Danielle M. Purifoy

Most of us live in a municipality—a town or city with a local government.

If you look at the map of Lowndes County below, you’ll see landmarkers represented on the legend as cities, towns, or villages. Hayneville and Braggs both have this marker, as do Lowndesboro and Fostoria. Most of us think of these towns as we do our own, as places with local governments that provide a range of basic services we take for granted—water, sanitation, street lights, ambulances, fire fighters, trash collection.

But a town in name is not a town in law. There are 33 town markers on this map, but only seven of them have local governments: Hayneville, Lowndesboro, Benton, Mosses, White Hall, Gordonville, and Ft. Deposit. The rest are unincorporated towns, meaning that residents have neither formed their own municipal governments nor been annexed into another town’s local government. The closest thing such communities have to local government is county government, which is a different animal. More on that later.

In principle, living unincorporated is not a problem—at least, not for the residents. Many of us use a very different term to refer to unincorporated communities we either love or hate: suburbia. We don’t hear about suburban public health crises. We don’t see news clips about suburbanite fears that their own excrement will revisit them in their front yards or in their water glasses. We read about McMansions, about the exodus of municipal taxpayers, about sprawl—a very different kind of waste.

To live unincorporated is to live the good life—if you have money. Your services are private—you likely have your own septic system, your own water well, your own trash valet. You may even access private ambulance services and volunteer fire fighters. When something goes wrong on your property, you fix it on your own terms. And most important to many suburbanites—you don’t pay to fix anyone else’s problems.

But what if you don’t have money? And what if, in addition to not having money, your septic system costs six times more than average because of your soil? Living money-poor is risky. Living money-poor and unincorporated is scary.

You may have paid off your home, but it may still be financially underwater because your septic system is broken. You may not be able to afford homeowners insurance because you don’t have access to enough water to fight a fire, even if you had firefighters. If you ever have a medical emergency, you may die not for lack of healthcare benefits, but because you can neither afford a private ambulance nor call 911.

And you can’t necessarily count on county government to substitute for local government. County governments are macro-managers. They work mostly on behalf of the state, and all county constituents, not solely on behalf of their unincorporated residents. They may build roads and even some water and sewer infrastructure, but they do it for different reasons than local governments.  Whereas local governments rely for their existence on the approval and patronage of local constituents, county governments rely solely on the state. You can read about dissolving cities, but not so much about dissolving counties.

This is not to say that local governments are ideal—we all know better than that. It’s just that their purpose and structure are generally better suited for serving local residents.

You might ask the obvious question—why live unincorporated if you don’t have money?

In Lowndes County, as in counties across the country, incorporating is not easy. Forming local government requires consent of landowners, and many of them—particularly absentee landowners—have no interest in paying municipal taxes or following municipal rules. It also requires financial resources that money-poor folk simply do not have. Similarly, annexation into existing municipalities often requires the consent of resistant landowners. And even when local governments don’t need consent, they frequently annex wealthy and white communities because they want to increase their tax base—and maintain power.

That last phrase is critical, because as I said in my last post—black power is white threat.

Living money-poor, unincorporated, and black is terrifying.

And it may also be liberating.

A childhood friend now living in Liberia said to me recently that America is no place for black people. It’s one reason she may never return. Across Lowndes County and the Black Belt, black people own unincorporated spaces created for the physical, economic, and spiritual liberation of black people, many of them pre-dating the Civil War. They built black schools with black curricula, black churches with black theology, black businesses with black customers. They’ve endured white terror, land theft, economic strife, declining populations, and dissolved governments—they’re in danger, and many are already lost. Annexation or incorporation, even if possible, might not translate into meaningful changes to quality of life because infrastructure funding for these spaces is slow, and requires financial credit, and big loan payments.

Giving up these few remaining black spaces might seem like the only sound financial option—land without houses is worth more money on the market than land with houses lacking proper infrastructure. But to lose these black spaces may be a greater loss of liberty than a gain—availability of resources, infrastructural, financial or otherwise is one thing; equitable access to those resources is something quite different. These aren’t romantic notions—they’re lived realities. If America is no place for black people, then black people in America must create spaces for themselves. And black liberation—even just a little—always costs something in America.


lowndes county map