February 16, 2023 |Phillip Howard

Conserving Land and History in Alabama’s Black Belt

The Black Belt is a region named for its dark, nutrient-rich soil, and in Alabama is stretches across the south-central portion of the state. The fertile soil made the Black Belt a center for cotton production using enslaved people prior to the Civil War. A century later, Black Belt cities such as Marion, Selma and Montgomery, as well as the surrounding rural communities, were the site of key events and home of visionary leaders during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sunset over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photo by Shannon Lee.

In recognition of the culture, history and natural resources of the region, a 14-county area of the Alabama Black Belt was officially designated a National Heritage Area in January 2023, paving the way for new funding and tourism opportunities. National Heritage Areas are created by Congress through legislation and defined as places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. While they collaborate with the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas are large lived-in landscapes and not considered national parks.

The Conservation Fund’s Civil Rights People and Places initiative has been working on the ground in Alabama’s Black Belt with many of these same goals in mind.

We’ve been working to uncover and share previously untold stories of the families who offered their land as safe harbors for weary marchers in 1965 along what has since become the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. The campsites were included among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2021, which helped bring attention and recognition to these important sites.

I was proud to be part of the documentary “54 Miles to Home” in collaboration with representatives of the Hall, Steele and Gardner families and Southern Exposure Films. Two more documentaries are in the works, including one with Alabama Public Television about Arthur Shores, a Black attorney and Civil Rights activist in Alabama, and a second film with Southern Exposure Films will examine the contributions of Marion, Alabama and its residents to the Civil Rights movement.

The families of David Hall, Rosie Steele and Robert Gardner met on the Hall family property, designated as Campsite 1 along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Films.

The approaching 60th anniversary of the historic Selma to Montgomery march is reinvigorating efforts to better preserve places like the campsites and other important Civil Rights landmarks. In partnership with the City of Montgomery, The Conservation Fund convened a meeting in the summer of 2022 to discuss the region’s collective historic preservation goals. Participants included the mayors of Montgomery, Selma, Marion and White Hall, as well as representatives from The Conservation Fund, federal officials and stakeholders from historic Civil Rights sites in neighboring Black Belt counties. We look forward to working with the City and County councils of Montgomery, Selma and Marion, and the Lowndes County Mayor’s Council, to continue driving this collective conversation.

Left to right: White Hall Mayor Delmartre Bethel, Selma Mayor James Perkins, Montgomery Mayor Steven L. Reed and Marion Mayor Dexter
Hinton met in Montgomery in partnership with The Conservation Fund to explore preserving landmarks of the Civil Rights movement.
Photo courtesy Lois Cortell.

Building on this momentum, last year we were awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Rural Placemaking Innovation Challenge (RPIC) to help protect important Civil Rights sites in central Alabama while pursuing a variety of related, community-focused goals specifically in Perry, Dallas and Lowndes counties, along with the cities of Selma, Marion and White Hall.

Over the next two years, we will be working with a coalition of diverse partners and stakeholders to craft and implement a plan to better protect and interpret the regions natural assets and historic places that played critical role in the Civil Rights movement and American history. The goals of the coalition include identifying at-risk cultural, historic and ecological sites, and outlining a plan to protect and revitalize those sites for the economic benefit of these rural Black Belt communities. We will also help communities build economic, social and cultural vitality by improving blighted structures, supporting community heritage, arts and culture, along with fostering greenspaces and trails. Where lack of communication and competition for resources may once have hindered cooperation, we’re working to strengthen connections between the organizational partners and to create and advance a shared vision.

Selma, Alabama. Photo by Shannon Lee.

We recently conducted our first working session with community members, local, state and federal partners at the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. Notably, this church was the site of the first mass meeting of the Selma Voting Rights Movement in 1963, and the church’s current membership still includes residents who participated in the iconic march. Several of these “Selma Foot Soldiers” attended our working group meeting, along with representatives from other historic sites across the region — places like the Lincoln Normal School and the Old Cahawba Road to Freedom Wagon Trail. Participants also included State Representative Robert Stewart, Marion Mayor Dexter Hinton, and Selma Councilmember Clay Carmichael, as well as leadership from the National Park Service, USDA Rural Development Authority, and the Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, among others.

“I think the meeting is a great start in obtaining community input, recognizing potential stakeholders and engaging community members in conversations about sustainability and their interests."

- – Vincent Hall, Regional Coordinator for the Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium

Our first working group meeting was hosted by the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama. Left: Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr;
Right: Photo courtesy Phillip Howard.

Support for a collaborative planning process is strong, and we are currently working to organize additional working group meetings and establish a series of peer-to-peer learning and engagement opportunities.

The Conservation Fund looks forward to establishing new connections and deepening existing relationships across the multiple communities in Alabama’s Black Belt as we continue our work in the region.

Written by

Phillip Howard

Phillip Howard is the Civil Rights People and Places Program Manager for The Conservation Fund. He is dedicated to preserving, restoring and raising awareness of the Civil Rights movement in his home state of Alabama.