So when Gov. Robert Bentley, in his State of the State address earlier this month, used Wilcox County as an example of just how bad things can be in Alabama, I naturally paid attention.
Now, I have not said this often, about this or any other governor, but Bentley is right. It is bad down there. Bad if you are poor, black, unskilled and uneducated.
Of course, if you are poor, white, unskilled and uneducated, you are not doing well, either, but there are not many of those in Wilcox County. So when we talk about unemployment, under-employment and few prospects of ever getting a job with a decent wage, we are talking about black folks.
This is nothing new.
Before the Civil War (yes, go back that far), Wilcox County was one of the richest counties in the state. Or in the nation for that matter. However, much of that wealth was tied up in what has been called that “peculiar species of property” — slaves. Black folks.
There was no unemployment in Wilcox County because no slave ever got laid off. Not much in the way of wages and benefits, but cradle-to-grave job security.
Then slaves were freed as part of the largest transfer of property in U.S. history. Masters lost their bondsmen. Former slaves now owned themselves.
And that was about all they owned. “Nothing but freedom” was how one put it.
Planters had land. Freedmen had labor. From this came the sharecropper system that kept Wilcox County planters rich (or at least comfortable) and powerful, while landless blacks remained poor and powerless.
In time, even the planter ran into problems.
High cotton prices during World War I promised profits but the boll weevil took those profits away. So planters began to turn to cattle. Cotton fields became pasture and because cattle needed less labor, sharecroppers were turned off the land. Wilcox County had its first significant unemployment problem.
Some former sharecroppers headed for larger cities — Selma or downriver to Mobile — hoping for work. Others hung on and tried to make it. Some did. Some didn’t.
Then came the Great Depression, though Wilcox County blacks (and some whites) hardly knew it. How much worse could it get?
Then came the New Deal, with “relief” for those who could not find work and subsidies for planters who agreed not to plant crops.
Here, at least for the first time in my research, I found Wilcox County whites complaining about the federal government paying blacks not to work while at the same time ignoring the fact that Wilcox County planters were being paid not to plant.
More significant, however, is how the New Deal programs contributed to unemployment even as they were helping the unemployed.
Wilcox County planters who were getting paid not to plant did not need anyone to work the land, so the sharecroppers who survived the boll weevil and survived the turn to cattle were laid off by the New Deal. Most of them were poor, black, unemployed and, in Wilcox County, unemployable. Agriculture, and a few agriculture-related industries like cotton gins, was all Wilcox County had. Not much for former sharecroppers there.
More left when World War II got the Mobile shipyards humming. Those who stayed behind had little and expected less.
Things got worse in 1956 (or better if you were a property owner) when the federal government set up the “Soil Bank” program, which encouraged (and paid) landowners to take more property out of production. Pastures and fields were often planted in pines, which need no labor to grow.
Wilcox had a brief introduction to non-agricultural employment in the early 60s, when the Miller’s Ferry lock and dam was built. However, most of those skilled jobs went to outsiders who came in, worked, finished and left. Because Wilcox County lacked a trained workforce the jobs that locals got were mostly menial. County residents and businesses benefitted only briefly.
Then industry finally came to Wilcox County. As the pines grew companies that needed those trees began looking for locations for factories. One of these, MacMillan-Bloedel, the Canadian paper giant, selected Wilcox for its latest plant. Why? Because Wilcox had fast growing pines, plenty of water, low taxes and assurances that the state would improve local infrastructure – yes, we were offering “incentives” back then.
Gov. George Wallace even promised to build a bridge over the Alabama River, a bridge that locals had wanted for years but could not get.
So the paper mill came and the “smell of progress” was in the air.
With it came jobs. By the 1970s the paper mill employed around 1,000 workers, had a yearly payroll of $8.5 million, and was spending around $15 million annually on raw material bought from pine plantations – land often leased by the company.
There were also an economic “spin off.” Just about anyone with a truck went into “paperwooding,” a labor intensive business if ever there was one. More often than not these independent contractors paid little attention to minimum wage requirements, much less rules relating to Social Security or worker safety. As for “benefits,” the only benefit was the job.
The company ran into some problems. At first workers, white and black, had trouble adapting to the round-the-clock shift schedule required by the mill. There were also racial tensions as a few whites refused to work for a black supervisor who had been promoted above them. And there were social tensions, as outsiders moved into what had been a largely closed society.
Nevertheless, MacMillan-Bloedel prospered and many Wilcox citizens prospered with it. As always, those with property benefitted the most, but they were not alone. Moreover, MacMillan-Bloedel’s success gives lie to the assertion that Black Belt folks are lazy – spend a week on the third shift or paperwooding from dawn to dark and you will never say that again.
Though MacMillan-Bloedel made a difference in the lives of many people, the company did little to alter the economic reality of Wilcox County. Instead it became part of the same arrangement that had existed for over a century. The paper mill, like the cotton gin or the canning factory, relied on agriculture. Agriculture depends on land and that makes landowners the most powerful people in the county. At the end of the day the landless, or those with just enough land for a house trailer and a garden, were where they had always been -- at the bottom of the pecking order.
Now let it be said that Wilcox planters (yes, old folks still use the term occasionally) are not a bunch of heartless exploiters of the poor. The ones I know are kind, hard working, and fair. They are also heirs to a system they did not create, but have little incentive to change. The old relationships that bound the landed to the landless, the paternalism that goes back into slavery times, has long since been discarded. Once the landed not only provided jobs, the community-minded among them supported schools, helped hospitals, and in effect “looked after” the landless, or at least those who “knew their place” and stayed in it. However, those duties and obligations have long since been taken over (or maybe handed over is a better term) by the state and federal government. In some cases this is a relief for both the landed and the landless. Often, however, those old ties of dependency and interdependency are missed.
It is a complex place, Wilcox County.
Camden, the county seat, is the most charming of towns and its citizens are justly proud of its homes, its businesses, and its people. Get off the interstate and visit the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center, you will be glad you did.
However, if you get even farther off the beaten path, off on the side roads, the dirt roads, that crisscross the county, you will see what Gov. Bentley was talking about when he spoke of things being bad.
Unfortunately, his solutions are not going to make much difference to those living there now. It is hard for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots, and the boots they need are education, training, employment, respect and hope.
It took decades to make Wilcox County what it is today. It will take decades to make the bad better while also preserving the good that is already there. The effort will have to be massive. And it will be costly. It will have to involve local people as well as bureaucrats from Montgomery and Washington. And it will have to have the support of the private sector.
But think of it this way. If such an effort can succeed in Wilcox County, anything is possible.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.