Back to the Land

A growing number of African Americans want to reclaim their farming roots. But Black farmers face many of the same racist hurdles of the past.

STANDING BY THE BARN, face shaded by the brim of her well-worn hat, Sará Reynolds Green looks out over her verdant farm that lies just a few feet above the high-tide line on Saint Helena Island, one of the many barrier islands along the South Carolina coast. The lettuce is growing fast. Cucumber vines are climbing up the bushes. String beans are dangling on poles. Green looks at the kids out there, amid the rows of vegetables and low-lying fruit. They are local schoolchildren from the island and farther afield. Some are as young as five. Some are near college age. They pull weeds on their knees, getting their hands dirty. They push okra seedlings into prepared beds, and spread mulch for the sweet potatoes. They smile because they’re outside. Because they can eat a cherry tomato, or two, or three off of the vines. Or perhaps snack on some glowing strawberries. They smile because the blue sky is above, the dark soil is below and, with some spark of wonder, some magic caught between stem and root, they are coming to understand how it’s all connected — the soil and the sky and the tender green beans hanging from the poles.

Green, now 70, is on a mission with these kids — she wants them to grow into stewards of the land. These “Young Farmers of the Lowcountry,” as they have come to be known, are learning all about farming and entrepreneurship at Marshview Community Organic Farm — a sustainable farm Green runs in the heart of the ancestral lands of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of the first Africans enslaved and brought to the US in the 1700s to work on plantations. The children split their time between learning to cultivate food from seed and learning how to cook delicious meals with that produce from Green’s husband, Bill Green, who runs a local restaurant, Gullah Grub.

“We have a connection to the earth,” she says. “It’s special — learning what can grow, watching things grow, passing on what you know.” She also wants to teach the kids “loving kindness, patience, and tolerance,” and farming, she says, “is a way to teach that.”

Ever since she was a child herself, her eyes have always rested on this piece of land. Her great-grandfather bought 40 acres of farmland after the Civil War when a lot of the White landowners left the area. “We’ve been farming this ever since,” says Green, who has inherited 10 acres of that land.

Green’s father was murdered when she was 10 years old, leaving her mother to not only tend the farm, but raise six children, as well. “My mother raised all six of us farming,” Green says. She grew crops according to the season. Onions and squash, they grew. Watermelon and peanuts, too. Squash blossomed in the summer, sweet potatoes in the fall. Green recalls those early days when she’d have to weed and water the plants. She’d help her mother load up their truck with cucumbers. “We would load it up as high as it would go. Twice a week we’d do that, and she’d take them to the packing houses … I didn’t like it as a child. But it’s in my DNA,” she says.

Green is on a mission to grow young children into stewards of the land by teaching them all about farming and entrepreneurship at Marshview Community Organic Farm. Photo provided by Sará Reynolds Green.

Against the odds, Green has managed to hold onto 10 acres of land that her great-grandfather bought after the Civil War, when a lot of White landowners left the area. Photo provided by Sará Reynolds Green.

That Green is still holding onto her great-grandfather’s land is atypical. Black farmers, historically, have not been nurtured. Since Green’s great-grandfather first put shovel to soil until today, Black farmers have faced a steep and grinding uphill battle to hold on to land in the face of systemic racism and discrimination.

Green has seen that struggle play out in her lifetime. The Gullah people managed to escape much of the worst impacts of the Jim Crow South due to the relative isolation of their settlements along the tidelands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. They have held on to their rich West African culture and a creole dialect that has 250,000 speakers to this day. But over the decades, as waterfront properties began selling at a premium, development encroached upon the land and ways of life of the Gullah. High taxes drove some out of the tidelands. Land sales and auctions schemed out others. Saint Helena — where legend has it that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote parts of his “I Have a Dream” speech — is one of the few barrier islands where small Gullah-owned farms like Greens’ still persist.

Only 1.4 percent of America’s farmers, numbering less than 50,000, are Black.

“This land was all our ancestors had to give us … Now it is being robbed from our people,” says Green, who sees her effort to grow young farmers as part of a larger movement among African Americans to reclaim their farming roots.

These efforts have received a boost in recent months via a series of proposed laws, as well as initiatives announced by the new Biden administration, which has pledged to improve Black farmers’ access to land and resources.

TO THIS DAY, one would be hard-pressed to find a large, commercial farm owned by a Black farmer in the United States. Almost half of all Black-operated farms are smaller than 50 acres. The national average, according to a recent farm census, is 440 acres. One would also be hard pressed to find a Black farmer: Only 1.4 percent of America’s farmers, numbering less than 50,000, are Black, and between them they own a mere 4.7 million acres of land, according to the US Census of Agriculture.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The early days of Reconstruction held out a glowing promise of opportunity for former slaves. At the end of the Civil War, in January in 1865, Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which is known today as the “40 acres and a mule” policy, proposed 40-acre tracts to be leased or sold to Black farmers on easy terms on abandoned, confiscated, or unsettled lands. After President Abraham Lincoln approved the rule, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands to help administer the land distribution and to provide temporary relief and education to the nearly 4 million former slaves. But the spirit of the new law couldn’t live up to reality, particularly in the South. Southern Black codes and the Ku Klux Klan’s influence made it virtually toothless. Soon after Lincoln’s assassination in April that same year, his successor, White supremacist Andrew Johnson, overturned the order. And by 1872, Congress shut down the Freedman’s Bureau.

Farmlands thus remained in the hands of White landowners and planters, and Black farmers had no recourse but to work on these lands as tenant farmers and sharecroppers under deals so exploitative that they pushed most of the farmers into a persistent state of debt. With their voting rights repeatedly curtailed, they had little to no legal nor political recourse.

In spite of this, and in spite of the proliferation of oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South, in the decades that followed, Black farmers did manage to acquire some landholdings, mostly small 2.5-to-10-acre parcels, thanks to the organizing and collective support of the greater African American community. Formerly enslaved educator and reformist Booker T. Washington, for instance, became a leading proponent of farm improvements. State agricultural colleges for Black students were formed. Washington himself founded Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1881, where famous agricultural scientist George Washington Carver developed and helped promote simple, cost-effective farming methods such as crop diversification and natural soil improvement to maximize yields. By 1886, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union was established to help Black farmers pool money to buy land and equipment. In Texas, the Farmers’ Improvement Society of Texas (FIST) was formed in 1890 to similarly assist Black farmers.

As a result of these initiatives, Black farmers began to be able to purchase land. By 1910 to 1920, there were nearly 925,700 Black farmers who collectively owned some 20 million acres of land. They represented around 14 percent of all US farmers. Land ownership helped move many Black families to the middle and upper-middle classes.

Even after Emancipation, farmlands largely remained in the hands of the White landowners and planters. Black farmers had no recourse but to work as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Photo Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Oprah Winfrey.

A black farmer’s home on St. Helena Island, photographed in 1936. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, black farmers managed to acquire some landholdings, mostly small 2.5-to-10-acre parcels, thanks to the organizing and collective support of the greater African American community. Photo by Carl Mydans.

A nine-year-old child receives twenty cents for a hamper of beans he picked for a white farmer in Homestead, Florida in 1939. Between 1910 and 1997, as farming became more industrialized, Black farmers lost around 90 percent of their land, while White farmers lost only about 2 percent. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

Jim Crow laws, systemic racism, and disenfranchisement, however, were great weights against whatever buoyancy these initiatives brought Black farmers. After that 1910-1920 peak, land ownership for Black Americans declined drastically through the rest of the century due to — by the US Department of Agriculture’s own admission — a long and well-documented history of discriminatory practices against Black farmers, not just by White landowners but also by state and federal agencies. These practices ranged from denial of financial aid and other services offered under the New Deal, to the USDA denying loans, subsidies, and other benefits to Black farmers, to White landowners evicting farmers who tried to register to vote or got involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

“The USDA was designed by Southern Whites and consciously deprived Blacks of opportunities,” says Nathan Rosenberg, visiting assistant professor for Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas. Rosenberg was referring to the fact that since its founding, the agency was heavily influenced by Southern politicians, who made sure federal funds and other resources would be controlled and distributed by local bodies that were run by powerful White men. So blatant has been the racism exhibited by the USDA’s local offices that Black farmers often call the agency “The Last Plantation.”

Unable to afford working the land in the absence of institutional support, and faced with routine intimidation and violent attacks, millions of Black farmers were forced to move on. From about 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million Black families from the rural South went to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West in what’s come to be known as the Great Migration. (Once relocated to these urban areas, they were often denied opportunities there, as well.)

Persistent land alienation is one of drivers of the enormous wealth gap between Black and White Americans.

During the Civil Rights era, farmer-activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Charles and Shirley Sherrod formed cooperatives in hopes of circumventing the discrimination they faced. While such efforts did have a good measure of success, farmers also faced reprisals including the loss of credit at local banks, boycotts from local businesses, and discriminatory actions from local politicians. As a result of this relentless assault, the number of Black farmers dropped dramatically.

Between 1910 and 1997, as farming became more industrialized, Black farmers lost around 90 percent of their land, while White farmers lost only about 2 percent. This persistent land alienation is one of drivers of the enormous wealth gap between Black and White Americans: Average wealth for White families today is 12 times higher than average wealth for Black families, according to the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute.

Despite this dark history, there has been a renewed interest in recent years, especially among younger African Americans, in reclaiming their connection with the land and growing food. While several efforts are underway to support this new generation of farmers and to address the centuries-long racism and discrimination Black farmers have endured, if the past year is any indication, Black farmers’ climb back up to success still faces major hurdles.

SEDRICK ROWE IS ONE of only three Georgia farmers growing certified organic peanuts and the only Black farmer in South Georgia approved to grow organic hemp on his 30-acre farm near Albany. A former athlete, he bought his farm after training at New Communities, a land trust co-founded by farmer-activist Shirley Sherrod 50 years ago as a safe haven for African-American farmers thrown off their land. Rowe has been a farmer for only four years and in that timeframe he says he has had “no access to farming credit or capital,” even though he has applied for micro and operations loans from USDA several times. “I was told I didn’t bring in enough to my agribusiness to qualify. But I did. I had enough,” he says. “Final decisions are based on personal decisions, which usually involve stereotyping.”

Sedrick Rowe, a peanut and hemp farmer in Georgia, says his personal experience shows that little has changed in how Black farmers are treated by government agencies. Photo courtesy of USDA grant project Black Farmers’ Network.

This past March, Rowe was among the handful of farmers and farming advocates invited to a first-of-its-kind hearing by the US House Committee on Agriculture on the impact of systemic racism on Black farmers. “This hearing today is a very public way to address the deep mistrust that many farmers of color feel towards USDA, and to make sure that in an increasingly competitive agriculture economy no talent or ability is ignored or left behind,” Representative David Scott of Georgia, the first Black chairman of the committee, said in his opening statement at the event. “We no longer can afford that approach.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was present at the hearing as well, committed “to bold action to address discrimination in all its forms across USDA agencies.”

Rowe, and many others, remain skeptical about such promises. In his testimony to the committee, Rowe said his personal experience as a new farmer shows that little has changed in how Black farmers are treated by government agencies. “It’s been hard to even get into the market,” he says. “I’m just going to wait and see how this all plays out with the Biden administration. How will ideas and funding get down to Black farmers and benefit us in the long run? That’s what I’m interested in seeing play out.”

Many farming and civil rights activists are also skeptical about Vilsack, who made similar promises when he was President Obama’s USDA chief. During that tenure, the agency distorted agricultural census data to suggest a fictional renaissance in Black farming. Among other things, the USDA then falsely claimed that the number of Black farmers in the country was on the rise, and that the agency was resolving a backlog of civil rights complaints and reducing funding disparities between Black and White farmers.

Rosenberg, whose investigation into the agency (with journalist Bryce Wilson Stucki), brought this issue to light in 2019, says they discovered these claims to be distorted truths, if not all-out lies. “We spoke to over 150 people on these issues. We overwhelmingly heard it’s not getting better,” he says.

The status quo will be hard to change. Even during the pandemic year, a year in which racism and inequity came to the forefront of global consciousness, federal relief flowed up the usual channels: White farmers received nearly 97 percent of the $9.2 billion provided by the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program from May through October 2020, according to data obtained by the Land Loss and Reparations Project.

FOR BLACK FARMERS, hope lies in the multitude of African American community organizations and farming cooperatives, many of which grew out of the civil rights movement, that are advocating for them in all manner of ways, including by putting continued pressure on the government. That pressure has been bearing fruit.

In March, just days ahead of the Agriculture Committee hearing, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus package awarded $5 billion to the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. Spearheaded by newly elected Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, the act — which some experts are calling the most significant legislation when it comes to supporting Black land ownership in this country — offers $4 billion for debt forgiveness to farmers of color and $1 billion to support activities at the USDA that will root out systemic racism, provide technical and legal assistance to farmers, and fund under-resourced programs that will reshape the future for farmers of color.

(The backlash to this initiative is already underway. In late April, five White farmers sued Vilsack over the aid package, alleging reverse discrimination by the USDA. Texas Agriculture Secretary Sid Miller filed a similar suit on April 28, claiming that loan forgiveness for socially disadvantaged farmers is discriminatory against White farmers and ranchers like him.)

“I was told I didn’t bring in enough to my agribusiness. But I did.”

A month before that, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, along with Warnock and three other Democrat senators, co-sponsored the Justice For Black Farmers Act. Under the bill, first introduced by Sen. Booker last year, the USDA would provide land grants of up to 160 acres to eligible Black farmers at no cost. If the bill is passed, at least 20,000 land grants would be made each year from 2021 to 2030 in order to encourage the next generation of Black farmers.

Meanwhile, Rep. Scott is working on legislation to offer tax incentives to processors and other companies if they buy crops and livestock from Black producers. During an online discussion about the legislation in April, Rep. Scott anticipated opposition to this initiative. “When they bump up and want to fight on this bill, which some of them do … I want to tell them that nobody, not anybody in the history of America, has paid the dues of agriculture [as much as Blacks have],” he said.

OVER IN SAINT HELENA, a long way off from the corridors of federal power, Green is doing her own bit to decolonize farming in America and preserve the cultural history of Black farmers. That includes teaching young farmers how to grow indigo and rice alongside vegetables. “They get to take home a little bag of rice. They know now where it comes from,” she says.

When West Africans were brought to these islands by slave traders, they brought along with them considerable agricultural knowhow, including rice-farming techniques that, during the colonial period, helped the Carolinas grow into rice-producing powerhouses. Green believes that for Black farmers to reclaim their heritage and dignity, they “have to reach back and learn from our past.”

It’s the Gullah way to pass on the legacy of this land, she says. “This is a sacred place. I am going to hold onto this land. As long as I can move, we will grow.”

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