BY SAMUEL MADDOX, WHITNEY JOHNSON, AND ZAC GAUDET
June 15, 2021
It doesn’t matter out of which window you look while driving down Route 25 through the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, a nickname given to the region in the early 19th century due to its rich, dark topsoil. Either way you look, serene patches of shimmering mirrors stretch out to the horizon. In place of where you might expect to find cows or cotton, you find fields of clouds and filleted rectangles of blue sky, seemingly endless beneath their earth-bermed boundaries. It’s these elevated ponds that are the cause for this particular region’s other nickname: The Catfish Capital of Alabama.
Though catfish have long been a staple in the diets of those who call the muddy rivers and waterways of west central Alabama home, these bewhiskered bottom feeders have largely been considered more of a “poor man’s” food than a delicacy. This was the marketing hurdle that Chester Stephens, Richard True, and Bryan Allen faced in 1961 when they opened one of the nation’s first catfish hatcheries in Newbern, Alabama. The trio of feed salesman, cattleman, and farmer, respectively, named their new enterprise STRAL, a combination of their surnames. By 1966, STRAL had grown so large it established the first catfish processing plant in Alabama and, with its success, set off a wave of local smallholder catfish farms in the area. Farm by farm, the humble catfish converted erstwhile agricultural fields into elevated, rectilinear ponds, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become a multimillion-dollar industry in Alabama.
Beyond this heroic narrative of upstart industry pioneers, the question persists: How did the humble farm-raised catfish rise to dominance, flooding the fields where cotton once reigned supreme, across much of Alabama’s Black Belt? The answer is that the stage was set—both economically and ecologically—well before STRAL’s three namesakes came onto the scene looking for a new cash crop.
It cannot be overstated that the story of Alabama cotton is a story of nation building and empire. Beginning with the removal of indigenous people and the sweeping away of old-growth forests and cypress swamps by white settlers, every effort was a projection of perceived order expressed over the land, an exercising of assumed dominion. However, similar to tobacco farms back on the east coast, the soil was easily exhausted by this cash crop. Planters profited off of fields in ten to fifteen year spans until soils were depleted of their nutrients, at which point they would move on, leaving a trail of infertile land.
In an attempt to increase the longevity of tillable land, domestic fertilizers were introduced, altering the growing patterns of southern planters. By the turn of the 20th century, commercial fertilizers offered more nutrients for crops that would have otherwise struggled to grow in the degraded soil. Unlike naturally occurring nitrogen in soil, farmers could supply their crops with phosphorus that was mined and processed in South Carolina. However, without crop rotations or other techniques used in contemporary agriculture for preserving a healthy soil composition, years of row cropping resulted in nitrogen depletion and erosion of the already thin layer of topsoil typical of the Black Belt.
Gerald W. Johnson’s 1938 Wasted Land, analyzed the failures of the southern socio-economic landscape and offered new economic direction for the agrarian South. “Wasted land” refers to the 22.5 million acres of land in the southeastern United States destroyed by “a system of agriculture that has been recklessly prodigal with the wealth of the soil.” As cotton became less desirable, farmers resigned to wheat, soybeans, and other grains to supplant cotton and shore up the diminishing economy. Catfish farming would, in time, follow directly from Johnson’s advice to diversify the depleted agrarian landscape, offering new economic opportunities in the form of hatcheries, farms, and processing facilities—none of which required nutrient-rich soils for their success.
Of course, it wasn’t just the land that cotton made sickly. The runaway economics of King Cotton fueled the transatlantic slave trade in Alabama. The results of which were a landscape of violence and caste-like, racialized poverty that persists in the region to this day. Moreover, it was from such concentrated epicenters of extreme inequality that white supremacist ideologies, specifically those built upon the socio-economic system of slave labor, were able to spread throughout the broader United States. This happened in part through interstate migration of racio-economic refugees created by the Confederate States (i.e. the Great Migration) which effectively, albeit inaccurately, linked Black Americans to notions of joblessness and welfare dependence in the minds of white Northerners.
At the same time, the sociospatial repercussions of slavery manifest throughout the South were myriad, ranging from de jure segregation to employment restrictions to selectively enforced vagrancy laws. All were part of the so-called “Jim Crow” laws, a wave of state-level legislation intended to impede the newly found freedoms of Black Americans. One of the most enduring sociospatial conditions, however, particularly in terms of upward economic mobility for African Americans following the abolition of slavery, has been the distribution of property. After the end of the Civil War, there was a brief federal push under President Lincoln for more equitable land redistribution via the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 (SHA) which made publicly held lands expropriated from white landowners and held by the Freedmen’s Bureau available to African Americans willing to resettle on them. However, after Lincoln’s assassination, these efforts were weakened by the southern-sympathizing Johnson Administration which opened up the landgrab to former confederates after the first six months of the 10-year act. In the end, the SHA proved meagerly successful redistributing southern property more equitably by race. By the end of the act, southern whites had regained control of the lion’s share of the property once held by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Despite this early setback, African Americans gradually grew to own more and more southern property throughout the remainder of the 19th century, mostly as small farms. So much so that by 1920, Black-owned farms, on the order of 15 million acres altogether, accounted for about 14% of all farms in the United States. For many, the path to property ownership came slowly, through the system of sharecropping, a system in which landless farm laborers would rent workable land from mostly white landowners at the cost of a portion of their annual crop yields. Though this system was plagued by waves of accumulating debt via crop-liens which largely targeted Black farmers—and was in a very real sense an extension of slave labor—it still managed to carve a narrow path forward into land ownership for some Black farmers as land-rich, cash-poor whites became more eager to liquidate excess property and cut their losses.
For the most part, property that white landowners were willing to sell to African Americans were undesirable: extremely isolated from public infrastructure necessary for productive land tenure and often lacking the quality of soil necessary for subsistence farming. Moreover, high rates of illiteracy, rampant discrimination, and distrust of the white-led legal system all proved to be barriers for Black landowners in securing wills, thus impeding the accruance of capital over generations as property was passed down. As a result, property was (and often still is) communally owned by families. Such fractional ownership, legally defined as “heir properties,” can cause great financial and intrafamilial instability for heirs since these properties are highly vulnerable to outside predation via forced partition sales, tax default if one family member lapses on their share of property taxes, and repeated subdivision and consequent devaluation of property.
Persistent as the tenuously inequitable sociospatial conditions that have been produced over the past two centuries in Alabama’s Black Belt are today, contemporary issues of American dishealth typical of systemic poverty, specifically access to nutrition, add another, more literal layer of sickness to this space that cannot be separated from race and geography. Throughout much of the Black Belt, access to healthful food has become increasingly sparse. Gas station convenience stores filled with highly processed foods and financially subsidized by fuel revenue shine brighter and loom larger than local grocery stores that have declined over the years due to a mix of narrow profit margins and decreases in population. Fast food chains have supplanted family restaurants, while those that remain have to rely more and more on shelf-stable or frozen foods. For residents who live near towns like Greensboro, the Catfish Capital, healthful food options are few and far between, and for those who live in yet more rural areas, they are essentially living in food deserts set within a larger sea of agricultural decline.
Enter the catfish. As early as the 1930’s, the area around Greensboro has received federal and state support for the development of agriculture of all kinds for the wellbeing of the general populace. In 1934, the 104th Congress, under the Public Works Administration (PWA), passed the Marion National Fish Hatchery Conveyance Act, establishing the hatchery in neighboring Marion, Alabama that would one day inspire the founders of STRAL. From its onset, this new hatchery was supported by work on the ground by professor Homer Swingle who had already launched a research project along with colleagues from Auburn University around fishing ponds in the area that focused on providing “healthful exercise in the open air” and “a healthful addition to the family menu.” All of this was in keeping with efforts of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), another New-Deal-era entity, that advocated for the development of domestic farm ponds for numerous reasons, including providing “fish [that] are high in protein and [that] contain minerals and vitamins needed by rural people.”
Of course, as mentioned before, catfish was nothing new to the area and, therefore, came with a reputation. In much of the south, the “mudcat” was associated broadly with poverty and specifically with Black communities. Though they were common to the African-American diet, regionally speaking, the associations in the mind of whites were based in racist tropes revolving around hygiene and laziness tied loosely to the fish’s muddy habitat and the relative ease with which they could be caught. These bigoted associations eventually came back to haunt white farmers in the 1960’s and 70’s when they began marketing the fish to the wider public. The race to rebrand was on. One article reported: “Pond-raised catfish are pollution-free and are considered as choice meat as filet mignon;” another: “Even the mud-brown skin [of the catfish] has been exchanged for a greyish white.” It wasn’t until STRAL altered the flavor profile of catfish to appeal to the racially sensitive market that the once predominantly African American food was co-opted, gentrified, and re-pitched as something desirable: a blander, whiter food.
Just as Alabama’s Black Belt region had once prioritized the sole production of cotton, it has once again put all of its eggs in one basket—only this time it is catfish. For the remainder of the 20th century, catfish farming was promising as the new means for economic growth; however, with the coming of the new millennium efficiencies redoubled, producing even more fish across fewer acres. By 2019, increased production led to an inflated marketplace with an excess production of 30 million pounds of catfish. An oversupply of excessively large fish made it virtually impossible for smaller-run farms to compete and survive.
As the industry contracts with each downturn, pools of still water unable to support and maintain the genetically modified catfish begin to mirror, at least in part, the tragic past of the cotton industry. In this part of the South, sickness is cyclical. White supremacy and runaway dreams of capital accumulation destroyed the land and broke the soul of society, spreading the contagion of racism in its wake and stranding Black families who stayed in the South on shrinking, sickly land. Today, Alabama produces the vast majority of domestic catfish but can hardly keep those living alongside these ponds fed well in spite of their being well-fed. Even the catfish can’t escape the persistent sickness of white hubris that continues to shape the region. If nothing changes, the Black Belt may have to face the onerous task of reshaping its agrarian landscape yet again. If so, that plan and the resulting spacio-economic shift must include all those who call the region home.
Already, there are several actors in the region who are working toward an increasingly real and attainable vision for a more healthy and healthful Black Belt. These include the Rural Studio in Newbern, a design-build extension of Auburn University’s School of Architecture that focuses on affordable, dignified housing and more robust and engaging civic infrastructure. Up the road in Greensboro, you can find the Hero Housing Resource Center as well as Project Horseshoe Farms, a service-fellowship-based program that augments both youth education and elder care services. And in Montgomery, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which advocates for criminal justice reform case by case—even overturning wrongful convictions—is actively reshaping assumptions around crime and race all across the Deep South. Of course, this is only a small sampling of the dedicated, on-the-ground work being done to help heal the region. Nonetheless, this work currently exists as a patchwork of services with no effective parallel efforts being extended from the top down. Perhaps in time, other large-scale, policy-minded groups may soon fill this void. One such organization, Southern Communities for a Green New Deal, a conglomeration of small-scale organizations across the southeast, is lobbying for a more Southern-inclusive Green New Deal—one still focused on expanding justice through ecologically sound economic reform and development, just very explicitly born of the “situated knowledge” and experiences of its constituent organizations.
It is the hope of these authors that such disparate yet not disaggregated organizing, extending directly from the hearts of the communities they wish to impact, can in time help to transform the Black Belt and hopefully much of the rest of the American southeast into a more whole and healthful space. Just as the intersections of spatial conditions, such as landscapes of production and designations of property, with social ones, like arrangements of labor and access and the construction of race and class, have revealed a sickness endemic to the system that built the South—and by extension our lead character, the Alabama catfish—so too can a densely layered reading be useful in visioning a future for the Black Belt. Through the alignment of ecological and climate concerns with the realities of historical and contemporary sociospatial injustice, all viewed through the lens of the hyperlocal and sensitive to the very real physical health impacts on those who live in this spaces, can we create space for—as well as an urgency for—novel imaginings of a stronger, more empathetic future South. Only after this first step: learning to see the brokenness and the pain of the region as chronic unhealth, with real physical consequences, can we begin to root out the disease and make steps toward recovery and toward flourishing.
Samuel Maddox (MDes ULE ’19) and Whitney Johnson met at Auburn University while studying architecture and later went on to design and build their BArch thesis in affordable, dignified housing together at the Rural Studio near Greensboro, Alabama. Samuel teaches at Wentworth Institute of Technology and at the BAC while also serving as principal architect at his practice: make/do studio.
Whitney Johnson is an Associate of the AIA, LEED AP BD+C, and an Architectural Designer at EOA Architects in Nashville, Tennessee. She has lectured on spatial justice and gentrification at Auburn University.
Zachary K. Gaudet is an MArch candidate at Wentworth Institute of Technology where he and Samuel first met and began to collaborate on research, writing, and public art through make/do.