It may be true that the “black belt” originally referred to the dark, rich topsoil blanketing nineteen counties that stretch across Alabama’s lower half. But when tens of thousands of African slaves were forced to grow and harvest the cotton sprung from that fertile soil on plantations in the 1800s, the meaning inevitably shifted. After the Civil War, enough free blacks remained to work the land as sharecroppers that they still outnumbered the local population of white aristocracy. The harsh inequities of Jim Crow undoubtedly also helped make the region fertile ground for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the televised “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers in Selma. Today, the Black Belt designation lives on, now used to define a “heritage area” that acknowledges its painful past while promoting its cultural and natural resources.
This was also the home of the music tradition we now know as “Black Belt Blues.”