Black Farmers’ Lives Matter

The 2015 Food Sovereignty Prize will be shared by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation) and the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras. The prize will be presented in Des Moines on October 14, 2015. Thankfully, this prize honors 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 (also taking place this 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)

The theme this year is “Black Farmer’s Lives Matter”. This is indeed true!

Black farmers have fed their communities and have always generously done so during and since the end of slavery. The stories about this are abundant. Much food is almost always shared for those in need.

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 huge monocrops, they also tended to maintain an important tradition of diverse production 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.

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 honored the land and farming. The Freedman’s Bureau was created in 1865 to assist freed slaves and poor whites after the war. 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, 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.

The contributions of the Black farming community in the development U.S. food and culture have also been significant. 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 “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 for 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 great George Washington Carver who played a significant 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.

Tuskegee 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.

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 civil rights initiatives with students and activists including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); they offered their land for civil rights workers; 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.

Black farmers are, in fact, at the pinnacle of American heroes in the movement for justice in America and should be acknowledged as such!

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.

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 the circumstances.

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.

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 those.” 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 in the South 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 organization with community representation despite attempted persuasion from some major entities in late 1990s. The pressure was to change its model to a more elitist type board with government and/or corporate leaders – and this was after the U.S. government had launched a grand jury investigation against the organization. The Federation thankfully withstood this pressure.

In 1979 the U.S. government launched a Grand Jury investigation against the Federation at the behest of Alabama politicians including, primarily, Alabama’s U.S. Senators Howell Heflin and James Stewart and local Congressman Richard Shelby. The claim was that the organization was misusing its federal funds for political activities. The proof? Many more blacks in the area were registered to vote in preparation for the 1980 elections. It appears these politicians were scared of Black voters. For three grueling years, the Federation was under investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office and lost a considerable amount of its major funding. In 1981 the investigation ended without explanation. For all intents and purposes it was a ploy in an attempt to destroy an effective and important Black institution, and it didn’t work!

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. 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.

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 have 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.

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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 hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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