In Of the Black Belt, Du Bois chronicles his journey through the Black Belt. The Black Belt, a region within the Southern United States, was an area filled with prairies and dark soil in Alabama and Mississippi, extending to other Negro-populated areas of the south. The Black Belt was of particular interest to Du Bois because of its high proportion of Negro population. He opens this essay with a focus on Atlanta. Atlanta, with a population of one million Negroes, was the state that was most populated by African-Americans at the time of writing. This population, Du Bois states, exceeds the number of slaves that existed in the Union antebellum. Because of the number of African-Americans in this land that was once inhabited by Cherokee Indians, Georgia becomes the apex of the “Negro problem” (Du Bois, Page 82).
The author invites the reader to acquaint him or herself with Georgia through the view of the Jim Crow Car, as that is where he also needed to sit. While the Jim Crow car was created so that blacks did not sit in all-white cars, there were still white people in it while he journeyed through the state. The Car, he states, is not as good as the rest of the train, but is still somewhat tidy. The real problem is not that within the car, but the moral dilemma of having to sit separated from everyone else due to one’s color, he argues. Through Georgia, the train rolls, until Du Bois and the reader finally arrive at Albany.
Albany, a city that is two hundred miles south of Atlanta and two hundred miles west of the Atlantic, is a haven for African-Americans. The town’s population is almost entirely black, making it the physical and emotional center of the United States’ “Black Belt” region. Previously, this town had been filled with Indians. However, the government had placed Indians in reservations and thus provided space for African-Americans to move in. With the new settlers, Albany was transformed from the countryside into a bustling metropolis. Stores, businesses, and houses were established in order to accommodate the new population. The city’s centrality and commercialism developed Albany into a Southern capital. This, Du Bois claims, was exemplary of the rise of cities and the death of the country.
Du Bois’ idealization of the countryside takes him to a journey through the country right outside of Albany. Because it is so hot in the area, he is not able to begin his trip until a few days after arriving. While walking through town, he first passes by a plantation belonging to Joe Fields, who had killed “many a nigger” (Du Bois, Page 86) during the time of slavery and severe racial inequality. He realizes that most of the plantation is gone, and Jews and African-Americans mortgaged that what is left. In the ten miles through the plantation, he notices the dire conditions in which the Negro lives. They live on plantations that previously belonged to slave-owners, and pay fees to descendants of these people. Only the Negro, Du Bois contends, could tolerate these conditions.
As he continues through the Southern country, he finds himself in the Cotton Kingdom. He sees large houses, now unkempt and overgrown with out-of-place plants and weeds. He states that despite the name Cotton Kingdom, there is no king is this area aside from the hardworking Negro, who poured sweat and strife into his desire to pay off his debt. Du Bois meets someone who lives on one of the cotton plantations, and discusses that the price of cotton is falling. Although he had four Negro tenants living for him and had set up a store for the town, he still remained in debt because of the falling price of cotton. The Cotton King is gone, but the Kingdom remains.
On his way back to Nashville, Du Bois rides in the Jim Crow Car, which was a part of the train that was for colored people. In the Black Belt, the Cotton Kingdom remained, but it remained without a reigning king. Laborers had put their life’s savings into cotton in the era when there was a need for it, only to lose it all once the economy began to industrialize. There was very little beauty remaining in this region, instead visitors are confronted with the harsh realities of the past: the struggle of the Indian and the strife of the black slave.
The Negro did the best with what he had, and created schoolhouses and churches in this land of oppression. Du Bois also passes by Dougherty, an area with a rich legacy and a tragic past. The promise that this area held signified the potential of the Negro in the near future. He ends, therefore, with a feeling that the Negro is finally rising within the United States.
In this chapter, Du Bois discusses the importance of the Southern region of the "Black Belt.” The Black Belt was a geographical region that was inhabited mostly by African-Americans after the Civil War. Although he never fully explains the significance of the Black Belt, this geographical region existed because of the rich soil that existed in the south. This resulted in a high concentration of slaves, and then freed blacks, at the turn of the twentieth century.
Du Bois travels through the Black Belt in a Jim Crow Car. He makes a point of mentioning the Jim Crow Car in order to make the reader understand the significance of the Veil and how the prejudice persists even throughout the mostly black areas of the South. Under Jim Crow laws, segregation was a legally mandated and enforced practice. In order for the reader to fully understand what was happening in that area, he needed to see it through the veil, and this would only be possible when riding in this segregated car.
During his journey throughout the Black Belt, Du Bois calls the area the "Cotton Kingdom,” for cotton was the most important crop in that area. Du Bois, however, states that this kingdom lived without a king. The Cotton Kingdom, therefore, was an ironic economic system that existed within the South. Not only did the Cotton Kingdom not have a king, but it also served as an area within the United States that ultimately placed African-Americans in even more debt, because of the reliance on a crop-lien system.
Du Bois references economic stratification in this chapter because of this crop-lien system. Instead of paying with legal tender, African-Americans could use crops they harvested in order to pay off debts. This did not lead into paid debt, however, but into even more debt and a worse economic position for African-Americans.
While the cotton kingdom stratified African-Americans, it propelled the United States into an economic powerhouse. African-Americans were pivotal in the successes of the United States, but continued to be marginalized within their own country.