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U.S. House passes bill to create Black Belt National Heritage Area

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed legislation that would designate areas within the 19 counties of Alabama’s Black Belt region as a National Heritage Area.

Sponsored by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Birmingham), the designation would preserve the region’s rich history and pave the way for enhanced funding and tourism opportunities.

The bill passed the lower chamber of Congress in a bipartisan 365 to 57 vote. Sewell’s legislation now moves to the U.S. Senate, where it will be sponsored by U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Auburn).

In a statement announcing her bill’s passage, Sewell expressed gratitude to her colleagues for supporting the measure and touched on how the designation would serve to protect the Black Belt’s culture.

“I’m thrilled to announce that the House has passed my bill to create the Black Belt National Heritage Area!” celebrated Sewell. “As the birthplace of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights movements, the Black Belt is where some of the most consequential chapters of American history played out. This designation will not only help preserve the rich history of the region, but will also open up new economic and tourism opportunities. As a proud daughter of the Black Belt, I thank my colleagues for passing this critical bill and will continue working to get it signed into law.”

National Heritage Areas are established by Congress to assist efforts to protect and promote communities that are regarded as distinctive due to of their culture, history, resources and environment.

The historic areas are authorized to receive up to $1 million in federal funding annually to preserve important sites, according to Sewell’s congressional office.

Under the Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area Act, the University of West Alabama would coordinate with the National Park Service and Black Belt communities to formulate a strategic management plan.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones, vice president of the Division of Economics Workforce Development at the University of West Alabama, noted that the present was an opportune time to promote the Black Belt’s history.

“The story of Alabama’s Black Belt could not be more relevant with ongoing conversations exploring the multifaceted aspects of our country’s past, present and future,” explained Jones. “For Alabama’s Black Belt with its famously rich soils and landscapes have had a profound impact on the culture, history and politics of this country.”

“Through designation as a National Heritage Area, we can shine a spotlight on these stories and bring them to prominence and ensure that future generations cannot only learn but appreciate our shared heritage,” she added. “Designation is also important in that it helps us continue to build local capacity through shared resources. Our grassroots organizations have been steadfast supporters of this effort, and we are thankful for Congresswoman Sewell and Senator Shelby’s leadership in moving this legislation forward.”

Emily Jones, southeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, praised Sewell and Shelby for their efforts to move the bill through the legislative process.

“By calling for an Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Senator Richard Shelby have taken a stand for centuries of rich Alabama history and breathtaking Southern lands and waters, including the last remaining prairie east of the Mississippi River,” said Jones. “The Alabama Black Belt was named for its soil, but this region has also served as fertile ground for Black history and the Civil Rights Movement. Civil rights leaders like John Lewis put blood, sweat, and tears into their work to organize and register Black voters here in the 1960s. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we honor their contributions to the ongoing fight for the American right to vote.”

“This new National Heritage Area would help local organizations work to protect Alabama history and natural resources, and generate economic growth in the Black Belt region,” she continued. “A new designation would help raise the profile of the beautiful Talladega and Tuskegee National Forests, the Cahaba, Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, and the Choctaw and Cahaba National Wildlife Refuges, as well as tell important stories of civil rights activism, and the forced removal of Native tribes from this land.”

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL

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