What's changed in Lowndes County, Alabama—and what hasn't

What's changed in Lowndes County, Alabama—and what hasn't

Black folk of a certain age, with left-of political leanings, respond in specific ways to mention of Lowndes County, Alabama. Even if they never drove the green stretch of U.S. Highway 80 between Montgomery and Selma, or stood on thick Black Belt soil, their eyes warm with the idea of the place, of what was made possible there.  

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Finding places of their own

Highway 80 towards White Hall, Alabama. Photos by Torkwase Dyson.

Torkwase Dyson and I spent a month this summer talking with southern Black residents, organizers, political leaders, about the places they call home. Whether or not they still live in those places, their relationship to them is stubborn, tender. They rely on these places not only because they hold life memories, but also because they carry ideas of who they are, whence they came, and what their future could be.

Postbellum Black towns were an attempt to turn amorphous, unnamed spaces into recognized places where Black folk could put space between themselves and White rules, White fears, White eyes. After cultivating White lands, working in White-owned factories, cleaning White homes, caring for White children, these were places where they could slip off their masks, release tension, rage, laughter. Go dancing at Clyde Liggins’ place in West End, or swimming in White Hall at the Holy Ground, where the Creek Nation once battled Whites and Choctaws along the Alabama River.

Worship in churches built with their own hands. Tend their own gardens.

Home in this sense is not simply a place of warmth and refuge. It is a site for resistance. For self-determination. For autonomy. For lives crafted on one’s own terms, not in spite of someone else’s.

Danielle (center) with Eleanor Graves (right) and Harlece Graves Jeffries (left).

Many of the sites of pleasure, joy, solace discussed in our conversations no longer exist. The remnants are everywhere, and everyone—regardless of age—can point them out. The old West End Elementary School—a place recalled lovingly by every person we interviewed over 50 years old—is a cluster of large trees surrounded by a circular entrance and exit. Clyde Liggins’ place—The Moonlight Inn—is an abandoned two story house sitting among other homes, both abandoned and occupied. The White Hall section of the Holy Ground park is barricaded—no one knows for how much longer.

Some folk cling more tightly to these histories than others, but everyone is aware of their existence, their importance. In this sense, regardless of the variety of visions for the future of West End, Buckhorn, White Level, Cheeks’ Crossing, East End around Mebane, North Carolina, or of White Hall in Lowndes County, Alabama, no one imagines a world in which their community does not exist. Despite persistent economic and environmental disinvestment, political exclusion, and invisibility from all levels of government, there is an insistence that these places continue, that the seven-times-great grandchildren of the first free Blacks to own land in these communities grow up on these lands, or know that they can always come home to claim them.

Torkwase (center) with George Wilson (left) and Ayo Wilson (right) in West End, North Carolina.

Our own interest in these Black towns is not incidental. Torkwase and I both have called North Carolina home for some portion of our lives. We both have ancestral ties to Alabama—hers in Birmingham, mine in a small unincorporated town called Snow Hill in the Black Belt. Further, we know that these narratives are not unique to NC and AL, and many are not even unique to the South. Our research unearthed endless numbers of Black towns, in every region, many long gone, still more holding tightly.

We brought Studio South Zero to West End and White Hall intending to create a space within the place—where we hoped people would be willing to share more with us than the accounts we could read in newspapers, in historic archives. We hoped that listening to their stories would connect us in some way to our own histories, to engage our imagination about what more is possible with Black placemaking at a time when Black spaces feel particularly imperiled—from gentrification, from policing, from environmental hazards, from climate change.

As usual, we got so much more than that. People brought family photos, artifacts, painful memories they hadn’t visited in decades, new terminology, lots of laughter.

When our solar-powered fans could no longer cut through the summer heat in West End, George Wilson brought his generator and installed a window air conditioner in the studio. He also installed external lights for the evening hours, and gifted us a door handle made of California redwood. Rylanda Ellerbe offered to take professional photographs for us after work. Omega and Brenda Wilson kept their house open for stormy days and bathroom breaks. Donald Tate and Rev. Nita Henderson opened the Mebane First Presbyterian Church for our community meeting. Jaki Shelton Green and Abdul Lateef brought us the most delicious smorgasbord for lunch one cool Monday afternoon.

In White Hall, where the temperature topped 100F, former Mayor John Jackson opened an empty air conditioned storefront for our meetings and interviews. Catherine Coleman Flowers organized the members of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) to meet with us. White Hall councilwoman Ruby Rudolph mobilized her entire network to get people to interview with us. Charlie McCall was good company and helped us with a sugar ant infestation.

Our friends, families, and partners visited us, hosted us, assisted us. We owe a special debt to visual artist Tony Bingham, who photographed our journey through Alabama.

We hope—cautiously—that there is something valuable we can offer in return.

For the next few weeks, we bring you narratives from White Hall, AL, an incorporated Black town with a long history of political organizing—most famously with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the mid-1960s to build Black power across “Bloody” Lowndes County. Despite a hard won fight for incorporation in 1979, White Hall experienced a number of challenges to desirable development and infrastructure access, which persist today. Nevertheless, just like the unincorporated communities outside of Mebane, White Hall’s residents—current and former—have no intention of letting their town be co-opted or disappeared.

Omega and Brenda Wilson in West End, North Carolina.

Omega and Brenda Wilson in West End, North Carolina.