The Legacy of the Black Belt – Our Road Trip to Eastern North Carolina

Published on June 22, 2021.

Two weeks, 1,600 miles, 11 hotel stays, 13 organizations.

This week, Bethsaida Ruiz and I will be making a road trip to eastern North Carolina, meeting with folks who have been part of our TAKE 10 trainings who I’ve only seen on Zoom. Working with them over the last 15 months to address local issues and build civic engagement, I’ll be so happy to see them face-to-face and understand better the on-the-ground realities they experience.

We will be visiting 13 TAKE 10 groups over our two weeks on the road and they are planning tours and hospitality for our visits with their Boards, staff and community members.

In the Black Belt

The area of eastern North Carolina we will be visiting is referred to as part of the “Black Belt.” It originally got this name due to the rich, fertile, black soil in a region that extended from East Texas to Virginia. This was where cotton and tobacco grew and plantations thrived, as a result of the labor of enslaved Black people who were the majority of the population.

The Black Belt in North and South Carolina

However, poor farming techniques degraded and eroded the soil down to the limestone base. After the Civil War, the now sandy, poor farmland was occupied and farmed by descendants of the same enslaved people that once lived and worked there. What had been one of America’s richest and most politically powerful regions became the largest, poorest, most rural region in the country.

The Great Migration of 1916 to 1970 meant that many of these people headed north for jobs and hope for a better life. But for those who remained, it is also an area full of hope for better opportunities. That is the 21st century story of many of the groups we work with, like the Alpha Life Enrichment Center, one of the groups we will visit.

A TAKE 10 Welcome

Bill and Marian Booth, who run the Alpha Life Enrichment Center in Beaufort County are working on fair and equitable distribution of food and have a community farm. They will show us the Richland Township area where they are working to address the food deserts that plague their region, where grocery stores with fresh food are few and far between. It is also the home to the Aurora mine, the largest phosphate mining and chemical plant in the world. It sits on 70,000 acres, with wetlands, streams and tidal creeks that are nursery areas for many species of fish found along the Atlantic coast. Environmental groups have called this the single largest destruction of wetlands in North Carolina history.

Another group, led by Sue Perry Cole, is the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, working on health and housing issues in one of the poorest counties with some of the worst health outcomes in the state, like shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates and higher death rates from disease. Sue’s group has continued to survive and make a difference in the county even though they lost all state funding eight years ago.

Chris Suggs

The Kinston Teens, started by Chris Suggs at the age of 14, now a senior at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, works in one of the poorest counties. With a population of only around 21,000, Kinston has been ranked among the highest in North Carolina for violent crimes. Under Chris’ leadership, Kinston Teens has engaged thousands in its programs, including young people in the efforts to better their community. Kinston Teens has worked with more than 4,000 youth, organized award-winning leadership development initiatives, and has been recognized on local, state, national and global platforms for its efforts.

Stay Tuned

Bethsaida and I are excited to learn more from these resilient groups, share our trainings with them, and find out how Spirit in Action can better help them achieve their goals. We’ll let you know what we discover!

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