Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wilcox County: Why on earth people live there

Wilcox County: Why on earth would you live there?

That’s what lots of media folks asked after Wilcox County, Ala., where I lived for 14 years and covered as a reporter for more than 10 years before that, led off Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s State of the State address in mid-January. My adopted home county made the governor’s speech for its poverty and the hope invested in new industry locating there.

 The governor pointed to Wilcox County (located south of Selma, smack dab in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt) as being the poorest county in the state and the United States. This didn’t surprise anyone in Wilcox or surrounding counties.  Still, the mention brought statewide and regional media attention and repeated listings of grim statistics and the pointed question: “What on earth would make you live in Wilcox County?”

I’ll answer that question in a minute, but first the list of statistics. Wilcox County has:
  • The highest unemployment in the state -- more than 20 percent after the wood products facilities in Pine Hill and surrounds closed during the height of the economic and housing crisis beginning around 2008. Unemployment was hanging in at around 16.2 percent most recently, a downtick probably due to folks giving up or running out of eligibility for unemployment;
  •  75 percent single mother homes;
  •  Almost 40 percent of its residents (and more than 50 percent of Wilcox children) living below poverty level;
  • A median income of about $23,000, about half of the state average;
  • 44 percent of the population dependent on federal assistance of some kind, some on all kinds.

Yes, Wilcox County is poor, majority black and has dual mostly segregated schools. It competes with other poor Black Belt counties for the “poorest” and most regrettable statistics, and often wins. But it’s sometimes close.

You’ll find no shortage of issues and challenges in Alabama’s rural counties. Wilcox doesn’t have a lock on poor and rural. And, unfortunately, whether in L.A. (lower Alabama), north Alabama or middle Mississippi, poor and rural often go together, and the reasons are age-old and complicated and simple at the same time. 

Having lived and worked in Wilcox County (and its northern sister, Dallas County and Selma, Ala.), I know some facts that counter the grim ones Bentley and others have quoted. Even if they don’t cancel out the sad stats, they bring a balance in the vein of, “you can’t always get (everything) you want.”

Sure, I know the poor Wilcox County. I’ve seen and been inside tumble-down houses and seen lines at the banks and grocery stores at the first of the month when the federal money comes in. I’ve known and written about poor but proud blacks and whites who make do best they can. Some never break the cycle; others scramble out of poverty with the help of education and determination. I’ve seen similar ramshackle houses in my birthplace and current home of Birmingham; only in Wilcox and other rural counties, there was likely a garden beside the poor person’s rural house, and maybe a cow, goats or chickens in the yard.

I write the “what’s good about Wilcox” list not because I have the solution to Wilcox County’s poverty or think it’s not important or a challenge to be met, but because I know Wilcox, its people, its culture and its beauty. And I know many folks who have been working to improve Wilcox and surrounds long before the governor or others paid fleeting attention.  

Here is my “what’s good about Wilcox” list, in no certain order:
  • Two scholarship programs, founded by Wilcox ladies, use proceeds from timberlands they left in trusts to offer college scholarship funds to EVERY Wilcox County college student who applies and keeps a C average or better.  The Simpson Foundation and the Allyrae Wallace Educational Trust have helped hundreds of Wilcox young people graduate college – all because these two ladies valued education, loved their county and wanted all Wilcox students to have a chance.
  • Black-owned businesses account for 66 percent of Wilcox County’s locally-owned businesses. Opportunity still exists for hard-working people of any color there. It ain’t easy, but folks in Wilcox County don’t expect easy. Also, most public offices in Wilcox are held by African-Americans. Overall, even though schools, most churches and funeral homes remain segregated, black folks and white folks there learned to work together and get along a long time ago.
  • Catholic sponsored missions founded by the Selma-based Fathers of St. Edmunds and staffed by nuns from various orders serve the poor in Wilcox, Lowndes, Monroe and Dallas counties. The Edmundite missions in Wilcox are located at Pine Apple and Vredenburgh (actually at the Wilcox-Monroe county line) and include health clinics, elder care, housing improvement programs, preschool and summer education programs and food pantries. Three sisters from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet order staff the health centers, including Sister Doctor Roseanne Cook. Called the “Mother Teresa of Alabama” and an Alabama rural health award winner, Sister Doctor Cook serves two clinics, makes house calls and still admits to the local hospital. She and others who serve “the least of these” have been an essential link between health care and the poor and rural, old, young, black and white -- long before Obamacare became a word or a worry.
  •  J. Paul Jones Hospital in Camden is still up, running, and serving Wilcox County at a time when very few rural counties still have hospitals. A hard-working local board, administrator and staff – and a public that voted additional tax on itself to keep the hospital going – should be congratulated for the hospital’s continued service and for another statistic about Wilcox County that’s good and laudable.
  •  In the God-given category, I have to mention natural resources and the unspoiled beauty of Wilcox County. The Alabama River (Lake Dannelly/Miller’s Ferry) winds through the county, providing more miles of riverfront areas than any other southern Alabama county, (and a rare river that runs north, south, east and west). Called “ridiculously diverse” by a state biologist, the Alabama River, with its Spanish moss-covered, wooded riverbanks, plethora of alligators, growing bald eagle populations and uncrowded waterways,  is recognized as one of the best bass fishing spots in the state; the crappie fishing (my angling of choice) isn’t bad either. Located in the middle of legendary deer and turkey hunting country, Wilcox proudly claims to be a “sportsman’s paradise.” Local folks welcome the camouflage-covered out-of-town folks at the Piggly Wiggly as they purchase their breakfast stuff, steaks, ice and beer.
    • Hunting and fishing don’t have a direct payroll of the new $1 million Golden Dragon copper tubing plant Bentley was bragging about that’s going up in Wilcox near Pine Hill at a community called Sunny South or the International Paper paper mill, the county’s current top employer, but they bring money to Wilcox County businesses and tax dollars to the counties and towns.  Plus, with Roland Cooper State Park and Corps of Engineers facilities, the wonders of Wilcox’s great outdoors are available to everyone, rich or poor.
  • Historic homes, Gee’s Bend Quilters, Black Belt Treasures and GainesRidge -- combining some of my favorites here.
    • Because the Yankees were so busy burning and looting Selma and its arsenal, they never got to Wilcox County, so it’s believed that there are more antebellum structures – mostly well kept and loved – in Wilcox than in any Alabama county except Mobile. You can see some of these historic structures at: and at
    • Originating as the Freedom Quilting Bee, the Gee’s Bend Quilters’ fame has spread with the appreciation for their artistry and sales of their designs and quilts, now on Amazon, in trendy shops and E-bay. Their designs have been displayed at the Smithsonian and on U.S. postage stamps. Heck, the quilters have been featured on Oprah. Enough said.
    • Black Belt Treasures in Camden is a non-profit that sells artwork and creations of all types, books to jewelry to paintings to quilts, all handmade by Black Belt area artists.
    • GainesRidge, located in one of those historic homes (family home of owner and chef Betty Gaines Kennedy), is a restaurant with food that rivals any of Birmingham’s well-known and bragged-about restaurants. Miss Betty’s black bottom pie made the list of 100 Alabama foods to eat before you die. And, an evening at GainesRidge is a bit more like visiting a friend who makes you welcome and cooks really, really well than going to a business for dinner. And, ask Miss Betty and she’ll tell you about the ghost that lives (mainly upstairs) at GainesRidge.

  • Community and people rank high on my “what’s good about Wilcox” list. This county of quality people, wide-open spaces, four (or is it five now?) red lights has intangibles that the dire statistics sometimes mask. That was the conclusion of columnist John Archibald who visited Wilcox and asked that question, “What on earth would make you live in Wilcox County?”
    •  “It is a place to love and to lament, where charm struggles as a counterpoint to circumstance and the weight of history,” he concluded, after hearing from residents, white and black, who returned or never left this county with devastating statistics but where family, community, land, natural resources, safety, and, yes, just caring for each other, provide the whys.

I understand the whys and the why nots that rural counties, particularly Wilcox, struggle with. 

We came to Camden as “mill” people, meaning the big paper, building materials and forestry complex on Highway 10, then MacMillan Bloedel, brought us there. Even though we “weren’t from around here,” we soon found lifetime friends and a safe community where, literally, we didn’t lock our doors (and had to look for the keys when we sold to follow another job back to Birmingham), where we knew the children our children were with, their parents and probably their grandparents and where, when we heard the rare police or ambulance siren, we called said children’s cell phones and asked, “you okay? I just heard an ambulance.” Seriously.

One more reason: People do come home and stay. Rural counties like Wilcox are decreasing in population and sometimes bemoan a perceived “brain drain” caused when a county’s best and brightest don’t come back home to work and raise families, because of the lack of opportunity. This is true to some extent, but I can attest that many of Wilcox’s best do return home to raise their families in the same slow-paced, community-oriented way they were raised. Sometimes, it’s family land or family, period, that brings them back, or opportunities for well-paying paper mill or other jobs. Sometimes, it’s just the call of home that brings folks back.

And, even for folks like me, who just adopted Wilcox and its people, it’s still like coming home. Born and raised in Birmingham, one of the prettiest of Southern big cities and where my people have lived since the turn of the last century, I am back living where there are conveniences galore and my family nearby. But I still know and understand the lure of Wilcox and other rural counties, and why on earth people live there, and the answers are not found in statistics but despite them.

Picture of the day:

This House top design (Half-log cabin variation) quilt is a
Quilt of Gee's Bend designed by Lillie Mae Pettway in 1965

Song of the day:

Do Re Mi by Woody Guthrie

In this song released about 1940, Guthrie was singing about poor folks trying to find fortune in California back during the dust bowl times. However, the refrain is still so true.

“But believe it or not you won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got the do re mi.”