Inside Alabama’s Blackest Region

Mar 02, 2024 1.2M Views 4.5K Comments

Deep in the heart of Alabama is a region known as the Black Belt, a part of the state with the highest Black population. Join me for a road trip today through this fascinating part of America full of juxtapositions and surprises.

Deep South Playlist

► Video edited by: Natalia Santenello

► Headlund – Small Mirage
► Peter Crosby – Nothin’ Left Blues
► Headlund – Red Moon Rising

[somber blues]
[Peter] Good morning guys,
here in the South of Alabama
and today we have a massive road trip
going north all the way to Tuscaloosa.
Now the region we’re going through
is called the Black Belt
due to the high concentration
of Black people that live in the region.
We’re gonna get lost on some back roads,
go into some sleepy towns,
meet the locals, ask the questions,
and get a better understanding
of what this part of the state is like.
Let’s do this.
[somber blues]
[Peter] So this is the soul
of Alabama right here?
-Right in this area.
Mostly it’s a little small town here.
Which way you came, 84?
-I came all the way from the coast.
-Okay, okay.
-You from here?
-How is it? Do you love it?
-Yeah, I’ve been here all my life.
I’m 65, be 66 next month
so I’ve been here all my life.
-Good community?
[choir singing]
[Peter] All right guys,
we’re officially in the Bible Belt
and it just sort of changed.
Like there was almost a defining line.
Nice little downtown here, it’s cute.
“Martin Realty”.
Got a nice town hall or whatever that is.
Oh, this is really nice.
Really well kept.
they’re stuck in time.
[man laughs]
-They’re time?
-So Alabama’s much different
you’re saying?
-Yeah, whole lot different.
-We’re from Peterman, you see?
-Oh, Peterman… My name’s Peter.
-No. [chuckles]
-Made it home.
So guys, where can I get lost?
Like what roads up here?
-Keep going’ that way right there,
you gon’ find it.
It’s my town, 1900, new town.
Okay, we’re starting to get into it.
This is interesting.
Feeling the vibe.
Feeling a totally different culture
out here.
So we got the intel
from the locals where to go.
Seeing a lot of trucks up here.
I’m guessing that’s
a big industry for people.
They can live here,
truck the country.
You know, with the amount of money
they make and the price of real estate.
I think it’s pretty cheap out here.
They can probably live a decent life.
I mean you’re away from home
all the time which isn’t easy.
Yeah, I think a lot of these guys
are trucking all over the country.
When you’re in the truck stop outside
of Chicago, or Los Angeles, or whatever,
a lot of these guys come from
parts of the country like this.
Do their trucking, come home, refresh
the batteries, and get out there again.
Because it’s better money
than the local economy I’m gathering.
So the term Black Belt
takes on two different meanings.
One is the soil is amazing here.
It’s great for agriculture.
Then it also refers to
the many Blacks that live here.
At first it was
because of the slave trade,
and slaves working on the plantations,
and then it turned into a place
of sharecropping and people stayed.
So I believe it’s 80%-plus Black
in this region we’re going through today.
But this totally surprises me.
This could be the Northeast almost.
Rolling hills, trees.
I mean it’s a little different
but I wasn’t thinking
it would be like this at all.
Selma, this is a historical place.
With the marches from here to Montgomery.
I mean the whole civil rights movement
came out of this part of Alabama really.
So back in the past in the 19th century
Selma was doing really well as
a trading hub when the railroad came in.
Since then it’s population
has decreased by one third
when agriculture started slowing down.
I believe almost 40%
are below the poverty line
and over half of those are under 18.
Got some beautiful old homes here.
Nice old street.
This is what happens when your town
loses roughly one third of its population.
A lot of these buildings
are abandoned, just sitting here.
So that main drag
actually looked pretty good,
but you can see just one street over,
this is how it is.
So it’s like the oxygen has been removed.
That shop looks like
they just got up and left.
And then you have
the contrast though in Selma.
St. James Hotel
right across from all of that.
Gas station all barred-in.
[train horn blows in the distance]
That church had better days.
[Peter] Tornado came through when?
[woman] January the 12th.
-So it just came right into the church?
-It didn’t just come
right into the church,
it just damaged
the whole city and the community.
You know, right now where are we?
We’re going backwards instead of forward.
Because this country was built in error
with the wrong principles.
The wrong mindset
of dealing with the people that are here.
-Okay, what do you mean by that?
-What I mean by that is that
how long we been out of captivity
or are we out of captivity?
-’64 was a big year.
It’s gotten better since, hasn’t it?
-No, it hasn’t.
-How so?
-From back in ’64 it has gotten worse.
-How so?
-It has gotten worse.
It has gotten worse,
the people have gotten worse.
Their mindset is worse.
-Americans as a whole
or what do you mean by that?
-Well, Americans as a whole.
And then we dissing ourselves
and create social groups
and stuff like that.
You know, that you gonna use to…
…subdue everybody else.
It’s a form of control.
Change of culture.
Replacement… people replacement.
It’s a lot of things still going on
that really shouldn’t.
If you had people
coming in here from Haiti,
any Blacks,
anything trying to cross the border,
they don’t let them in.
But let China, if they wanna come in here
all they gotta do is go to South America
and come up in the border
and they let ’em all in.
That’s what I’m talking about.
That’s replacement.
You replacing the people that are here.
-But about the border,
140 nationalities coming in right now.
-Yeah, but we ain’t goin’ nowhere.
Look at this community.
-So what do you guys want out here?
You want help from the feds,
from the state?
-I don’t even think
that they can do anything.
They can’t… I mean…
If you really want to know the truth
the government is the reason
that this neighborhood
and all our neighborhoods
are in the condition that they are in.
-Okay, why are they to blame?
-When our people, in the ’60s,
they did excellent.
We are people of the light.
Do you understand that?
We are not people of darkness.
All of what you see now is darkness.
-You remember it back then?
I was in the marches and stuff going
across the river and everywhere else.
-You were there? Wow.
-Oh yeah, I was.
-How was that?
-What I’m trying to tell you
is back during that time…
See our people was attacked
and we was assaulted.
They killed off all the leaders
and they were terrorists that was doing it
and our people been terrorized here
ever since we got off the ship.
That’s part of the curse.
-The curse?
-Uh-huh, the curse of our people.
[Peter] You can see the tornado
came right through this neighborhood.
That’s insane.
And I’m not sure what’s going on here
with insurance companies.
Maybe people don’t have
insurance on these homes
because they own them outright.
I’m not sure
or why haven’t the feds stepped in?
Like some sort of FEMA money
rebuilding these homes.
But if we’re talking a year ago…
So I hit the rough part of town
because the nice part of town we were in
everything looked fine.
That’s literally two minutes
away from here.
So this place is really mixed up.
Then you got stuff like this
where someone moved out
decades ago probably
and nature is taking over.
[Peter] So the police officer
can’t talk on camera.
-This my house.
-Okay, so the tornado came through.
-Your house came out okay, huh?
-Well I had two busted windows.
-Two busted windows? Okay.
-And I was in the tornado.
-You were in the tornado?
-Uh-huh, I was here.
I was right there in my living room.
-What is that like?
-It wadn’t that nice.
[Peter chuckles]
Wind blowing stuff everywhere.
-Okay, so the tornado rips in,
what do you do?
-You just get down on the floor?
-And pray.
-Get down and pray?
-And pray.
-And your neighbors did
way worse than you.
-See ’cause when it went
‘cross this street right here,
that house right there
was the only one it tore up bad
but all the rest of them,
it took the top off of.
-No power or nothing.
-For how long?
-For ’bout nine days
you had to sleep like that
and you couldn’t go nowhere
and most of the people on this end
they stayed there in they houses
and everybody else stayed in they houses
but they couldn’t go nowhere.
-What about food?
-They brought it around
and gave it to us every day.
People was bringing stuff
and giving stuff.
-Oh, that’s cool.
-Most of the houses that are in this area,
people own them.
So do most of the people
not have insurance on their homes?
-No, not most of ’em did.
-They didn’t?
-Okay, that’s why
they’re not being fixed, huh?
-That’s why.
-Oh, man.
-And it been like this for a while.
-Except this guy did maybe.
Just started doing that one, bringing it
back the way it’s supposed to be.
-So the federal government
didn’t come in at all to help?
-It came in
but it wadn’t too much they could do.
It wadn’t too much.
-So what’s happening
to the people that own the home?
They didn’t have insurance,
they can’t live there now.
-Where are they now?
-In different places.
FEMA gave them this
and gave them that but, you know,
they coming back but I don’t think
most of ’em ain’t gonna come back.
-Okay, so FEMA did give them a home?
-Another home?
-Yeah, for a minute.
-Until things get right.
-‘Cause they supposed to be building
about 200 back here in Selma.
-You from Selma?
-I’ve been here all of my life.
-It’s a wonderful place.
It’s not bad the way people say it is.
It ain’t bad,
it’s just the way how you live,
and what you make of yourself.
-Because you can’t move from place
to place trying to make things better.
You gotta stay.
Like me, I’ve been here since I was 30.
I’m 56.
-Nice, nice.
-So I don’t like to be doing
all that moving around.
-So you believe stay with your community,
if things get turbulent don’t just leave?
-Just don’t leave.
-Okay, that’s good advice actually.
-There’s a lot of
elder people here, you know?
There’s a few young people still around
but you know,
half of ’em, the ones that here,
they don’t do a lot of gang violence.
They don’t do a lot of
killing and the like.
If they do it just be something
now and then something happen like that.
-There’s not much gang stuff?
-No, it’s not.
You can get up, and move,
and go wherever you want to go.
You can go wherever.
Do whatever.
Even the Blacks and the Whites,
we all get along.
-She was White.
-And she waved. [giggles]
They just blend in with us, you know,
but ain’t no problem.
We don’t have no racial thing
against no people or nothing like that.
Even though this town
been through history.
-Oh, yeah.
-But it ain’t about all that though.
It just who you know,
and what you know, you know?
-So the racial problems were way worse
back in the day obviously?
-Yeah, it was.
-In the ’60s, ’64, ’65?
-Yeah, something like that, uh-huh.
-But you think it’s gotten better in the
’70s, ’80s, ’90s it keeps getting better
on that front.
-Uh-huh, it get better with time.
That lady over there,
she got a biracial kid so…
That she had adopt
so it just get better with time.
Good things come to those who wait.
And like since I been here
since that storm
it don’t bother me.
I tell people you got to pray more harder,
in time, it will change.
If you pray more harder,
God do more things in your life
than you think he will.
For those Americans watching
I think it’s really hard for us
to fully understand what’s going on
in the country at any given time
because there’s just so much information.
It’s such a massive place.
So the tornado here, I had no clue of.
No understanding of.
And when I lived on the West Coast
or when I grew up in the Northeast
when I’d hear of tornadoes or hurricanes
I didn’t really think anything of it.
You know, it’s almost a foreign concept.
And then if you’re here
and there’s a big earthquake,
there hasn’t been one for a while
but you don’t know what that is either.
So it’s really hard to fully grasp
what’s going on in the country
but when you get into these communities
and see what they’re dealing with
first hand,
You’re like, “Oh wow, that’s rough.”
They’re rebuilding here still
one year later.
[train horn blows]
[Peter] A lot of history?
So you remember it in ’64, 65?
-At that time your parents
kind of sheltered you a lot.
So you didn’t get a chance to see
a lot of bad things that was happening.
I remember one time
our dad wouldn’t let us go out and play.
He’d tell us there was bears in the woods.
So we couldn’t go out and play
like we normally would go out and play.
-There’s a lot of history
that did not make it to the news… a lot.
I think I was in maybe
the seventh or eighth grade
and the kids stole the bus
to go to the bridge march.
They was crossing the bridge,
they stole a bus,
teenagers got on the bus…
I mean the kids got on the bus
but they made us get off the bus
because we was too little
to go to the march.
-Oh, wow.
-I remember stuff like that. [laughs]
-That’s amazing.
[both ladies laughing]
[Peter] Ladies, take care.
[Peter] Look at this architecture,
some beautiful buildings.
[woman] I think my starter locked up.
It’s either the starter
or the solenoid, one of the two.
Solenoid’s right here,
starter’s up underneath.
-You got someone helping?
-Oh yeah, my 19-year-old son
who built me the engine is coming.
-Oh, cool.
Do you live out here in Selma?
-Yeah, I live up in Valley Grande.
-Oh cool, how is it?
-It’s good.
-You love it?
-So that tornado
just ripped through here, huh?
-It was south of here.
-Did the feds come out
and help rebuild, all that sort of stuff?
-Yeah, FEMA came.
The other organizations…
-…came in and are helping rebuild.
We’re still in the process of rebuilding.
-Still doing it?
-Where you from, man?
-Oh, okay.
I could tell you’re not from here.
-Why? How can you tell?
-‘Cause you were talking about
the tornado like it was yesterday,
that was almost a year ago.
-Yeah, it’s crazy all the homes
are still damaged, so many of them.
-Some of them
they actually had to tear down
because they were damaged so bad.
[somber blues]
Socioeconomics is so mixed out here.
So you have some nice stuff,
you have some really nice stuff
I mean Selma, those couple neighborhoods
were pretty hard-hitting
as far as the state of those homes
but you know,
that’s not the majority today.
I didn’t think the country roads
would be this beautiful in Alabama.
You never know until you go.
It’s so wild how things just snap
from one end of the spectrum to the other.
That old home, run down gas station…
New gas station.
Baptist church.
And they love their old pickups.
I see these all over the place.
I gotta say the Black Belt today looks
better than many parts of the country.
I mean if I’m gonna compare to Appalachia,
there are parts of Appalachia
that look way worse off economically.
Greensboro’s got a few empty store fronts
but the town looks pretty good
I gotta say.
I don’t know if this is an Alabama thing
but do people not
[chuckling] go outside?
It’s a bit chilly, it’s 57 degrees out,
but all of these towns seem very quiet.
Where is everyone?
[Peter] What’s going on in Greensboro?
-Nothing, for real.
-[Peter] Not much happening out here?
-[woman] Huh-uh.
-Where do you guys all go, Tuscaloosa?
-That place is happening, huh?
-It is.
[both chuckling]
[Peter] Take care, ma’am.
[Peter] Guys, they make you gamble
before going to the bathroom?
Is that the story?
[man] No, we want to gamble,
they don’t make you do it.
-Thank you for your service, sir, Vietnam.
-You guys did some tough work out there.
-Oh, yeah.
A lot of folks
don’t recognize what we had to do
or what we had to go through.
-They don’t give you the recognition?
-They have no idea, huh?
-No, especially a Black man.
If you Black back then.
-But how ’bout now?
-In some places it’s a little better
but it ain’t like the old days.
It ain’t like the old days, no.
-How long were you over there
in Vietnam for?
-11 months, 23 days.
-That was back in the ’60s
when I was over there.
-Were you drafted?
-Yeah, drafted.
-You were drafted, wow.
What was it like?
It was rough. [laughs]
-I don’t even like to talk about it.
-Oh okay, I’m sorry.
Well thank you for your service, sir.
[woman laughing]
[Peter] So in Greenboro, no barbecue?
-No Barbecue.
-Selma, no barbecue?
-They don’t have any barbecue in Selma?
-One of those places got hit
by the tornado and they’re rebuilding.
-So where do I go?
They have two or three,
maybe three or four in Tuscaloosa.
That’s gonna be the closest.
-That’s the closest barbecue?
What is that, 30 miles?
Oh, and Demopolis has a bunch of ’em.
-Okay, Tuscaloosa
has better barbecue though you think?
They have Dreamland
and what the other couple of them?
-[man] Full moon.
-[woman] Full moon.
[Peter] So that’s what, 30 miles?
Something like that?
[woman] About 40 miles.
Tuscaloosa’s about 40 miles from here.
-About 45 minute drive.
-All right ma’am, thank you.
-All right.
All right guys, just got into Tuscaloosa.
Here we have a pulled pork sandwich
with some barbecue.
Ran out of time today
and got dark right at the end.
So I just went
as quickly as I could to get here.
That’s good.
Just checked into the hotel room.
That was a long day of driving.
Much longer than I thought it would be.
I thought we’d get into Tuscaloosa
before nightfall.
Unfortunately, no.
Beautiful looking city though,
clean streets, nice store fronts.
Some final thoughts from today,
firstly, I thought the countryside
would’ve looked worse.
It was actually quite pretty.
Rolling hills, tree lined roads,
nice fields.
Some of the neighborhoods
you know, looked a bit blown out.
Really in a bad place.
Especially where that tornado
touched down in Selma.
I didn’t expect to see
the after effects of that
but I also didn’t expect to see
nice neighborhoods
and really nice properties,
and I don’t know…
I thought it would be…
You know, because I did some reading
on the area
and it’s one of the poorer regions
in the state and in the South.
So therefore I though, hmm,
there probably won’t be much charm
but I was wrong.
Some of those towns
we went through today looked really nice.
Some better than others
and I didn’t roll the camera
on every town either, guys.
‘Cause it was getting
a bit redundant, you know?
It was all day.
I think we left at 9:00 in the morning
and it’s now 6:30.
So unfortunately didn’t meet more people.
That always makes these journeys cooler
but the ones we did,
we got some good local insight.
Which is always interesting.
All right guys,
this is part of a Deep South series.
I have a link down below, playlist link.
You can see all the videos.
Really fascinating part of the country.
Thanks for coming along on that journey.
Until the next one.
[somber blues]

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