres to date. The Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020 formed to remedy centuries of Black land loss. This bill would enable Black producers to gain up to 160 acres apiece — at no cost — through USDA land grants. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker serves as the bill’s lead sponsor. “Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth,” said Senator Booker. “When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century.” The act aims to correct USDA discrimination for future Black farmers of the Black Belt and beyond.

Sharecroppers chopping cotton in Georgia, 1941. Photographed by Jack Delano. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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