Black cotton farming family from the 1890s

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Black cotton farming family (c. 1890s) via Wikipedia.

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155 years. 64 trillion dollars.

That’s how long the families of 4 million enslaved Black people have been waiting for their 40 acres and a mule since stewarding land in the antebellum U.S. That’s how much money this property is worth. A promise often cited but never fulfilled.

As society reckons with compensating this missing generational wealth, today’s Black farmers still struggle to get and maintain their acreages. Black farmers “were a major agricultural force in the 19th and 20th centuries” (Modern Farmer). Ironically, this height of Black husbandry occurred in what Black historian Rayford Logan coined “The Nadir,”  the period between 1890 and 1918 – some African American scholars extend the era to 1930 – when progress toward racial equity reached its lowest point.

The U.S. government signed the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which solidified the citizenship of newly emancipated Black people. These two laws gave Black people legal rights to claim 160 acres for a nominal fee, a deed, and if they stayed on the land for five years (Aeon). Most of them staked their claims on Southern lands under a corollary to the Homestead Act called the Southern Homestead Act (SHA) of 1866. This “land hunger,” as W.E.B. DuBois called it, drove approximately 200,000 Black people to own 20 million acres of land in the South and the West by the 1910s, in the midst of the Nadir (Mother Jones). 14% of that land was in Mississippi (The Atlantic).

Some of the manumitted Black folks did not stay in the South. Instead, they sought their literal and figurative 40 acres in what’s referred to as “the American West,” but is actually where the government stole Indigenous people’s lands in its expansionist efforts. Famously known as the Exodusters, approximately 3,500 Black people – out of the millions who were freed and several thousand who moved west – were able to claim 650,000 acres of this land. Including their families, about 15,000 Black people lived in these homesteads (National Park Service). By the 1920s, the number of Black farmers peaked at 949,889, with their owning 15 million acres across the U.S (The Guardian).

In response, white supremacy redoubled its efforts to divest these farmers of their acreage and their livelihoods. In practice, the Homestead Act and the SHA were insufficient to support freed African Americans through the bureaucratic process. It also often provided unfarmable land and never included the money to pay the filing fee (PBS). A few of the newly freed Black people, particularly Black men, ended up sharecropping or in chain gangs. According to The Atlantic, “even the most enterprising black landowners found themselves fighting a war of attrition, often fraught with legal obstacles that made passing title to future generations difficult.”

Ultimately, out of the 28,000 that filed for land patents, only about 5,500 Black people actually received them (Aeon). In contrast, the Homestead Act and the SHA ultimately gave away 270 million acres to 1.6 million U.S.-born and immigrant white people. As of 2000, 46 million of these people – about a quarter of the U.S. population – are descendants of these landowners  (Aeon).

White nationalist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan – some of whom were on city councils and law enforcement – forced many Black farmers off their land because, in some cases, the farmers’ growing wealth from their work offended the white townspeople’s sense of racial superiority. In other cases, the white people wanted the land itself. (Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aided and abetted in further depriving Black farmers of land and livelihood. The all-white department, which fortified its efforts to bolster American agriculture under the New Deal’s Farm Bill of 1933, routinely excluded the farmers by denying them loans or colluding with banks and land developers to steal the land (Modern Farmer). They also forced farmers off their rightful property and treated the farmers with openly disdainful hostility when they sought their services (The Counter). Between 1930 and 1950, Black husbandry “declined by 37%…and black tenants and [sharecroppers] declined by 32%” as this new iteration of the USDA and its policies favored corporate farming. This drove Black farmers out of business and off their lands, which accelerated the Great Migration, where Black communities moved into urban communities (Rosenberg and Wilson Stucki).

However, Black farmers resisted. The National Black Farmers Association and other African American agricultural landowners organized and sued the USDA in 1999 for racial discrimination, stating that “the department denied them access to federal farm-operating loans, disaster payments, information on farm programs, technical assistance, and other support that the agency is mandated by law to provide low-income farmers” (Yes Magazine). The USDA settled that case, known as Pigford v. Glickman, that year for $1 billion, with Congress appropriating more money to compensate for the farmers who filed late. This action, called Pigford II, brought the total to $1.25 billion in 2010 (Yes Magazine). However, The Counter investigated that this victory was, at best, a hollow one.

Even with these actions, only 45,508 Black farmers remain as of 2019. They own only 0.52 percent of U.S. agricultural acres and earn, on average, $40,000 per year, compared to their white counterparts’ average yearly income of over $190,000 (The Guardian). The old towns and homesteads settled by the Exodusters are fading away (Washington Post). Today’s reality is, according to NPR, “farmland is expensive, and farm real estate prices have been on the rise since 1969.” This means “young Black farmers with student debt or low credit scores face more challenges accessing the credit needed to put a down payment on viable land for farming” (NPR). The coronavirus pandemic is further devastating this population; many Black farmers, who tend to have smaller operations, have been left out of the billions of dollars in relief funds (100 Days in Appalachia).

Still, some African Americans, including younger people, find their way back to agricultural stewardship and find a way to give back to their communities. In the 1990s, Chicago media mentioned The Black Farmers Markets, which explicitly connected this segment of land cultivators with Black customers in the face of white hostility in the “traditional” farmers markets. (The Counter) This organization works in coalition with a vibrant network of other food-justice, racial-justice, and farm-justice groups such as the National Black Food & Justice Alliance, Soil Generation, and Community Food Lab and agricultural communities such as Soul Fire Farms and Black Dirt Farm Collective.

The U.S. government – through the USDA – wants another chance to rectify its devastation. Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand co-sponsored the Justice for Black Farmers Act released on November 30 (Mother Jones). The new bill will allot $8 billion to buy land to give to Black farmers. It will also give money to “agriculturally based” historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other nonprofits to help them assist the USDA in finding land to purchase for the farmers, and provide the resources to support new Black farmers and Black agricultural collectives.

Black lives matter – including the lives and livelihoods of the Black farmers who literally feed us. We need to return the favor.

Key Takeaways

  • Black farmers in the United States have a long, proud, and devastating history of landownership and in starting and maintaining a sustainable livelihood.

  • Black farmers played a significant role in U.S. agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially during The Nadir, the lowest point in U.S. race relations.

  • Black farmers resisted land-grabs and racial discrimination on the federal and local levels.

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