Volunteering in the Black Belt

This photo is part of a series called the “Monday Moment” where on Mondays, I will share a photo usually from the past week or two (although it could be from any time in the past) which highlights an interesting moment or story that isn’t worthy of its own individual post.

perry county courthouse

When I spontaneously decided to sign up at my university for a day of volunteering in Marion, Alabama, I didn’t know what to expect.  All they told us was that we’d be helping out in a community in the region of Alabama known as the Black Belt.  I couldn’t figure out why they called it that, either, but I assumed it might be because the population in that area was predominantly African-American.

What I saw upon arriving to this city in Perry County blew me away, and not in a good way.  I soon came to realize that this rural, poor region of Alabama was exactly what my friends back home were picturing, what they were thinking I would encounter upon coming here to this state from New England.

It was no mystery that the city of Marion was extremely poor – dilapidated buildings and a lack of many big businesses lined the streets along the way as we drove through the area and through downtown.  Statistics even show that the county has an illiteracy rate of 27%.

We were sent to an elementary school, where we used our time to help clean up an unusable classroom which the school needed to use, but didn’t have the time nor money to fix.

When we arrived, the room was an absolute mess: dirt covered the white floors and walls, cobwebs and spiders covered the old desks, dust coated everything, and the whiteboard was far from white with remnants of past writing staining it.  It wasn’t in too good shape to say the least, but once we were finished, after four hours of scrubbing on our hands and knees, it was looking good as new.  Well, good as new minus the few stains that were just plain impossible to remove.  But it was looking like a good classroom now, and that was an accomplishment in itself.

This dirty classroom wasn’t the only thing that gave away that this was a poverty-stricken area, though.  The bathrooms in the school were just as dirty, with no hot water available in any part of the building.  We learned from some staff that the school couldn’t afford most textbooks and supplies, so many teachers went out of there way to use their own money to buy books and make copies to help teach their classes.  The only textbook we encountered was a 20+ year old English grammar one, covered in dust, falling apart, and sitting in the dirty classroom we had to clean.

And this school was even an example of modern-day segregation in this country.  Not legally enforced, of course, but this school was entirely black.  Apparently, there had been one white kid, but he transferred to the private school where every other white child in this community goes to.  I couldn’t believe it.  Actually, I couldn’t believe most everything.  It absolutely astounded me that this state of affairs and state of poverty existed here in the United States.  I’ve encountered many homeless people as well as individuals who have been seriously struggling before, but never an entire community and county like this.  It saddened me to see it all, so I was glad that I was able to help these people out in some way, no matter how small it may have been.

This poverty did not affect the warmth and friendliness of the people, though.  We experienced this as we walked through the streets of downtown Marion in the sunshine, with women coming out of grocery stores wondering who the visitors were, and welcoming us on our visit to their city.  A small local business was generous enough to give us some free ice cream samples in thanks for our efforts to help out.  And the one big restaurant of the city, called Lottie’s, took our large group in for dinner.  We may have had only plastic forks for eating, but that didn’t take away from how delicious the fried chicken was.

The photo pictured above is that of the large, fancy Perry County Courthouse building, situated in the center of Marion.  This building struck me as odd compared to everything around it due to its stark contrast.  The courthouse stands high and bright and regal, while every other building in the vicinity looks like it could use a few coats of paint and some fixing up. 

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