"The USA's population history is most often a story of growth -- of people moving to ever-growing metropolises and the challenges of accommodating them," Copeland writes from Sumpter County, Ala. "But vast sections of the nation are seeing heavy, sustained population losses, a reflection of the decline of family farming and the lack of rural jobs and economic opportunities. Some of the most drastic population decreases in the 20th Century occurred in a wide swath of rural counties in the Great Plains, from the Canadian border to Texas. Sumpter and most of the Southeast's other shrinking counties are in the so-called Black Belt, where vestiges of the Old South--de facto school segregation, poor race relations and entrenched poverty--are most prevalent. Rural towns in the Carolinas and Georgia, and especially in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, are hollowing out."
The Black Belt, named for its rich and dark topsoil that attracted plantation owners to a swath of land running from Mississippi to Georgia. Today, it can refer more broadly to a rough crescent of hundreds of counties with significant African-American population from Virginia to Texas. It is sometimes defined even more broadly, to include northern Florida and the Mississipi Delta as far north as the southern tip of Illinois. It is sometimes defined economically, as in this map from the University of Georgia's Initiative on Poverty and the Economy. For its other maps, click here.
TheBlack Belt's population loss and that of the Great Plains stems largely from out-migration of young people. Land-grant universities in Black Belt states are seeking solutions to the region's problems. They and some congressional representatives and community leaders want a federal Black Belt Commission, similar to the Appalachian Regional Commission. "There's a growing understanding that it takes more than civil rights laws to make the needed changes," says Terrance Winemiller, an associate professor of anthropology and geography at Auburn University-Montgomery and lecturer on the Black Belt. "It takes preparation and a regional involvement. In fact, I would say even a national involvement." Read Copeland's full story here.