Monday, June 3, 2024

Food Insecurity: U.S. Significance of Black Farmers and their Remarkable Role in the US and World Society

 Special Thanks to Heather Gray of the Justice Initiative.  

Black Farmers' Lives Matter: 

The significant contributions of Black Farmers in America

                                            Black farmer in South Carolina 2000's (photo: Heather Gray)

Heather Gray

Justice Initiative - June 3, 2024

In the late 1990s, I conducted a research project for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation/LAF) where I served as the Director of Communications. The research included interviews with Black 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 grew, 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.

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. 

The Freedman's Bureau was created in 1865 to assist freed slaves and poor whites after the Civil War. What is often referred to about this period in the 1800's is that Black farmers were to be given '40 acres and a mule.' The Bureau, however, was never given the directive from Congress to offer 40 acres to the Black community but rather small portions of from 10 to 15 acres. Unlike whites that were given free land in the west due to the 1862 Homestead Act.

Contributions of Black Farmers is Exceptional & Traditional African Foods
The contributions, however, of the Black farming community in the development of U.S. food and culture has 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 foods.

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 'quingumbo', 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 Scottish 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 plantation 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 รข€“ not to mention the wealth overall accumulated by white America from the labor of African farmers throughout the region.

George Washington Carver
No narrative of Black farmers and agriculture can be complete without referring to the agriculturalist and scientist, George Washington Carver, who played an 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/LAF and other institutions have also adapted in many instances,-- whether or not they recognize Carver's role in the development of the model.

Tuskegee agriculture professors will often bring their students to the Federation/LAF'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.

Contributions of Black Farmers in Civil Rights Movement
Black farmers 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 US Department of Agriculture (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.

Importantly, the 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 route.

Black farmers 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", Pete Daniel states, for example:

'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)

Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund Created in 1967

Farmers at the Federation/LAF Training Center in Alabama

Largely in response to this discrimination, the Federation/LAF was created in 1967. It grew out of the civil rights movement. As the late Alabama attorney J.L. Chestnut once said: 

'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 decades of work, the Federation/LAF 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 organization.

In addition to assisting individual Black farmers, the Federation/LAF has played a significant role effective 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 and which was proposed by the
 Federation/LAF 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, Ralph Paige.

2 - (Photo: Heather Gray)

Importantly, the 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.

Ralph Paige speaking at rally in the 1990's

Significance of Black Farmers and their Remarkable Role in the US and World Society
The above is but a brief summary of the expansive work of the Federation/LAF in the Black Belt South. It's important to note that contributions of Black farmers have offered hope and an inspiration to many throughout the region and the world. The Federation/LAF 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Search This Blog

ARCHIVE List 2011 - Present