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Land of rich, dark soil, stretching from Virginia all the way to East Texas, the Black Belt is also the nation’s poorest region, with poverty most extreme in the Gulf States of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Larry Copeland profiles Gainesville, Alabama, which has shrunk to 400 residents.

This former plantation country has seen tremendous out-migration for nearly a century. “It’s not any one thing,” says Joe Sumners, an Auburn University scholar of the region. “A lot of it is probably the legacy of slavery. The decline in the agriculture economy. The lack of jobs. It’s sort of a cycle of problems. Once people leave, you lose the tax base.”

Copeland’s piece in USA Today notes that it wasn’t until the 1980s that African-Americans, who make up the majority in much of this region, gained political control. “In many places, they have proved as ineffective in addressing the region’s ills as their white predecessors,” he writes. Yet some like Edmund Bell, a Baptist pastor and now circuit court clerk in Sumter County, Alabama, see reason for hope.

“We’ve established some dialogue,” he says of a new weekly prayer breakfast that brings whites and blacks together in Gainesville. “But in establishing dialogue, you have to be honest,” Bell says. “What our parents didn’t deal with, we have to deal with.”

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