Special Report: Work Wanted in the Black Belt

James Johnson, no stranger to hard, isn't sure where the jobs have gone.
James Johnson, no stranger to hard, isn't sure where the jobs have gone.

CAMDEN, AL (WSFA) - As part of his campaign promise Governor Bentley made getting unemployed Alabamians back to work his number one priority, and since taking office we've seen signs that the state is on the right track.

But one part of Alabama is missing the boat when it comes to major job announcements: The Black Belt.

The Black Belt, a stretch of 18 counties across the state's midsection, has some of the highest unemployment numbers in the state, leaving some to question, "is that part of the region being overlooked?"

Why isn't the road to jobs and opportunities leading to this impoverished section of the state?.

James Johnson is no stranger to hard work. His worn hands show the signs of years toiling in the cotton fields and saw mills. "Pine Hill, Four Quarter...Cane Lumber Company," naming off some of the local companies. Most have since shutdown, part of the reason for the sky-high unemployment rate in the area. At one point a whopping 21 percent of the residents of Wilcox County were jobless.

When asked what happened to the jobs, Johnson said he wasn't sure. "They just stopped them some way or another."

It's not like jobs have stopped coming to Alabama. There's been a resurgence with the automotive business. The state is building luxury Mercedes SUVs in Tuscaloosa, Hondas in Lincoln and Hyundai's in Montgomery.

Just two years ago more than 16,000 new jobs came Alabama's way, but none came to Wilcox County. Fewer than 1,000 came  to the other 18 counties that make up the state's Black Belt.

Economic growth for the Black Belt will depend heavily on its roads, and city and state officials will tell you there is just not enough infrastructure in the area to bring in the jobs.

"Transportation is a big problem for us," admits Camden Mayor Max Baggett. He says 10 to 12 light industries employing 100 to 150 people would be ideal for his town.

"We've been told there are plans to four lane highway 5 through the county," Baggett says. "But most of the highway projects anybody is willing to talk about are still several years off so we don't know when that will take place."

These are unknown factors that frustrate many.

Seth Hammett is Director of the state's economic development office, and even he says before you can "buy" Alabama you've gotta have something to sell.

"Some counties, unfortunately in the Black Belt, either you don't have the proper infrastructure in place or if the infrastructure is there we don't have the approved or dedicated sites companies can use.  So, I think it will take a combination of those things."

Ralph Ervin doesn't buy it. He returned home to Wilcox County after graduating from college. Now, the county's circuit clerk, he believes Wilcox County isn't getting the recognition it deserves.

"I look at Macon County for example," Ervin explains. "Macon County has Interstate 85 that runs through the heart of its community. They have Tuskegee University, an institution of higher learning, but yet, the average family income is almost identical to that of Wilcox County's.

Ervin says the notion that Wilcox County doesn't have a qualified workforce is something he disagrees with. "We graduate approximately 150 students from our high school each year. Those children go on to the military, technical schools and institutions of higher learning."

Tranicia Harrison, 17, plans to go away to college. She lives in Lowdnes County where unemployment hovers around 15 percent. She wonders if there will be any jobs to come home to.

"I'll probably have to go to Montgomery or something to work if I plan on coming back to live here, then I'll have to find a job outside Lowdnes County. "

But Camden Mayor Max Baggett isn't giving up hope.  "You just have to keep trying," he says, "and you never know when something is going to be successful, but you can't give up and say we're not going to attract anything else."

He believes one day all roads will lead to the Black Belt putting out-of-work residents back on the payroll.

Copyright 2011 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.


The Black Belt region has a population of 589,041 (13.25% of the state's total population) according to the 2000 census.

The racial makeup of the Black Belt region was 52.24% African American, 45.87% White, 0.25% Native American, 0.52%,

The median income for a household in the Black Belt region was $27,130, and the median income for a family was $35,698. Males had a median income of $32,226 versus $22,021 for females. The per capita income for the region was $15,633.

A July 1, 2007 U.S. Census Bureau estimate placed the region's population at 575,783, a decline of 2.25% since 2000.

Counties in the Black Belt: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox.