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Pleasant evening leads to reflection on Black Belt

During a recent pleasant evening with friends, the Black Belt region was one of the topics of discussion: concerning its beauty, history, our “people” and family burial grounds much too small to be termed cemeteries. In the conversation I recalled a journey made in search of these final resting places on a beautiful morning in May.

The Black Belt is a place of rolling fields and pastureland, of reaches of prairie and rounded hills. Ancient trees — oak, magnolia, sycamore and beech — stand sentinel along the fields and on the hillsides, along with the tall, dark green pines that are a cash crop for the region.

In May the fragrance of honeysuckle hangs over the thickets of redbud and dogwood, sweet gum and hackberry that edge the fields and shade the small creeks flowing through the countryside. Everywhere, the wild rose blossoms in hedges and briar patches.

On these shaded hillsides near the plentiful streams, the first settlers in the Black Belt built their churches, and buried their dead on the grounds.

If their farms and gristmills prospered, these pioneer settlers welcomed others to their thriving community, and their churches grew more substantial and their churchyard cemeteries more elaborate. Sometimes, the churches were closed as members moved on in hope of richer land, so the small cluster of gravestones were left to the winds, the encroaching prairie grasses, vines and thickets. And the simple markers were lost in time.

Early that May morning of long ago I drove through the Black Belt countryside in search of some of those ancient burying grounds. On the grassy verges of the narrow road, Queen Anne’s Lace and wild sweet pea and rosy drifts of the flowers we called buttercups, because of the powdery butter yellow stamen inside their cups, swayed in the early morning breeze. Beyond, verdant meadows rolled up to meet the sky, “no higher than the heart is high.”

The rich green of lush pastures, the glossy sheen of leaf of oak and vine, the clusters of blush pink and crimson and creamy white hedge roses blooming in broom-swept dirt yards spoke sweetly of spring in the country. And the small weathered wood churches standing in grassy clearings, with their steeples set squarely atop squat belfries, spoke to my heart of a way of life that is vanishing from this rural, deep South region.

Sometimes the road dipped into a hollow, moving through the cool, leafy tunnel of a small wood, where brilliant blues and reds of jays and cardinals flashed through interlocked branches. Then, rising again to sunlight and the sounds of early summer: the gentle cooing of doves and a hum of bees busy drinking from garlands of honeysuckle overhanging age-silvered fence posts. Beyond, sleek, fat cows munched contentedly on the tender grass.

Fields of grain and oats, knee-high, rippled in a soft breeze blowing the fragrance of May through the open windows of my car. Up ahead, the hills folded upon themselves in shades of blue and purple. It recalled to me the poetry of James Russell Lowell, whose New England June might well have been describing our Black Belt May:

“Whether we look, or whether we listen, We hear life murmur or see it glisten. . .”

Our conversation on the recent evening with friends reaffirmed that to be of the Black Belt is to be a part of its history and heritage, and reminded me that the bond of kinship is stronger than time. In memory I walked again through the old cemeteries, pausing at the weathered headstones, reading the names and inscriptions. And I knew that this bond of place, which is my heritage, must never be denied. Nor can that perfect morning in May.