There is a tension you must hold in Perry County, Alabama, between strength and fragility, beauty and dismay, resilience and defeat. The moment you discount its people and cry “poverty,” Perry County bewilders you with overwhelming abundance and gratitude. The moment you discover the outright richness of life there, you must contend with the exhaustive power of poverty to steal home, health and even your next meal.
Across the landscape of the United States’ poorest communities, Perry County stands as a familiar yet utterly unique convergence of isolation, disinvestment, generational poverty and the centuries-old suppression of black lives. With more than 40 percent of residents living below their federal poverty threshold, Perry County consistently prevails as one of the top two poorest counties in Alabama, a state that already holds the fourth highest poverty rate in the United States.
Planted in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, Perry County not only exhibits the region’s rich, black topsoil but is home to generations of African American and black families who settled there as freepeople following the Civil War. Swaths of remote farmland give way to the county seat of Marion, a city with tension written into its very history. In 1860, 66 percent of its population were slaves, yet Marion’s Lincoln Normal School consistently produced some of the highest Ph.D. rates among its alumni of any historically black college or university. Coretta Scott King hailed from Perry County, but so did Andrew Barry Moore, Alabama’s ‘Secession Governor.’ The original ‘Stars and Bars’ flag of the Confederacy was designed in Marion, as was the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, led by a young Marion pastor named Andrew Young.
Today, 68 percent of Perry County’s 9,300 residents are African American and black. Controlling for all other variables, Perry County’s black community is 2.3 times as likely as a white resident to live below their poverty threshold. Nearly 73 percent of Perry County residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, though political frustration and disenfranchisement are not a new reality for this community. After centuries of white-dominated state legislatures — many of which spearheaded the Jim Crow era and its destructive bigotry and violence — Perry County now receives limited assistance and partnership from the state government.
Eighteen years ago, however, a nurse from Marion named Frances Ford accepted a new position as Perry County health care coordinator, equipped with only a desk and a telephone. Almost simultaneously, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship launched its rural development coalition, Together for Hope, vowing to support field personnel in 20 of the United States’ poorest counties for at least 20 years. Ford was commissioned as part of CBF’s rural development coalition and has been partnering in Perry County to empower low-income residents ever since.
With a unique focus on health and housing, Sowing Seeds of Hope resources its community with ongoing health care services including weekly blood pressure and diabetes clinics, health fairs, school screenings and nutrition, and prescription assistance. In addition, SSH mobilizes volunteers from across the state to repair and remodel damaged homes, and, through its self-help housing program, has completed construction on 13 new homes for qualifying families, with 10 more expected by the end of 2019. No work is possible without constant partnership with Perry County’s churches, schools, and helping organizations, all of which share resources and referral as they seek better housing, health and asset development.
Ultimately, Ford says, building assets in rural communities is about holding a healthy tension between a perspective of scarcity and one of joy and strength. What, in all realities, appears to be extreme poverty may actually represent generations of strong, resilient families who have made a true home in Perry County. Yet, for a community that often lacks basic resources — safe housing, sufficient health care, employment or the next meal — the work is far from done.
Read more in the Perry County, AL Series
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There is nothing too good for the poor | Greg Jarrell
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Alabama: Perry County is a series about holding a healthy tension between a perspective of scarcity and one of joy and strength. What, in all realities, appears to be extreme poverty may actually represent generations of strong, resilient families who have made a true home in Perry County. This series in the “Resilient Rural America” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. Has the United States forgotten its countryside? What strength and resilience may yet be stirring outside our city limits? In “Resilient Rural America,” we attempt to answer these questions when we visit these unique communities to examine the singular nature of poverty in rural America and tell the stories of development among its courageous and resilient people.
Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.