It was Oct 31, 2018. A gloriously bright and mild day. The day I decided summer had finally given up its too-long grip on all of Dixie. My car window was down as I passed sights seen many times before.
I was on U.S. 80 heading west from Montgomery. Destination: the withering little community of Uniontown in Perry County. Smack dab in the middle of the Black Belt. Long ago, before the Civil War and civil rights marches, this region was an integral part of Alabama’s economy. The county seat of Marion was seen by some as the “Athens of the South.” A place that birthed several institutions of higher education.
And ironically, Perry County is where Nicola Marschall, a teacher at Marion Female Academy who designed the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate Army and Corretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both lived.
The rich, black prairie land drew would be cotton barons 200 years ago like honey draws bees. They gathered thousands of slaves to work the fields and turned the prairies into a land of haves and have-nots. To a large degree, this legacy lives on today. And poverty greets the visitor around every turn of the road.
I was going to speak to a group of Perry County retired educators. Coming into town I passed a feed mill, a catfish processing plant and a stockyard. I saw antebellum homes struggling to keep their dignity, modest brick homes and crumbling walls where a middle school once stood.
There were 31,783 people in Perry County in 1900; in 2010 there were 10,591. It’s easy to understand this outmigration. Twenty years ago there were six public schools with 2,355 students. Now there are only two public schools in the county and 1,317 students. None of whom are white.
My audience that day mirrored the school population, all black. Some were older than me, many were not. But for the most part we all had one thing in common. We grew up in a segregated world. Through 12 years of elementary and high school I never had a black classmate. It was a time when our leaders tried to get people to believe the lie about “separate but equal.” But schools for different races were nothing like that.
In 1907 Wilcox County, a few miles south of Perry, spent $10.50 on a white student and only 37 cents for a black one. Lowndes County spent $33.40 per white student in 1912 for every $1 spent on a black student.
As I spoke to this very attentive audience I kept wondering what stories they could share. What was their school world like? How often did they have to get by on too few supplies, too old textbooks and other things me and my white classmates took for granted? How good were their teachers? How much training had they had?
As we wring our hands today and fret about the lack of performance of high-poverty students I dare say too few people grasp just how much the past in the Black Belt still invades the present–and future. Do we too often just pay lip service to those in real need while Montgomery conjures up another strategic plan? Why do we pass legislation like the Alabama Accountability Act that labels schools as “failing.” but doesn’t do a damn thing to help them escape their predicament?
Where are the Good Samaritans the Black Belt so desperately needs? The same ones they have waited on for generations.