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Living life like it’s golden: Where Black people are thriving in the U.S.

Groundbreaking Brookings Institution/NAACP Black Progress Index reveals where and how folks are living their best lives

Rows of wine grapes on vineyards in the suburbs of Leesburg, Virginia.Skryagin/Adobe Stock

When Kindra Dionne moved to Leesburg, a historic town in Virginia’s storied “wine country,” she never dreamed her appreciation for vino would go beyond sips at happy hour.

But after leaving a municipal government gig in 2017, the Richmond native was eager to apply her skills in business and economic development. A series of conversations with a local Italian-born vintner led to an unexpected entrepreneurial venture. Today, Dionne is the founding visionary behind Fifty Leven, a wine and lifestyle brand launched in October 2021. It is the first Black-owned wine company in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Kindra Dionne, founder of Fifty Leven wines, is emblematic of the kind of success revealed by the Brookings/NAACP Black Progress Index.Essdras M. Suarez

“I did not enter the industry with formalized training in wine,” Dionne says. “It took mentorship and endless hours of research. However, I had a desire to share a collection of approachable varietals and blends with an underserved consumer group.”

Loudoun County is cited in groundbreaking new data that reveals where Black residents nationwide are living their best lives. the Black Progress Index, a collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the NAACP, places the county among the top regions for Black people in terms of life expectancy. The researchers define “Black” as people who self-identify as such (but not Hispanic) in the U.S. Census American Community Survey. The research team found that in Loudoun County, foreign-born Black residents tend to hail from West Africa, such as Nigeria and Ghana; Somalia; and the Caribbean, including Trinidad and Tobago.

“As important as it is to understand what’s standing in the way of progress for Black communities,” says Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO, it’s “just as critical to understand where and why our communities are thriving so we can refine our road map for achieving true equality and justice for all.”

Top-performing counties, regardless of Black population size, are scattered across the country: Weld County (Greeley), Colorado; Osage County (Tulsa), Oklahoma; Snohomish County (Seattle-Tacoma), Washington; Collier County (Naples), Florida; and Jones County (Macon), Georgia.

Black Progress Index metrics for Loudoun County, Virginia.The Brookings Institution/NAACP

Unexpected and complex findings in the index include:

  • A higher percentage of foreign-born Black people was one of the strongest predictors of longevity in a community.
  • The spatial distance of one’s Facebook friends is positively correlated with longer life. People whose friendship networks are less concentrated in a single area and more dispersed have more positive health and well-being impacts.
  • Black communities that are more religious actually have worse health outcomes.
  • Regions with larger shares of Black children not living with their father, as well as firearm fatalities, showed substantive harms. In county-level census data sampled in the report, 57% of Black children were not living with their father.

Researchers examined the assets and opportunities tied to Black people’s quality of life in key areas: health, business, housing, employment, and education. They aimed to highlight strengths rather than deficits often emphasized in narratives about Black communities.

“I want people to understand that many of the negative factors that impact people’s quality of life are man-made, not biological,” says Andre Perry, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, who led the project. “They are largely the result of policy. The conversations about community health always center around individual behaviors. But we have an enormous opportunity to spotlight the civic action needed to change public policy.”

The Black Progress Index aggregates data from hundreds of U.S. counties to help identify the strongest predictors of Black health.

Jonathan Rothwell, Ph.D., a principal economist with Gallup Inc. and nonresident fellow at Brookings, collaborated with Perry. They used a variety of sources, ranging from U.S. Census Bureau data to the Federal Reserve, for the index, he says. The University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program was utilized, for instance, in assessing Black life expectancy at birth.

Researchers say the conditions most predictive of Black health (at the county level) include wealth; human and social capital, measured by educational attainment, friend networks, and more; environmental quality; safety; and family health, measured by the share of Black children who live with their father.

The sum of these attributes is designed to provide a window into certain elements that are elevating or, conversely, hindering Black well-being.

“By understanding the variations in neighborhood conditions,” Perry says, “communities can make more precise policy recommendations to suit their collective needs.”

That seems to be happening in Loudoun County, where there’s rich Black history dating back to the 1700s, but Black population numbers are relatively small.

Yet the index found income, homeownership, and educational levels were high.

Jennifer Buske-Sigal, a tourism official with Visit Loudoun, says the county melds rural and urban elements that overlap in one destination.

“Western Loudoun is home to 50 wineries and 300 miles of unpaved roads,” Buske-Sigal says. “Yet eastern Loudoun, where Dulles Airport resides, is also home to Data Center Alley, where 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows. We’ve seen people leave the tech side to then invest in the wine industry, right along multigenerational farm families growing grapes.”

Several Black entrepreneurs told The Emancipator they’ve been provided with start-up resources and other types of support.

“When I first moved here with my husband and children, we had to get adjusted. We didn’t see a lot of us. It’s slower. I see cows and hills,” says Dana Green, proprietor of Restocked, a women-owned sneaker and apparel boutique in downtown Leesburg. “But there’ve been many supporters, including the mayor. The community has really embraced us.”

Another town in Loudoun County that is generating buzz is Middleburg, with a population just shy of 700 residents.

For generations, this quaint 18th-century village known for its equestrian culture, antique shops, and vineyards has welcomed everyone from the Kennedys to Hollywood celebrities. Envision Instagram scenery of rolling pastures and lush forests, set against the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Equestrian Center at Salamander Resort & Spa.Justin Kriel/Courtesy of SALAMANDER HOTELS & RESORTS

In 2013, mogul Sheila Johnson — BET co-founder and America’s first Black woman billionaire — unveiled the five-star Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg. While the clientele is diverse, the hotel has attracted more well-heeled Black denizens to the area to wine, dine, golf, go horseback riding, and attend special events, such as an annual film festival.

Back in July, Johnson and stakeholders held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Residences at Salamander, a forthcoming development of 49 luxury homes on the resort’s nearly 400 acres.

It’s more evidence, Dionne says, of how many in the county’s Black community are thriving.

“People are very accomplished,” she says. “We don’t look like Atlanta, New York, or Miami. “But if you are in a room and look to your left and right, seeing people who are educated, influential, and change agents, it fills you with pride.”

Donna M. Owens is an award-winning, multiplatform journalist. The news veteran has covered U.S. Congress, the White House, and elections, as well as race, gender, social justice, and culture.

Follow The Emancipator for more Black Progress Index stories.