In Lowndes County, getting free means getting infrastructure

Catherine Coleman Flowers in SSZ. Photo by Danielle Purifoy

Catherine Coleman Flowers lives in a planned suburban community in Montgomery, but her heart is in Lowndes County. She grew up in Black Belt, a small unincorporated community neighboring White Hall.

“I would go walking by myself, I would pick plums, and I would walk through the corn fields,” she said. “I was a writer. So I would be inspired to write poetry by spending time by myself…now I realize I was spending time with nature back then. That wasn’t what it was called, because all we had around us was nature.”

A student activist and an Air Force Veteran, Flowers’ political education was rooted in the freedom rights movement in Lowndes County; both of her parents were heavily involved. But she was influenced just as much by the daily ethics of her local community as by their political engagement.

“Everybody had big families pretty much, my family was five children, and we would all be [on our neighbor, Ms. Shug’s porch] in the evenings listening to Ernie’s Record Mart on the radio—that’s how we kept up with music,” she said.

“And Ms. Nell’s house was popular because [she] used to pierce ears and sometimes she would sell little stuff…snacks and so forth. And that’s where the [community water] pump was located. Most people didn’t have running water in their houses. We had an outhouse, too, although we had the bones for the plumbing in the house. Other people had outhouses.

"There were hog pens nearby, and people had chickens because they grew their own food. So when we would go to visit—it was customary people would give you something. And it was usually something they grew themselves. So we always had fresh vegetables. Whenever a hog was slaughtered, everyone in the community got some. It was a community event. That was my environment that I grew up in. That’s why I realized now more and more now that I get older, that it’s shaped who I am today. Because we had that whole sense of community.”

As a young woman, Flowers left her community, living and working for decades in major cities—DC, Atlanta, Detroit—the latter where many Black folk fled from Lowndes County as part of the Great Migration. She once dreamed of being a Soul Train dancer and a Hollywood filmmaker.

She became a teacher and historian instead—once working with civil rights historian Taylor Branch, and more recently African American literature and history scholar Henry Louis Gates on their respective histories of Lowndes County. She is avid follower of her family's genealogy, tracing it back long before the Civil War—to the Carolinas, to Virginia, to Thomas Jefferson's descendants on Sally Hemings’ side.

She ultimately staked her future back in Lowndes County, returning in 2000 to continue the work of building Black freedom and autonomy.

"When I went back home in 2000... I saw that things hadn’t changed that much," Flowers said. "I mean, there were Black elected officials, but in terms of having access to wastewater infrastructure, I saw that that was not there. And I also saw there wasn’t an investment in making sure that people had some of the other kinds of amenities. People still had to drive long distances to maybe get to a pharmacist or get to a well-stocked grocery store."

Her recommitment to Lowndes County was rooted in the rich community legacy her parents left behind. Her father, JC Coleman, a veteran and salesman who once challenged the powerful incumbent Black Sheriff John Hulett for office in 1974, died in 2000.

Her mother, Mattie DeBardelaben Coleman, was a community activist who organized with the National Welfare Rights Organization to investigate the forced sterilization—including her own—of Black women as part of the eugenics experiments in Alabama. She was also a teacher's aide in special education at the local schools. She was killed in a murder-suicide two years later while trying to assist a man with mental illness. Two thousand people attended her funeral.

"My parents were like the jailhouse lawyers of our community. Anytime someone had a problem, they would knock on my parents’ door all times of the day and night, " Flowers said. "Whenever [community members] would get letters from the government, had to make decisions, even criminal cases, they would come and ask for their advice.

"Another word [for my parents] would be ‘fixers’, ‘cause that’s basically what they did. [My mother's murder] was pretty traumatic but from that I knew that they had prepared me for this. My father loved Lowndes County, and my mother...died helping somebody. And that’s kind of the way my family has always been. We’ve been blessed with skills and the access that other people don’t have, and what I was taught is that instead of using your skills and your access just for yourself, you help the community, too. And that’s what I try to do."

Embraced by her community, Flowers began working in Lowndes County as an economic development officer. Seventeen years later, she is the founder and executive director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), a community development corporation based in White Hall that fights to build basic infrastructure throughout the County.

"I found out [economic development] couldn’t happen without infrastructure. Because a lot of places are not going anywhere if you don’t have certain types of infrastructure—be it natural gas, electricity, water, and wastewater treatment. And there was no wastewater treatment.”

Beyond the lack of extensive sewer systems, much of the Black Belt soil is thick loam or clay, making it difficult for standard septic systems to percolate water. More adaptive systems often cost 2-3 times the standard systems.

“A lot of my work has focused since 2005 on the wastewater issue, specifically. And that’s been one of the hardest things in the world,” she said.

"But it’s been an education as well. I’ve learned a lot about how it contributes to rural poverty, lack of productivity because of being exposed possibly to illnesses that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And since that time I’ve gotten a lot of traction and realized it’s not just a Lowndes County problem, it’s an American problem. We have this problem throughout the United States.”

Wastewater sanitation remains one of the most challenging infrastructure challenges in the U.S. impacting the health of communities from the colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border to the San Joaquin Valley to the wealthy White communities on Cape Cod, MA.

The challenges vary in type or degree; however, the communities impacted are mostly Black, Brown, and poor. Thus, though Flowers describes former White Hall mayor John Jackson as a “community mayor” who fought for decades to grow the town, the infrastructure proved nearly impossible to attain, particularly when compared to other long-established towns in Lowndes County.

“[White Hall] grew, but it still didn’t have the infrastructure,” Flowers said. “Hayneville has the infrastructure because Hayneville was a White town and it was the county seat. Fort Deposit had the infrastructure because Fort Deposit was a White town.

The Black towns didn’t have the infrastructure. I think White Hall should’ve had the infrastructure more than 30 years ago by virtue of where it was located. And it could’ve thrived with that infrastructure in place. But when I was doing economic development, I remember the first meeting I had with the person who was the head of the Economic Development office in Alabama, and he said to me 'Why would anybody go to Lowndes County except to get to Selma or Montgomery?' That’s what we had to overcome and still trying to overcome.”

Beatrice Anderson lives in Lowndes County for her freedom. At 36, she and her husband Keon Dudley choose to raise their five children in their hometown White Hall, which they prefer to most places. Both grew up in homes without indoor plumbing; they now work as occasional plumbers, laying water pipes and installing septic systems, mostly in trailers set up on Black family homesteads.

Anderson lived with her family in Montgomery once, for about a year. It didn’t work out.

“It wasn’t nothing like down here,” she said. “Cops used to come to your home just to harass you. I like the country—I love the country. You can feel free. You sit on your porch, you speak to your neighbors, sometimes your neighbors don’t bother you or nothing like that, you play your music, fire up your grill, and you don’t got to worry about the police coming through saying turn your radio down, you can’t sit here, drink your beer, you know things like that. You know to me, it feels like it’s a little private. It’s laid back. That’s what I like about it. And it’s got a lot of dirt. You take your shoes off in the little sand…yeah. It’s been good.”

The couple doesn't ignore the town’s needs, however. Unemployment is still high, jobs don’t pay well enough, recreation is limited—you need Army Corps permission to get access to the Holy Ground Park on the Alabama River—and there aren’t many activities for young people. Dudley became disabled at 21, after working for several years at S&C Beef Processing plant outside of Montgomery.

“I worked there about six to eight years,” he said. "I was on the kill flow, would skin cows and clean cows. Some of the chemicals and stuff threw me into having seizures. I done had a seizure at the job. We’d be sitting in the break room and I’ll wake up in the hospital. I’d just fall out. [S&C] just laid me off.”

Most White Hall residents work either at the casinos, one of the Hyundai plants, or the poultry processing plants. Big industry has the easiest entry to the county—they’re offered major tax breaks and guaranteed access to infrastructure, while the communities are left out.

“If you don’t have a tax base, and most of the companies that come into Lowndes County come in tax free…that’s a problem,” Flowers said. “So, I think the problems are the ways that the policies are written. The policies are written to favor people that have money…and I think we’re going to see that problem in poor rural areas, whether they’re Black or White. They have the same problem.”

Dudley and Anderson don’t plan to leave White Hall, at least not anytime soon. Their dreams for their hometown are practical. They want jobs that pay more than the current minimum wage—$7.25. They want activities for young people. They want gas stations and stores that aren’t far away.

Dudley wants the future White Hall to look more like Greenville, AL. “It basically looks like Montgomery, but I think it looks better,” he said. "They got a Walmart, they got a mall, a Family Dollar, General Dollar, Family Tree. It’s just a nice place to be at.”

“You’ll get the roads and stuff straightened out,” Anderson said. “You’ll keep the system up more, so they won’t try to do these little fundraisers for lack of this or lack of that. And try to bring more jobs, man. Good paying benefit jobs, 401K, got the Blue Cross Blue Shield, dental care, eye vision care, things like that. A laundromat. A hardware store.”

Aside from building infrastructure, Flowers wants White Hall to protect the landscape and the community-centered culture that raised her, that brought her back decades later.

“I would still it to maintain its rural quality,” she said. "I would like for it to have some of the amenities that some people would like to have, without having to go to Montgomery or Selma. When I think about White Hall, I think of a quiet community with a certain type of lifestyle that’s relaxed. I wouldn’t like to see that go away.

I would like to see people still have access to clean air, clean water, and sanitation. And I would like for people that come to White Hall to have a sense of what a sustainable community looks like. I would like to see renewable energy, where people are generating their own energy, and living off the grid, if they want to. I would like for them to have those options. And I would like for them to be able to find a natural way that’s renewable to be able to sustain the community and provide jobs and economic growth and development.”

In the penultimate dispatch, we’ll take you through our final travels in Alabama, and tell you more about our upcoming exhibit at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.