Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC has been holding enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence.

Even though MDC has roots in this area, like the Human Resources Development Program, the Rural Community College Initiative, and the Program for the Rural Carolinas our team has been fascinated to learn more about these counties. Coincidentally, two of our favorite news sources—CityLab and EdNC—have been talking about Warren County this month, and we want to share a little bit about what we’re learning about that county’s history of inequity and one way people there are building for a more equitable future.

Stretching along the Virginia border and the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, Warren County remains distinctly rural despite I-85 running through it and its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic metropolitan areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton are labor-intensive crops, and the soil in the area was well suited to their production. In 1860, 10,401 people in the county, or 66 percent of the total population, were enslaved African Americans. The slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. When enslaved African Americans were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers in a system where land owners provided land and resources to croppers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. The legacy of an agricultural economy, which created immense wealth for some by exploiting the labor of many others, and subsequent legalized segregation which barred African Americans from opportunity, presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained. The massive population shift of African Americans leaving the South, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Warren County: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by 20 percent. While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism and legalized segregation.

After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances at upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, and particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier agricultural and manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 20 percent of adults in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher. The area also faces significant health challenges. According to County Health Rankings, Warren County ranks 92nd in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. One-fifth of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from one-quarter in 2013). Nearly a quarter of all people are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Despite its challenges—or because of them—the area has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. In the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment, profiled here by Brentin Mock of CityLab. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. “Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area,” said Eva Clayton in a 1989 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. Clayton, who in 1992 was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, worked in the Soul City administration in the 1970s. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region, as Mock discussed in another article last week. For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with organized protests due to significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low income, and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP, to start using the term “environmental racism.”

Today, local institutions and groups are still thinking creatively about how to broaden prosperity in the region and improve wellbeing. In an article this week for EdNC, Nation Hahn interviewed Gabriel Cummings, founder of Working Landscapes, an organization that is working to improve access to healthy food in Warren County. Cummings is thinking about more than just health; the organization also wants to improve local livelihoods:

When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!

Farming may have created many of this region’s long-standing inequities, but a new generation of leaders is thinking about how to turn the region’s history and assets into a more equitable future. Many of the challenges Warren County has faced are emblematic of Southern history. Reflecting on the story of a place—who started there, who left and why, who tried to reinvigorate it, who has benefited from opportunity, and who has been left behind by economic and social change—is essential work for all communities as they build an infrastructure of opportunity.