Farmers' Lives Matter:
significant contributions of Black Farmers in America
November 22, 2020
I first sent this
article out in 2015 when the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land
Assistance Fund won the Food Sovereignty Prize. The article includes
information about how much of the food we eat in the United States has
its roots in Africa thanks to Black farmers and the Black community
generally along their tremendous other contributions. So when blessing
your Thanksgiving meal in 2020 also bless the Black family farmers that
gave us so much, more often under outrageously difficult and discriminatory
Thank you 'Black
Farmers' Lives Matter
Day when we are with family or friends and blessing our food, we should
all 'Bless the Black Family Farmers' that provided us now and
historically with a huge amount of the food we eat.
The 2015 Food Sovereignty Prize was shared
by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund
(Federation) and the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras. The
prize was presented in Des Moines on October 14, 2015. Thankfully, this
prize honored the important work of family farmers throughout the world.
The Food Sovereignty prize was first
awarded in 2009 as an alternative to the World Food Prize (that was
also taking place that week in Des Moines, Iowa) founded by "the
father of the Green Revolution," the late Norman Borlaug. While the
World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through technology, the
Food Sovereignty Prize, awarded by the U.S. Food
Sovereignty Alliance, champions solutions coming from those most impacted
by the injustices of the global food system. In honoring those who are
organizing to reclaim local food systems, the commons and community
self-determination, the Food Sovereignty Prize affirms that nothing short
of the true democratization of our food system will enable us to end
hunger once and for all. (EcoWatch)
(Photo: Heather Gray)
The theme of 2015
was "Black Farmer's Lives Matter". This is indeed true!
have fed their communities and have always generously done so during and
since the end of slavery. Much food has almost always been shared with
those in need. But the production has been diverse and with a wealth of
traditional knowledge through the generations as is true with family
farmers throughout the world.
In the late
1990s, I conducted a research project for the Federation that included
interviews of farmers throughout the South. I was amazed at the abundance
and variety of produce grown by Black farmers. Even if they grew a huge
acreage of monocrops, they also tended to maintain an important tradition
of a diverse production of fruits and vegetables somewhere on their farm.
When farmers have talked with me about the crops they grow, regardless of
their struggles, on a consistent basis I have witnessed a gleam in their
eyes. It's as if farming is indeed a spiritual experience regardless of
who you are or where you are from.
Mississippi farmer Braxton Bullock with his cabbage
Yet this on-going
productivity has never been easy, largely because of southern and
national politics, along with the growing industrial systems in
agriculture that continue to threaten the integrity of our important
family farmer sector.
In fact, since
the end of the Civil War in 1865 and prior to that as well, Black farmers
have made significant contributions to agriculture in America.
Bureau was created in 1865 to assist freed slaves and poor whites after
the Civil War. The Bureau, however, was never given the directive from
Congress to offer 40 acres to those in the Black community but rather
small portions of from 10 to 15 acres. Unlike whites that were given free
land in the west, thanks to the 1862
Homestead Act, Blacks needed to "purchase" their land. In
fact, with the Homestead Act, American whites received some of the most
massive welfare subsidies of any people in the world in the nineteenth
century. Nevertheless, by the early 1900's the Black community had
managed to purchase some 15 million acres of land. It was an amazing
feat. Yet by 1910, the loss of black-owned land began with the advent,
for one, of Jim Crow laws in the South. Today the acreage farmed by Black
farmers is a little over 4.5 million acres.
of the Black farming community in the development of U.S. food and
culture have also been exceptional and likely more than any other ethnic
group in the South. Most of the slaves in America came from West Africa
and that culture is reflected, for one, in the food we eat today. For
centuries, Black farmers have maintained the growth of these traditional
In fact, many of
the African foods we eat in the 21rst century came with Africans on ships
during the slave trade. African origins of some of our foods include
okra, gumbo, watermelon, spinach, coffee, yams, black-eyed peas, sorghum,
and African rice. All of these foods resonate in the South today.
Okra is thought
to be from Ethiopia or also, and more likely, from West Africa where it
was also grown and eaten abundantly. The word gumbo is believed to have
come from "quingombo", of the word "quillobo", which
is the native name for the okra plant in the Congo and Angola areas of
Africa. Watermelon is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert
of Africa and in the 1800s British missionary David Livingston saw an
abundance of watermelon growing wild in central Africa. Spinach is from
North Africa. Coffee is from Ethiopia. Yams are a staple food in West
Africa. It is thought the first domestication of black-eyed peas took
place in West Africa. Sorghum and African rice are thought to have come
from the Sahel in Africa some 5,000 years ago. African rice has been grown
in West Africa for some 3,000 years.
Rice, in fact,
was critical to building wealth in the American colonies. For example,
white plantation owners in South Carolina did not have a clue about
growing rice. They opted to bring in slaves from West Africa where, as
mentioned, rice had been grown for thousands of years. It was African
women who taught these planation owners, of course, as women were the
farmers, as was true throughout most of the African continent.
Nevertheless, white South Carolinians still resonate from the wealth they
accumulated thanks to the skills and vast knowledge of African female
farmers - not to mention the wealth overall accumulated by white America
from the labor of African farmers throughout the region.
No narrative of
Black farmers and agriculture can be complete without referring to the
agriculturalist and scientist, George Washington Carver, who played as
extraordinary role through his work at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Many say he saved the South. This is probably true. Carver recognized
that the depleted soil from cotton production could be alleviated by a
rotation of crops. Cotton, for example, should be rotated with legumes
such as peanuts to fix nitrogen in the soil and farmers today are largely
attentive to this practice. This example of rotation just touches on his
genius but also his teaching model of a "moveable school" was
transformative for agriculture education in the South, as in taking
education directly to the farmer. This is something the Federation and
other institutions have also adapted in many instances whether or not
they recognize Carver's role in the development of the model.
agriculture professors will often bring their students to the
Federation's Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama to meet
some of the Black farmers in the area. One professor told me that the
students can then witness a farmer digging his hand into the soil and
tell them precisely about its health or what was needed to improve it. It
comes from traditional knowledge, of course, and is beyond the textbook.
Market at the Federation's Rural Training &
Research Center in Alabama
(Photo: Heather Gray)
have also played a central role in the movement for freedom and justice
in the United States and are rarely acknowledged for this. In the
mid-20th century, across the South, they assisted in funding some civil
rights initiatives and worked with students and activists including the
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); they offered their
land on occasion to assist civil rights workers, as in for camping; they
ran for positions in USDA agriculture committees, such as the Agricultural
Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), which is now the Farm
Service Agency (FSA); they assisted in voter registration initiatives.
These are just a few examples.
legendary 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma-to-Montgomery on Highway 80
could probably never have occurred were it not for Black farmers. Black
farmers, who owned land along Highway 80, allowed the integrated mixture
of black and white marchers to stay on their land during the 54-mile
march. This would never have been allowed on white-owned farms along the
are, in fact, at the pinnacle of American heroes in the movement for
justice in America and should be acknowledged as such!
As Black farmers
were often the levers upon which the movement rested in rural areas, the
conservative and reactionary whites in the South went after them with a
vengeance that included, of course, the representatives of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
In his book "Dispossession:
Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil
Rights", historian Pete Daniel describes the USDA and the white
south's tactics. Daniel managed to obtain records from the "U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights" of studies that were conducted, for one,
in 1965 and 1967 and he said that after his years of research, even he
was shocked by the tactics to undermine Black farmers. Countless farmers
were forced off the land during this period and/or left the South under
When SNCC in the mid-1960s organized
African American farmers to vote in ASCS elections, county offices issued
inaccurate maps, neglected to send black women ballots, manipulated
ballots to confuse black farmers, all with the complicity of the
Washington USDA office. There was also violence, intimidation, and
economic retaliation. (Daniel)
Largely in response to this discrimination, the Federation was created in
1967. It grew out of the civil rights movement. As the late Alabama
attorney J.L. Chestnut once said,
"There were a lot of
organizations that were spawned by the blood that was spilled on the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, and the Federation was one of
Elders in the
movement have told me that they felt the civil rights movement at the
time had left the rural South behind. So the Federation was created to
help fill that void by playing a role in saving black-owned land and
offering tools for economic development.
As the founders
of the Federation were, of course, aware of the discrimination against
Black farmers in the South, they created an expansive organization that
is licensed in 16 Southern states. It has offered assistance in seeking
resources from the USDA for farmers, and, through the cooperative
economic development model, provided another significant framework for
economic advancement. Its work has also included international outreach
and assistance in Cuba, West Africa, the Caribbean and Haiti to name a
few. This is often with international farmer-to-farmer exchange programs.
In its more that
four decades, the Federation has assisted in the creation of agriculture
cooperatives, fisher cooperatives, craft cooperatives, credit unions and
other cooperative ventures in addition to an important infrastructure of
State Associations of Cooperatives. It has remained a grassroots
The "Caravan to Washington" on the
Capitol steps in DC (1992)
(Photo: Heather Gray)
In addition to
assisting individual Black farmers, the Federation has played a
significant role effecting federal policy. In the early 1990s, Congress
passed what was known as the "Minority Farmers Rights Act" that
would, for the first time, use federal funds for programs targeted for
Black farmers. It was proposed by the Federation in 1988. While the bill
passed Congress, funds were not appropriated. It took a "Caravan to
Washington" in 1992 of farmers and supporters from across the South,
to finally pressure Congress to appropriate monies for the program. The
"Caravan" was the brainchild of the former executive director,
Federation was instrumental in the filing of the Black Farmer Class
Action Lawsuit against the USDA that settled in 1999. It was known as the
Pigford v Glickman lawsuit with Tim Pigford being a Black farmer from
North Carolina and Dan Glickman being President Bill Clinton's Secretary
of Agriculture. This was the largest civil rights lawsuit ever filed
against the United States government. To date, more than a billion
dollars has been allocated to Black farmers for the discrimination they
experienced from the USDA.
The above is but
a brief summary of the expansive work of the Federation in the Black Belt
South. Its important contributions have offered hope and an inspiration
to many throughout the region and the world. The Federation and Black
farmers have played a significant role in both honoring and saving family
farmers for the benefit of farmers themselves and their communities, of
course, as well as for all of us in America in providing food, in
significant contributions to our culture and the integrity of our
communities over all.
To learn more
about the work of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, please visit http://www.federation.coop/.
Heather Gray is a writer and radio
producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia,
Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern
Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and
in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees
in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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