His broad frame—fed and nurtured on the rich Alabama red clay—means he is often mistaken for a football player. He’s actually 25, has a shiny new degree in behavioral science from Concordia College, and is man enough to admit to binge-watching “My Little Pony.” And in case you were wondering, Kendrick Wright’s fluorescent green T-shirt clarifies that he is “The New Black.”
He’s standing outside a former warehouse-turned child development center in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, explaining why most of his peers never come back home after college. They leave to chase jobs and opportunities denied their families since the days when cotton was King and Selma broke the back of legal segregation. But Wright is choosing a different path. “I did not want to be the person the community invested their time in,” who cashes out and leaves, says Wright, who is interning in summer of 2016 at Better Activities Make All-Around Kids (BAMA Kids) While he pursues a license in social work.
“I want to invest in the next generation. We have enough people here who care about this community. Sometimes you’ve got to be the change.”
History has shown individuals make change. But systems determine whether those changes stick. Alabama was the backdrop for thrilling and iconic Civil Rights policy victories in the 1960s, but very few of the spoils have come to the Black Belt. The region remains home to some of the most persistent poverty and segregation in the United States, and young people remain systematically starved of resources and opportunity.
“The Black Belt is like a black hole—it sucks you in, and you almost have to die, or get some money, some kind of way to leave,” says Rodney T. Pelt, founder of the education organization Mind Changers, Inc.
A color-coded pattern was set during slavery times, when families in bondage were concentrated in cotton plantations in these 10 Alabama “Black Belt” counties. Trade along the Alabama, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee rivers helped make the region’s plantation economy the fourth richest in the United States. Historians have connected the wealth generated from the labor and soil of the Black Belt to great fortunes in the Northeast United States and in Great Britain.
After the Civil War, the black Great Migration to the north continued to drain resources from the Black Belt. Today the overall population continues to shrink, squeezing today’s Black Belt youth into bleak corners. “The biggest industry in the Black Belt is poverty; poverty drives the Black Belt,” says Pelt, who is also part of the 100 Black Men of Alabama.
“That’s why a lot of people leave, because they are tired of being poor. I tell my students all the time: people don’t fail because it is hard to succeed; they fail because it is easy to fail. And the Black Belt makes it so easy to fail.”
The most obvious trap is the education system. Pelt and about a dozen advocates from across the region gathered during the summer of 2016 around a table at the Black Belt Community Foundation, an organization with the motto “Taking what we have to make what we need.” The grantees from across the region each tell strikingly similar stories of how the state’s wealth is systematically siphoned away from children of the historic Black Belt.
The tax base in black counties is a fraction of their white neighbors. Even within the counties, disadvantage is concentrated in the public schools, and the limited private resources that exist are funneled toward white children. In Sumter, the publicly funded Sumter Central High School enrolls mostly black kids; the Christian, private-run Sumter Academy is mostly white and supported by private business. In Wilcox County, there is Central High School, and then the miniscule private Wilcox Academy. In nearby Tuscaloosa, a new predominantly white public school has been carved from two racially mixed schools, leaving the other two overwhelmingly poor and black.
“We are racially divided. It is no secret. It is just the way it is,” said Marcus Campbell, the foundation’s program officer for the Boys and Men of Color initiatives and a Sumter County commissioner. “It’s so sad that if we were to join forces, it’s amazing what the county would be.”
These patterns are unsustainable for black and white residents alike, but changing them requires the ability to see something that has never existed in the Black Belt. It takes a new vision. “I think the Black Belt is a giant flower just growing,” says the renowned Alabama artist Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas. He recently converted a paper factory building located steps from the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge into a cavernous gallery and studio. There, he houses his monumental sculptures crafted from found materials across Alabama.
The artist is encouraged by the changes he’s seen since he was born in 1951. “You can tell someone who you are without dropping your head and being afraid,” he says. “But [the Black Belt] is a flower that grows because its wants to grow. We just have to find the people willing to grow with it.”
At first glance, the BAMA Kids headquarters in Camden, Alabama is not the first place one would look for growth. The Wilcox County-owned former storage facility has no central air conditioning. Plywood boards cover the corrugated iron walls to protect the children playing basketball. Still, the building is filled with the laughter and joy of 75 children milling about, studying for their ACT exams, making plans for a youth radio show, and reciting poetry they have learned under the guidance of the center’s tireless director, Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews.
Jalen Power is 15. He’s been coming to the center since the third grade. Two years later, Threadgill-Matthews tapped him to be part of a leadership program. “I don’t know why, but she asked me,” he recalls. “I don’t know why she did it. I guess she must have seen something inside of me.”
What does he think she saw in him?
He glances upward through thick glasses as he pauses to consider this question. “I guess I’m a nice person. I can speak to anyone, walk up and start talking to them,” he says. When he grows up, he plans to own a professional photography studio. He says any one of the BAMA Kids can be a leader, “as long as you are pure-hearted and you are willing to put your heart into what you do.”