20 Years in the Making, Black Belt Designated National Heritage Area | Regional News

Fertile black soil, sprawling farmlands with strong communities, and a history of disenfranchisement and empowerment in some of America’s most important times.

These things define the Alabama Black Belt, and that’s why residents and their representatives have pushed for the creation of the Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area for the past two decades.

Recently, these advocates have had success. President Joe Biden enacted the National Heritage Area Act, which creates in part the national designation for the region.

In 2004, the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area Task Force was formed to investigate whether the area was worthy of designation. In 2009, the answer was a resounding “yes”.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents several Black Belt counties, first introduced the House bill as the Black Belt National Heritage Area Act on May 13, 2021. On the same day, US Senators Tommy Tuberville and Richard Shelby introduced an identical bill in the Senate. Both passed at the end of 2022.

“This is a great example of how the federal government can work with local communities to ensure future generations have access to some of our nation’s most historical and cultural sites,” Tuberville said in a statement.

Now the area can receive up to $1 million in federal funding annually for the preservation and protection of important Black Belt sites.

“For the first time, many historic areas in the Black Belt will be designated as national heritage areas, freeing up additional federal funding for monument preservation, tourism and economic development. The passage of this law is the culmination of years of tireless advocacy and negotiation on behalf of Black Belt residents,” Sewell said in a statement. “As a proud Black Belt daughter, I am thrilled that this region is receiving the national recognition it deserves and I am eternally grateful to my colleagues for their support in this worthwhile endeavor.”

The University of West Alabama and the National Park Service will work together on a “strategic management plan” to determine how the annual funds will be used to best benefit the region.

Tina Naremore Jones, vice president of economic and human development at the University of West Alabama, said the appointment and funding solidifies the place and value of the black belt in US history.

“Our new heritage area will not only provide a platform to showcase the region’s rich culture, history and natural resources, but also a space where we can all learn about and appreciate our common heritage,” she said. “Moreover, heritage areas generate positive economic impacts by building local capacity through the use of shared resources. At UWA, we look forward to building on the relationships that have formed through this joint naming effort. This is an exciting day for our region.”

In addition to conservation work, the funds can be used for recreational, heritage tourism and educational projects. Although the black belt has a deep, important history, many in the area feel that it is often forgotten.

From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Belt and its people have been at the center of attention—at the Battle of Selma, the Montgomery bus boycotts, and countless other times.

“The Alabama Black Belt was named for its soil, but this region has also served as fertile ground for black history and the civil rights movement,” Emily Jones, regional director for the Southeast region of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “Civil rights activists like John Lewis put blood, sweat and tears into their work organizing and registering black voters here in the 1960s. Now more than ever, it’s important that we recognize their contributions to the ongoing fight for American suffrage.”

In the future, those who worked to create the Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area hope to see at least one result: highlighting the history of their homeland.