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What’s the Black Belt? Alabama Education Policy Center sets out to define it

A number of different federal and state agencies and private groups have different definitions of the Black Belt. So what is it?

Eddie Burkhalter

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The problems that plague Alabama’s Black Belt are widely known, but there’s no single definition of what constitutes the Black Belt, and without one, that makes it difficult to find long-term solutions to those problems, according to a report released Tuesday.

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center set out to define exactly which counties should be included in the definition of the Black Belt. Traditionally, the region is defined as areas of South-Central Alabama where slaves once tended cotton fields and where today many small Black communities are hard-hit by an exodus of their youth and economic and educational realities not shared by their wealthier, whiter neighboring communities.

The center’s report, entitled “Defining Alabama’s Black Belt Region,” used a broader definition of the area that includes 24 counties but notes that some — including Crenshaw, Pike, Montgomery and Russell counties — haven’t suffered as badly as others.

Numerous other state and federal entities define the Black Belt as comprising between 12 and 23 Alabama counties.

Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center and one of the authors of the report, told reporters during an online briefing Monday that they decided to use a more inclusive definition because there was no reason to exclude any county.

Katsinas said the decision to come to an agreed-upon definition of the Black Belt is an important policy discussion to have because you can’t “improve what you can’t measure, and we can’t measure it right now.”

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Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and a pre-eminent historian of Alabama and the South, told reporters Monday that there is both a historical and geological definition of the Black Belt, where the vast sea that once covered the land receded, leaving behind chalk formations in the earth, which is partly responsible for the rich soil to which cotton and other crops take easily.

But the Black Belt didn’t get its name due to the black soil, Flint said, but rather because of the people who worked those fields and lived on the land: Black slaves who gave way to Black sharecroppers in the years after the Civil War.

“If you use a geological definition of the Black Belt, you get one thing,” Flint said. “If you use a historical one, you get another, and as you get attitudes toward race, it varies with time and history, and so it’s a lot more complicated.”

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Art Dunning, former vice chancellor of the UA System and a native of Marengo County, considered by all entities as a Black Belt county, told reporters during Monday’s briefing that his memory of the Black Belt is around the issues of politics, economics and social structures.

“And it’s through the eyes of coming of age on those issues as a teenager,” Dunning said.

Dunning said during the 1950s, when he traveled to Selma to shop at the age of 14 or 15, Black people could not stand on the streets but had to wait in two places: a grocery store parking lot or a Black-only waiting room at the Greyhound bus station.

His father was a high school principal and his mother a teacher, but Dunning said he had friends whose families were sharecroppers, and he got an up-close glimpse as to what was causing the migration of Black people out of the Black Belt.

“One was the dehumanization and stigma that was tied to the politics, history and culture of the region,” Dunning said. “The other was terror and violence. And lastly, the belief that there’s inherent superiority and inherent inferiority.”

“All of those structures are tied around those things, and people who like me, could not wait to get out of those under-resourced high schools, poor facilities, poor supplies to go to Southside Chicago, to go to Philadelphia, to New York, to Oakland and to San Francisco,” Dunning said.

Katsinas said the fact that there’s never been a concrete definition of the Black Belt says a lot about Alabama, and that in the center’s effort to define it, he could agree with varying aspects of what was discussed during Monday’s briefing.

“What I can’t go with is to do nothing,”  Katsinas said. “I think there’s a cost of doing nothing, and that cost is the cost we should not accept paying for anymore.”

Tuesday’s report is the latest in the center’s series of reports on the Black Belt. To find others, visit the center here.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Economy

Governor announces auto supplier IAC plans Alabama expansion

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County.

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey announced Monday that International Automotive Components Group North America Inc. plans to invest over $55.9 million in expansion projects that will create 182 jobs at two Alabama facilities.

“International Automotive Components is a leading global auto supplier, and I am pleased that this world-class company is growing significantly in Alabama and creating good jobs in Cottondale and Anniston,” Ivey said. “IAC’s growth plans show that Alabama’s dynamic auto industry continues to expand despite today’s challenging environment.”

Nick Skwiat is the executive vice president and president of IAC North America.

“Alabama was the logical choice due to its skilled workforce and proximity to the customer,” Skwiat said. “We are excited to see the continued growth of the automotive industry in Alabama and we plan to grow right along with it. We thank the Governor and Secretary Canfield for their leadership in this sector.”

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County. This facility will produce door panels and overhead systems for original equipment manufacturers. That project will create 119 jobs at the production site in Cottondale.

IAC also plans to invest $21.6 million at its manufacturing facility located in the former Fort McClellan in Anniston. That East Alabama project will create another 63 jobs.

This project builds on a milestone 2014 expansion that doubled the size of the Calhoun County facility. There IAC manufactures automotive interior components and systems. Key components produced at the Anniston plant include door panels, trim systems and instrument panels for original equipment manufacturers.

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IAC Group is a leading global supplier of innovative and sustainable instrument panels, consoles, door panels, overhead systems, bumper fascias and exterior ornamentation for original equipment manufacturers.

IAC is headquartered in Luxembourg and has more than 18,000 employees at 67 locations in 17 countries. The company operates manufacturing facilities in eight U.S. states.

“With operations around the globe, IAC is the kind of high-performance company that we want in Alabama’s auto supply chain to help fuel sustainable growth,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “We look forward to working with IAC and facilitating its future growth in this strategic industrial sector.”

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Danielle Winningham is the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority.

“International Automotive Components is a valued part of Tuscaloosa County’s automotive sector,” Winningham said. “We are grateful for IAC’s investment in our community and the career opportunities available to our area workforce as a result of their investment.”

“The City of Anniston is excited that IAC has made the decision to expand here. I have enjoyed working with the leadership at IAC, the Calhoun County EDC, and the state of Alabama to get this project finalized,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper. “This is even further evidence that Anniston is indeed open for business.”

Only Michigan has more automobile manufacturing jobs than the state of Alabama. Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai, Polaris, Toyota and soon Mazda all have major automobile assembly plants in the state of Alabama.

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Courts

Aderholt fully supports Barrett’s confirmation process

Confirmation hearings began last week and a vote on her confirmation is expected in the next week just days before the general election.

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Robert Aderholt

Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Alabama, updated his constituents on the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Aderholt said, “I do support her fully and I know she will defend life, protect the Constitution, and uphold our freedoms.”

Confirmation hearings began last week and a vote on her confirmation is expected in the next week just days before the general election.

“Senate Democrats are not seriously questioning Judge Barrett on her credentials, instead they have decided to attack her character and her beliefs,” Aderholt said. “I am disappointed to see this unfold on the national stage, but I think Judge Barrett stood strong and did well during this first week of hearings.”

“While I do not have a vote in her confirmation process, I do support her fully and I know she will defend life, protect the Constitution, and uphold our freedoms when she is officially sworn in as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court,” Aderholt said.

Barrett is a Notre Dame graduate, has served on the U.S. Seventh Court of Appeals and is a former clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I clerked for Justice Scalia more than 20 years ago, but the lessons I learned still resonate,” Barrett said. “His judicial philosophy is mine, too: A judge must apply the law as written. Judges are not policymakers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold.”

Barrett vowed to keep an open mind on any matter that comes before the court, though Democrats fear she is prepared to overturn Supreme Court precedent on abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act.

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That the Republican controlled committee will recommend that Barrett be confirmed appears certain. A vote to confirm Barrett to the nation’s highest court by the full Senate could occur just days ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

President Donald Trump has been the president of the United States for less than four years but if Barrett is confirmed, then he will have selected one third of the U.S. Supreme Court. Barrett fills a place created by the death of the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.

Aderholt is in his 12th term representing Alabama’s 4th Congressional District. He faces Democratic nominee Rick Neighbors in the Nov. 3 general election.

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Economy

New unemployment claims increased last week

More people joined the unemployment rolls last week than the week before.

Micah Danney

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There were 8,581 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, up from 7,732 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

Of the claims filed between Oct. 4 and Oct. 10, there were 3,125 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 36 percent, compared to 51 percent the previous week.

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Economy

Governor announces $1.5 million grant to expand job training at Bevill State Community College

The expanded facility will help train people in welding and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning and other trades. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey and the Appalachian Regional Commission this week announced a $1.5 million grant to renovate and expand a training facility at Bevill State Community College. 

The expanded facility will help train people in welding and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning and other trades. 

“Alabamians are eager to work, and we are eager for them to find jobs that will allow them to earn a good living,” Ivey said in a statement. “These funds will help more Alabamians answer the call to the state’s increasing demand for jobs in these fields. I am thankful for our partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the assistance they have provided in helping us respond to in-demand issues.”

The grant comes from Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which targets areas affected by the closing of coal mining and coal-related industries, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. 

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs administers the ARC program in Alabama.

“This grant is a shot in the arm for an Alabama economy that has maintained its poise during the cessation of coal industries and then the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” ADECA director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “ADECA is pleased to join with Gov. Ivey, ARC, Bevill State Community College and many other partners in this life-changing program.”

Dr. Chris Cox, Bevill State interim president, said the program will allow for scholarships for workers who lost jobs in coal-related industries.

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“This rapid training center expansion will help establish a career pipeline to support local manufacturing industries, will serve to diversify the region’s economy and will increase post-secondary students’ access to advanced training and completion of industry-recognized certifications,” Cox said in a statement.

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