Sitting outside of a Starbucks on the corner of a strip mall in Tuscaloosa late last year, Dr. Remona Peterson described her hometown of Thomaston, Alabama, population 400. “Everybody loves our grocery store. That’s, like, our pride,” she said with a laugh. She was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s fifth-largest city, finishing her medical residency when Dave’s Market opened in an old Thomaston high school gym last year. Peterson said it became the only place to buy groceries for miles in any direction, and it was one of the few changes to the town she can remember from the last three decades.
Peterson wants to be a part of positive change in the region, which is why she’s back after a circuitous journey through medical school. She was valedictorian of her 29-person high school class and graduated summa cum laude from Tuskegee University, where she earned a full scholarship and the university’s distinguished scholars award. She went on to medical school and got the residency in Tuscaloosa. It was her first choice; she felt that the University of Alabama would best prepare her for her long-term goal: to add her name to the short list of African-American doctors working in the Alabama Black Belt who were also born and raised there.
The Black Belt refers to a stretch of land in the U.S. South whose fertile soil drew white colonists and plantation owners centuries ago. After hundreds of thousands of people were forced there as slaves, the region became the center of rural, black America. Today, the name describes predominantly rural counties where a large share of the population is African-American. The area is one of the most persistently poor in the country, and residents have some of the most limited economic prospects. Life expectancies are among the shortest in the U.S., and poor health outcomes are common. This article is part of a series examining these disparities. (FiveThirtyEight)