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I don't come from a big city, but I'm not used to the kind of quiet you find in Lowndes County. There are no distractions—the vast, four-lane stretch of U.S. Hwy 80 between Selma and Montgomery has as many empty moments as congested ones. Many times I stop my car in the middle of the road just to shoot pictures of the clouds, which sit so low it seems like you could reach up and touch them.
My iPhone signal is weak, so my eyes look at the trees and open fields instead.
There's almost too much green to take in, but that's to be expected in the Black Belt. The region is named after its Blackland Prairie soil—black on the top, chalk and clay layers underneath, and so fertile it birthed King Cotton, Black slave labor serving as midwife. Cotton built White wealth and institutions across the Western hemisphere, accounting for 60% of U.S. exports on the eve of the Civil War in 1860.
As I drive, I think about what it means that Lowndes County, and most of the Alabama Black Belt, still survives by exporting resources, rather than investing them locally. Most of what I see growing up along Hwy 80, along the shaded gravel side roads, will be sent elsewhere—to feed and clothe other communities, to develop other towns.
Over 65% of the county's land is absentee-owned—mostly by White planters who take advantage of the soil to grow timber and other crops or White vacationers who build second homes on cheap land. Both take advantage of the low property taxes—Alabama's are the lowest in the nation, farm owners are offered special tax incentives, and there are a number of powerful legal and political barriers to property tax reform in the state.
What this means is that the Black residents of Lowndes County—over 70% of the population—are (still) beholden to the priorities and interests of White landowners, who now control their futures from faraway cities, rather than from plantation estates next door.
In the parking lot of the White Hall Piggly Wiggly Express, Torkwase (my colleague) and I—and Studio South Zero (SSZ)—are a distraction. Some people ask if we're running a food truck. Others drop by the empty, air-conditioned storefront where we're doing interviews to ask if we're here to finally open a new business.
They don't hide their disappointment when we state our purpose.
We're on a long list of enquirers to arrive in the county, to ask for their time, to gather information, to make promises, and then leave.
And what changes?
Catherine Coleman Flowers has fought Lowndes County's infrastructure challenges for 16 years. Like Omega Wilson, who has been at it in Alamance County for 23 years, the gains have been partial, hard won, and with the aid of hidden and unlikely figures—for Omega, a sympathetic attorney in Janet Reno's U.S. Department of Justice; for Catherine, a couple of sympathetic conservative Alabama state officials—Black and White.
But how does one beat plantation power?
Torkwase and I hauled SSZ through Lowndes County with our friend and Birmingham-based artist/professor, Tony M. Binghamand his son Isaiah. We crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, and then drove two hours to an incorporated Black town of less than 200 people called Epes, Alabama.
As we drove through another Black place, Uniontown, which garnered national attention for its $4.8M investment in a failed wastewater sanitation system, I considered the words of the late urban planning scholar, Clyde Woods, who devoted his career to understanding the social conditions of Black spaces—especially in the South, which he called "development arrested."
Woods argued that the 20th century movement for civil rights reinforced plantation power, rather than destroyed it, because the efforts centered on greater inclusion within the existing plantation system rather than an overhaul of the system itself.
Black folks who wanted to fundamentally change the system of landownership and rural development were overruled by those wanting to fight for voting and desegregation.
It's not that political voice was unimportant. It's that political voice had little meaningful power if White planters still owned and controlled the land—and the future of the rural economy.
The election of Black officials in places like Lowndes County thus had tremendous symbolic meaning, but didn't create nearly the substantial changes hoped for by civil rights organizers in low income rural Black communities.
In Epes, our caravan visited the annual conference of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), a self-described "self-help economic movement" founded in 1967 in response to the "reality …that low-income rural communities in the South were being left behind in the civil rights movement."
The FSC works through networks of mostly Black family farmers and other Black landowners to support the development of land cooperatives and credit unions, both of which pool private resources for the collective benefit of all members, in the service of economic self-sufficiency.
A steady stream of conference attendees stepped into SSZ, with an equally steady stream of questions—How much power in the solar panels? How much did it cost to build? Were we selling others like it?
By the end of the day, we'd met dozens of farmers, landowners, and small business owners, many from North Carolina—one of whom I know from the NC Environmental Justice Network, an organization started in the state's own Black Belt region.
We connected with Francia Elena Márquez Mina, an Afro-Colombian activist who sought allies in the Mobilization of Women for Care for Life and Ancestral Territories, a fight for land preservation and self-sufficiency in the northern Cauca region of the country—settled by formerly enslaved Africans.
That night, as we drove back to Montgomery on roads lit only by cars and stars, I thought about how organizations like FSC hadn't defeated plantation power, but had nevertheless subverted it through an old community ethic of collectivism that I recalled from most of our interviews—from Ruby Rudolph and Beatrice Anderson (White Hall, Alabama) to Eleanor Graves and Carolyn Poteat (West End and Cheeks Cross, North Carolina), to Catherine Coleman Flowers and Omega Wilson.
In our last interview, the following day, a man named John Mays, 60 years old, said that although he hadn't known running water or indoor toilets growing up, and still grapples with wastewater sanitation at his home, White Hall's way of life was fulfilling because his family—17 children who never went a day hungry—could take care of itself. They lived off the land, and traded with other families for things that each didn't have.
"I think it started changing back in the '70s…people not close knitted like they used to be," Mays said. "People making up their mind, they're leaving home, they're going in different directions, they think, living the lifestyle they was living was I guess you could say a poor lifestyle. But Dad told me—say farming was all that he knew and it's part of me…and yeah I stayed gone for 20 years, but I'm right back where I was born at. And come right back digging in the ground."
I don't think any of these stories negates the importance of infrastructure. Everyone needs clean drinking water and healthy sanitation systems. But what underlies the lack of infrastructure—entrenched plantation power—suggests that the traditions of collectivism now embodied by organizations like the FSC may be worth revisiting as a means of building the power and resources necessary to find alternative pathways to infrastructure.
Examples from Latin America, like condominial sewerage—a decentralized, community-participatory sanitation system that services blocks of communities rather than individual households—might serve as a helpful model for Lowndes and Alamance Counties, even if it triggers—as it most likely would—brand new fights against the powers that be…
In the final dispatch of In Conditions of Fresh Water, we will offer parting thoughts on lessons learned throughout the project, and talk next steps. We will also offer a photoessay covering highlights of our work, including our exhibit and speaker series! See below for details.
NOTE: In Conditions of Fresh Water: An Artistic Exploration of Environmental Racism, is now on view at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies through June 3, 2017! A huge thank you to all who attended the exhibit opening and panel discussion on March 2nd, and to the Scalawag team for their constant support.
We've got two final events connected to the exhibit. If you're in town on Monday, March 20th, please do check out our Artists' Conversation with Torkwase Dyson and curator/scholar Dr. Rich Blint at Duke Center for Documentary Studies, 7PM.
And on Thursday, March 23rd, from 11:45am-1:15pm, Duke Nicholas School of the Environment is hosting our Public Lecture by civil engineer and urban planning scholar, Dr. Earthea Nance of Texas Southern University. Dr. Nance will be discussing the community movement in Brazil for sanitation using the condominial sewerage model. Lunch will be served.