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Experiments and Innovations in Work and Education

Legacy of Slavery

When settlers came to the Black Belt to farm the rich soil, they brought with them enslaved workers. Slaves first arrived in what would become the United States in 1619. Virginia planters needed laborers to grow, harvest, and cure tobacca. The planters first attempted to enslave Native Americans, but many natives died as a result of a lack of immunity to the settlers' diseases. The planters turned to importing enslaved Africans to work their large tracts of land.

In her letters home to North Carolina, Black Belt settler Martha Hatch referred to her "Negroes" making the journey to Alabama with her. The Slave Narratives, many of which come from former slaves that worked on Black Belt plantations, offer glimpses of slavery from the viewpoint of the slaves themselves, a viewpoint from the quarters instead of from the Big House. 

It was during this time of "King Cotton" that public schools were set up throughout the state. Although the children of wealthy planters attended academies or were privately tutored, six out of ten Alabama children were not attending school of any kind in 1850. During the late nineteenth century, many rural communities raised money to support a subscription school and secured a teacher by offering to let her board with nearby families. Because of the enormous amount of wealth in the Black Belt, many of the prestigious schools of Alabama can trace their roots to this region.

Because of the slave codes, it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, although this law was not always enforced. Some slaves learned to read and write in the course of religious training, and others were taught by their young white counterparts. Even with these opportunities for education, the majority of enslaved persons remained illiterate. However, vocational training was highly encouraged, as the more skill a slave had at a certain trade, the more economically valuable that slave was. Slaves gained skills in masonry and carpentry, evidenced in the fine antebellum homes and buildings throughout the Black Belt. As renowned African American activist and educational reformer, Booker T. Washington, once said, "In a certain way, every slave plantation in the South was an industrial school."

Though the post-Civil War Reconstruction era was costly for Alabama, it proved to be an era of progress for public education and economic life in the state. Maintaining a labor system, especially in the Black Belt, was one of the leading issues after the war. While the white landowners wanted a labor force to work the land, the newly freed African Americans were resistant to going back into fields that they did not own. During this time, the sharecropping system emerged as a fundamental economic institution across the south. Sharecropping was especially prevalent in the Black Belt, where there was much unskilled labor and thousands of acres of land to farm. This labor system remained in effect in the Black Belt until well into the twentieth century.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington, a former slave, emerged as an African American leader who emphasized self-help for formerly enslaved persons. He preached a philosophy of accommodation which he made apparent during his "Atlanta Compromise" speech at the Atlanta Cotton State and International Exposition in 1895. Washington advocated "economic advancement through vocational education without challenging racial segregation and the disfranchisement for black voters."

Washington believed that the educational and economic needs of African Americans should be addressed first before they civil rights. Because of his philosophy, Washington drew support form both the white and black citizens of the Black Belt. Many of Washington's African American contemporaries criticized this philosophy and directly challenged segregation, referring to Washington as an "Uncle Tom" who was surrendering the civil rights of African Americans.

Washington wished to establish schools for African Americans that featured an "industrial" (vocationl) curriculum that combined basic literacy and numeracy skills. Young boys would participate in agricultural and trades programs, while young girls would be instructed in home economics study. On July 4, 1881, Booker T. Washington began teaching thirty students, most of whom were adults, in a one-room shanty near Butler Chapel AME Zion Church in Macon County.

Eventually, the Alabama State Legislature passes an act to establish the "Negro Normal School in Tuskegee" and authorized an appropriation of $2,000. Washington served as principal of the school from 1881 until his death in 1915. During his tenure, Washington gained institutional independence for the school. At the time of his death, Tuskegee has 1,500 students, and a $2 million endowment, 40 trades (majors), 100 fully equipped buildings, and 200 faculty.

Rosenwald School Initiative

Booker T. Washington was also instrumental in the development of schools throughout the South. During the early twentieth century, a major effort to improve the quality of African American education began when Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears and Roebuck, donated money to Tuskegee. In 1912, Rosenwald gave Washington premission to use a portion of the funds to construct six small schools in rural Alabama. One of these original six Rosenwald Schools, Shiloh, is located in Macon County.

In 1932, roughly one-quarter of all the black school children in the South were taught in Rosenwald Schools. Rosenwald schools accounted for twenty precent of all African American schools in the South when the school-building program ended in 1932. The total cost of the program was $28,408,520, and these schools served 663,615 students in 883 counties in fifteen states. Between 1913 and 1932, 407 Rosenwald schools, shops, and teacher homes were constructed in the state. Of these, approximately one dozen of these building reman, and the majority of these are located in the Black Belt region. Most of these schools remained in operation until segregation was ruled unconstitutional in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. 

Even with the accomplishments of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the majority of the schools for the former enslaved African Americans in the Black Belt were privately funded. In 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War, a group of former enslaved people formed the Lincoln School of Marion, in Perry County. In the beginning, the Lincoln School found it difficult to pay and recruit teachers, so after just one year of operation, the school trustees entered into an agreement with the American Missionary Association (AMA). The school trustees gave buildings and groups to AMA and charged the organization with making repairs to the buildings, paying teachers, and maintaining the school for at least seven months each year.

The trustees specified that the schoolhouse was to be "used in such a manner as to afford the means of education to the largest practicable number of applicants, preference being given to those preparing to teach." The school grew so large that the AMA asked the State of Alabama to take over the normal department in 1874. In 1887, the State School moved to Montgomery where it became the State Normal School (now known as Alabama State University).

Another private school for African Americans, Snow Hill Institute, was founded in 1893 by Dr. William J. Edwards, a graduate of Tuskegee University. Originally known as the Colored Literary and Industrial School, Snow Hill Institute opened as one-room log cabin with just three students. It grew to employ 35 staff members and educate 400 students. Snow Hill operated as a private institution until 1924 when it became a public school. Like other institutions formed for the education of African Americans, Snow Hill was forced to close in 1973 due to integration.

Changing Economics

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a shift from a primarily agrarian economy to more industrial economy. After the Civil War, coal, iron, ore, and railroads lured speculators in much the same way cotton and slaves had during the antebellum period. These men dreamed not only of personal wealth but of an individual revoluton that would supersede the now devastated plantation economy and form a prosperous "New South." As this industrial revolution occurred, there was a population shift from the rural areas of the Black Belt to the industrial areas, as tenant farmers and sharecroppers left the fields for manufacturing jobs.

Despite this industrialization, the Black Belt is still primarily an agricultural area, and cotton is still raised throughout the region. Over the years, however, crops have become more diversified, and since the 1980s, the raising, processing, and marketing of catfish and shrimp has become an important Black Belt industry. Hunting plantations are also a part of the current economy. In the eastern Black Belt, the Bullock County town of Union Springs is known as the "Bird Dog Field Trials Capital of the World." Timber is also an important industy supplied by the pine barrens that border the fertile belt of praire. On land where cotton once grew, cattle now graze, as cattle farming has become another important agricultural industry for Black Belt residents.