Sometimes slow and subtle, at other times fast-paced and bold, change on the landscape has been a constant in Alabama’s Black Belt region. The themes and storylines of the byway illustrate the significance of the continuous interrelationship between people and the land in shaping the unique history and culture of the region.
Mississippian people before Europeans first passed through the region in the 16th century, when the Black Belt region was a vast prairie where huge herds of bison roamed. The Mississippian stage—from A.D. 1050 to A.D. 1540—was an era of intensive agriculture, settled towns, mound and monument building. The area’s major rivers and tributaries were both a source of food and trade highways for the Mississippian people. Less than two centuries after DeSoto explored the region, disease destroyed the native population, settlements were abandoned and an age-old culture vanished. In the early 19th century, only a few Anglo-Americans lived in the Black Belt where Creeks and Choctaws farmed along the rivers and hunted on the prairie. Take a look at some evidence of these ancient cultures at the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, located about 13 miles off the byway from Selma. Follow the self-guided nature trail through Old Cahawba’s town commons, and explore the bluffs overlooking the Alabama River.
Beginning in 1817, “Alabama Fever” spread and thousands of American yeomen abruptly left their homes to purchase land, work the soil, and grow cotton in Black Belt. In 1819, Alabama was admitted to the Union, and two decades later the native Indian tribes were forced west of the Mississippi. Life on the rivers changed too; substantial trade towns and cities—Cahawba, Selma, Demopolis—sprang up along the riverbanks. The world changed again in the 1860s, a decade of war, upheaval and emancipation. African-Americans in the Black Belt were free but impoverished, had few rights and lacked political power. Faced with substantial social, political and economic challenges, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, at Tuskegee Institute, launched innovative vocational opportunities rooted in the landscape of the region. Visit the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site for a deeper look into this historic part of the byway. The George Washington Carver Museum celebrates Carver’s contributions to the natural resources of the Black Belt through photographs, artifacts, and audiovisual programs. Enjoy a day exploring history at the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site on the Alabama Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail.
Imagination—entwined with pragmatism—has long played a significant role in the Black Belt region. The striking architecture that distinguished the grand plantation homes of the antebellum era are one manifestation of the inspired imagination that can still be seen on the landscape. Today, inhabitants of the Black Belt continue to champion the life of the imagination by reviving, perpetuating, and celebrating indigenous folk art, craft traditions, and treasured customs throughout the region, which are rooted in custom and the landscape. Explore the Demopolis Historic District, located on the byway about 35 miles from the Mississippi/Alabama border. Originally settled by French political exiles as the Vine and Olive Colony, Demopolis is now home to Gaineswood and Bluff Hall, two impressive architectural examples from the antebellum era so present on the Alabama Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail.
The emergence of a new era of racial harmony and equality took decades of painstaking struggle, courageous effort, trial and error. Black Belt residents also demonstrated interest in the well-being of the natural landscape in the latter part of the 20th century. Locals worked to restore the environment, clean polluted waterways, preserve habitats, protect threatened and endangered species, promote sustainable practices and encourage wholesome recreational activities—birding, hiking, camping and canoeing—on public lands. Change has occurred in a host of different ways in the Black Belt, whether dramatic or barely visible, change, in culture, society and nature, has long been a staple in this rural and traditional region. Drive the Alabama Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail today and see the wonders of the south for yourself.