Every rural community has untold stories behind its public-facing story. Good and bad ones. U.S. Department of Agriculture research grant Black Farmers’ Network (BFN) wants to collect those rarely known or documented local histories, starting in the Georgia Black Belt Region.
“This project is critical as many of our community storytellers are no longer with us,” said Dr. Veronica Womack, founder of BFN and executive director of Georgia College & State University’s Rural Studies Institute. “We’re losing a lot of traditional knowledge that has been historically preserved through oral tradition.”
The storytelling project called “Georgia Black Belt Gems” will record the undiscovered assets of the region’s rural communities – providing a deeper lens to what makes Small Town USA special. The network asks community members to submit narratives via an online form housed here to capture these stories.
BFN encourages participants to share their town’s rich history using the digital questionnaire. Topics anyone can archive: community farms; farming families; historical churches or religious organizations; cooperatives; Black-owned newspapers; social clubs; political organizations; business districts (cafés, theaters, boarding houses, hotels, juke joints); community festivals (old and new); schools and institutes; segregated public swimming pools or beaches; segregated parks and recreational areas; family cemeteries; Black residential areas; sites where lynchings or violence may have occurred; segregated hospitals; and Civil Rights meeting posts.
BFN has been vital in disseminating information and research about Black farmers within the Black Belt,” Womack said. “However, it’s important to note that those farmers came from communities. So we would like to highlight the community stories or ‘gems’ within the region that are often unknown or not widely publicized.”
The project helps broaden BFN’s reach to rural residents and history keepers. In its fifth year, BFN has been documenting stories, products and services of the Black Belt Region’s African-American farmers exclusively. The network now expands its farmer coverage to focus attention on both farmers and rural communities.
An effort to help foster knowledge and understanding of the Black Belt Region and rural areas, this project also aims to highlight commercial enterprises like agritourism, businesses and culturally relevant spaces and places that have contributed to the rural South. Womack hopes the project will serve as a catalyst for small rural communities within the Black Belt to learn the significant community resources they carry, and use these tools for growth and development.
The information submitted to BFN could serve as a basis for cultural tourism experiences. For instance, Alabama has created new opportunities within the Alabama Black Belt as destinations for this type of tourism. Rural communities in Georgia have headed in the same direction, said Womack. As community members share their small town narratives through the online form, BFN plans to develop a digital map that identifies places visitors can explore that the general public may not have heard of before:
“These gems are the basis for communities to attract interest in their unique history and therefore leverage outside investments in time, resources and intellectual capital,” said Womack. “BFN wants to help build capacity in these extraordinary locations. It’s our network’s way of supporting communities that may not have tourism or a visitors bureau but have compelling stories or moments in history that are worth sharing and preserving.”