After graduating from Walker High School, Al played basketball at Walker College for Coach Glen Clem and then headed to Mississippi State University, thinking he would find his niche in architecture. But his love of history, a spark lit by Danny Gambrell, his tenth grade history teacher, won that first battle and he left Mississippi with a history degree. Law school at the University of Alabama seemed the next logical step for him as both his grandfather, Alton Maurice Blanton, and his great grandfather, R.L. Blanton, served as circuit court judges for the 14th Judicial Circuit in Walker County and their total tenure on the bench was almost 50 years.
Al graduated from law school and spent seven years teaching and coaching basketball, moving in a direction similar to the path of his Maddox Middle School coach, Greg Tinker, whom he considers a “friend, mentor, and life coach.”
Initially coaching and teaching on the high school level, Al moved up to the college level at Marion Military Institute and Bevill State Community College in Jasper. He started writing during this time as a “liberating means of self-expression” and even began writing a book. In 2009 Al moved away from teaching and coaching and practiced law in Jasper for what he described as a “brief moment,” about six months, before moving to Birmingham to work in a men’s clothing store.
in the Black Belt
In the meantime, Al’s parents, Alton Lee and “Danky” Davis Blanton, moved to the Black Belt in 1995 and purchased an 1840’s Wilcox County plantation home in Canton Bend where they lived for four years. Kirkwood Mansion in Eutaw, where they gave tours and his dad developed a reputation for his knowledge of antiques, was home for about 10 years. Al felt his father found a peace and a sense of ease in the Black Belt that he felt nowhere else as he explained “my father’s soul was most alive in the Black Belt.” Al recalled, “Dad kept telling me that I didn’t appreciate the Black Belt as I should, and that ‘one day it will hit me’ when I got older.”
The Blantons sold Kirkwood in 2009 and began to split their time between Tuscaloosa and Marion where they bought a recently restored turn-of-the-century farmhouse they called Pleasant Ridge. When Al’s father’s cancer battle looked like it was in its final rounds, he chose to live his last months at Pleasant Ridge. Al spent his days off and weekends with his parents there and began to feel the lure of the Black Belt just as his father predicted.
In March 2011, three months before his dad died, Al accompanied his parents to a shrimp boil at the old Marion Female Seminary, the sight of one of the oldest women’s colleges in the country. Al wrote later, “When we got there, the full depth and shape of the Black Belt pulled me in. It was as if I was caught in some grand seduction by the smell of old houses and the richness of the Alabama prairie, and over the next few months, I longed to be back in the Black Belt. It had called me home, and all I could do was to think of ways to get there.”
As the Black Belt wove her spell and drew him back, Al realized he could be peacefully at home there and pursue his longing to write. So taking what he called a “calculated risk” to start a print magazine in the midst of massive internet writing, blog-frenzy, and the demise of the printed word, Al created Black Belt Living magazine- “a symposium of southern life, faith, and culture.” The first edition was published in September 2011 and Al emphasized his father’s input into this new adventure, “My dad laid the foundation for what I am doing right now.”
Al calls on freelance writers for help in writing some of the Black Belt Living stories and spends his days from dawn to dusk writing, proofreading, editing, developing pages, and selling advertisements. His mom helps with the magazine’s promotion, distribution, and publicity. Also assuming responsibility for all the magazine’s photographs in order to cut costs, Al admits he has no formal training in this art, but enjoys it as much as he enjoys the writing process. Laughing at himself and taking little credit for the honest, down-to-earth, and revealing photographs, he added, “The Black Belt is so beautiful, it just lends itself to great photography.”
of the Black Belt
A geographic area known for its rich, fertile soil, the Black Belt includes 12 to 21 of Alabama’s counties, depending on whose list you accept and what criteria was considered. The University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research suggests 17 “traditional counties of the Black Belt,” and these counties essentially run across the upper southern half of the state from the Mississippi line to the Georgia line. The economy of the Black Belt was originally based on agriculture supported by slave labor.
Today most of us are aware of the dire poverty in the Black Belt and have some understanding of its significance as a core of activity during the Civil Rights Movement. In creating Black Belt Living, Al’s goal is to present an even broader picture of the region, discovering and focusing on the positive and hopeful soul of the Black Belt through her statesmen, educators, artists, writers, farmers, business people as well as her incredible natural beauty, architecture, history, and faith. In the first of the five currently published issues, the magazine’s cover story was “Native Son- U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and What the Black Belt Means to Him.”
As reflected in the story, Sen. Sessions grew up in the tiny community of Hybart in Monroe County, population 538. His father operated a country store offering hardware, shoes, and a grist mill for grinding corn behind the building. Remembering his childhood as “idyllic,” Sessions recalled seemingly endless barefoot summers where he and his friends spent entire days playing in the creek, reaping the benefits of “loving parents and good neighbors in an environment that affirmed good behavior.”
While Senator Sessions recognizes the difficult challenges which confront the Black Belt, his optimism echoes Al’s objectives. “I think the region needs to celebrate its strengths and I think it’s an area of wonderful people. I think a lot of people want to get back to a more natural way of life where you know your neighbors, you go to church, and when they plant you in the ground, people know who you were.”
In a section of Black Belt Living titled “Cross Ties,” Greg Tinker, a gifted communicator and former pastor of Saragossa Nazarene Church, is a regular contributor, offering short, straightforward lessons based on Scripture. In his initial article, Greg utilized the parable of the seed sower, pointing out that Jesus used farming as a theme in many of these stories. Stressing a universal theme, he explained to his reading audience, “Living close to the rich dark soil of the Black Belt marries one to the inexorable march of time through the seasons and years. Though much of the farming from yesteryear is gone, there are enough remaining fields, flush with growth, to remind those who live among them of their kinship to the earth.”
Fall and winter
Black Belt Living’s October issue featured artist Margaret Ellen Webb, who lives near Marion in “The Camellias,” her 1832 home appropriately named for the numerous flowering bushes on the grounds. She paints in a log cabin studio behind her home and her work ranges from formal to informal, serious to playful.
Her half-scale painting of the Annunciation became the design for a tile mosaic in Selma’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and her collection of vivid amaryllis paintings adds a sense of liveliness to her home.
November’s issue honored veterans and shared the stories of five men who were awarded the Medal of Honor. This courageous group included Eutaw native Matthew Leonard, who died in a forest in South Vietnam after saving the lives of a number of his comrades in an ambush and then propping his wounded body against a tree and continuing to fire at the enemy until he died.
Working from an entirely different angle in December’s Black Belt Living, Al published an edition dedicated to Selma and utilized his black and white photographs to tell the story. He used text only for two limited purposes — an introduction and quotes from Selma residents. Otherwise, readers\viewers see and feel the story’s emotions without prompts or suggestions and assign their own meaning to a sidewalk in the rain, the truck farmer selling his sweet potatoes, a boarded up row house, the genuine smiles of schoolchildren, and a side view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The new year brought the cover story, “Rural Studio- The Mechanics of Social Responsibility” to Black Belt Living. In 1993, Auburn University’s Samuel Mockbee organized the Rural Studio to move architecture students out of the classroom and into the countryside so they could design and build affordable, efficient homes for people living in dangerous or sub-standard housing. The concept results in a double benefit as the students obtain valuable hands-on experience and develop a social conscience. Starting with one house to help one family, over the last nineteen years, the Rural Studio has grown into a collection of community shaping projects. These include re-designing public parks, building community centers, and development of the 20K House, which allows a family or individual to buy a house-building kit at a cost of about $20,000.
January’s issue also highlighted Perry county writer Mary Ward Brown, whose first collection of short stories, Tongues of Flame, was published in 1986 when she was 69 years old. This collection won several prestigious awards and Mrs. Brown has frequently been praised for her candid writing and her fearless approach to confronting racism and religious issues. In his article about her, Al explained her feelings about writing. “To her, writing is a precious institution. Words matter, simple words that help to describe and define — ‘street words’ as she calls them. She writes with profound simplicity, avoids verbose and unnecessary language, and chooses words with razor-sharp delicacy, as if choosing a birthday gift for a beloved.” In order to discover the role that fit him just right, Al Blanton had to find his way back to the Black Belt. Peacefully ensconced in Selma, he offers us Black Belt Living, a sensitive combination of writing and photography which presents the positive soul of the Black Belt with honesty, dignity and grace.
NOTE TO READERS: For Black Belt Living subscription information, use the website
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890