By Hunter Wallace
In his book “Deep South,” Paul Theroux ventures into rural South Carolina in search of a fabled town in the grip of the Black Undertow:
“Approaching the outskirts of Allendale, I had a sight of Doomsday, one of those visions that make the effort of travel worthwhile and proved to me that my setting out for the South had been an inspired decision. I had no idea that I would find what I saw that day of blue sky and sunshine, a mild breeze in the pines.
It was a vision of ruin, of decay, of utter emptiness, and it was obvious in the simplest, most recognizable structures – motels, gas stations, restaurants, stores, even a movie theater, all of them abandoned to rot, some of them so thoroughly decayed that all that was left was the great cement slab of the foundation, stained with oil or paint, littered with the splinters of the collapsed building, its rusted sign leaning. Some were brick-faced, others made of cinderblocks, but none of them was well made, and so the impression I had was of devastation, as though a recent war had ravaged the place and destroyed the buildings and killed all the people.
Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite – the sign still legible – broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farhter down the road, the Sands and the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and the restaurants empty too, one unmistakably the curved roof and distinctive cupola of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, another just a wreck but with a gigantic sign, its peeling paint promising LOBSTER. And another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, CRESENT MOTEL, the more pathetic for being misspelled.
Most of the shops were closed, the only functioning ones owned by Indians. The Art Deco single-screen movie house, once the Carolina Theater was boarded up. The wide main road was littered. The side streets, lined by shacks and abandoned houses, looked haunted. I had never seen anything quite like it, the ghost town on the ghost highway. I was glad I had came.
The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the inactivity, a somnolence hanging over the town like a blight – all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe. It looked as though the colonizers had come and gone, the settlers had bolted, most of the local people had fled, and the place had fallen on evil days. Lingering at Mr. Patel’s shop, I saw a succession of black customers buying cans of beer and going outside to sit under a tree and drink.”
Allendale, SC sounds so much like HOME!
At this point in the book, I am starting to get excited. I know Theroux is coming to the Alabama Black Belt. I’m wondering which candidates will be featured on the grand tour later in the book – Tuskegee, Hurtsboro, Union Springs, Selma, Lowndesboro, Camden, Eutaw, Greensboro, Marion, Uniontown, Demopolis.
“I was to hear this story all over the rural South, in the ruined towns that had been manufacturing centers, sustained by the making of furniture, or appliances, or roofing materials, or plastic products, the labor-intensive jobs that kept a town ticking over. Companies had come to the South because the labor force was available and willing, wages were low, land was inexpensive, and unions were non-existent. And so a measure of progress held out the promise of better things, perhaps prosperity. Nowhere in the United States could manufacturing be carried on so cheaply. And that was the case until these manufacturers discovered that however cheap it was to make things in the right-to-work states of the South, it was even cheaper in sweatshop China. The contraction and impoverishment of the South has a great deal to do with the outsourcing of work to China and India. Even the catfish farms – an important income-producing industry all over the rural South – have been put out of business by the exports of fish farmers in Vietnam.”
Race, of course, isn’t the only issue in the Black Belt.
As I mentioned in the previous article, globalization has been the latest blow to the region and trade policy is set in Washington. Birmingham, which isn’t in the Black Belt, is the best example of this.
I think Theroux gives way too much credit to I-95 routing commerce away from Allendale. Just look at Birmingham, Atlanta, or the west side of Montgomery where interstates converge. In spite of their location on main arteries of commerce in the South, it is still a black ghetto. Here in Alabama, I-85 runs through Macon County, I-65 through Lowndes County, and I-20 runs through Greene and Sumter County in the Black Belt, but no interstate runs through Dothan or Florence.