Black Land Matters
Mother Jones|May/June 2021
After a century of dispossession, young Black farmers are restoring their rightful place in American agriculture.
By Tom Philpott

In the decades before the Civil War, one of the South’s largest slave enterprises held sway on the northern outskirts of Durham, North Carolina. At its peak, about 900 enslaved people were compelled to grow tobacco, corn, and other crops Inthe on the Stagville Plantation, 30,000 acres of rolling piedmont that had been taken from the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Today, the area has a transitional feel: Old farmhouses, open fields, and pine forests cede ground to subdivisions, as one of America’s hottest real estate markets sprawls outward.

On a sunny winter afternoon, farmer and food-justice activist Tahz Walker greets me on a 48-acre patch of former Stagville property called the Earthseed Land Collective. Walker and a few friends pooled their resources and bought this parcel, he says, to experiment with collective living, and inspire “people of color to reimagine their relationship to the land.” He leads me through the gate of the property’s Tierra Negra Farm, a 2-acre plot of vegetable rows, hoop houses, and a grassy patch teeming with busy hens. It’s one of several enterprises housed within the land collective, which also features a commercial worm-compost operation, a capoeira studio, and homes for several members, including the 1930s farmhouse where Walker lives with his wife and co-farmer, Cristina Rivera-Chapman, and their two kids. Tierra Negra markets its products through a subscription veggie-box service that goes to 20 nearby families—including descendants of Stagville’s enslaved population—and supplies Communities in Partnership, a local nonprofit that brings affordable fresh food to historically Black, fast-gentrifying East Durham.

As it’s January, most of the rows are fallow. Walker points to a patch of bare ground that grew sweet potatoes the previous season. “It’s a variety that was grown by a Black farmer in Virginia for like 40 years,” he says. “He stopped growing them, and I started growing them from slips,” referring to the green shoots used to propagate sweet potatoes. “It’s a cool variety—instead of running, it kind of bushes up, so it’s really great for cultivation with the tractor.” And “it still makes great pies and fries.”

Like many Black Americans born in the second half of the 20 th century, Walker has ancestral ties to agriculture, but he grew up alienated from it. His father had spent summers working on his family’s farm operation in rural Kentucky, where they sharecropped on land owned by white people. Walker’s dad fled as soon as he could and ultimately set up an IT-services business in Atlanta, raising Walker and his sister in the city’s then-semirural far northern suburbs. Stories about life in the Kentucky fields were scarce. To his father, farming represented “trauma [that] gets passed down,” something to escape. When Walker began to devote his life to agriculture as a young adult in the late 1990s, “my dad would always say, ‘Everybody’s trying to get off the farm. Why are you trying to get on the farm?’”

Walker is part of a growing movement of young Black Americans striving to reclaim the legacy of agrarianism. Acquiring land isn’t easy, as he knows all too well: A century of land loss has been compounded by escalating real estate prices. Yet the quest to reclaim farmland is gaining momentum as part of the broader reparations movement, which seeks redress for the unpaid debts owed to many Black Americans.

After a traumatic history marked by enslavement and then sharecropping, followed by a century of racist federal farm policy that largely stripped Black farmers of the ability to hold land, “I never in my wildest dreams thought that there would be young people wanting to become farmers,” says Karen Washington, a pioneering community gardener in the Bronx who now co-owns a farm in the Hudson Valley. While the wounds of the Black agricultural experience can’t be forgotten, Washington says, “a different narrative has started to surface: the power behind owning land and controlling what you eat.”

In January 1865, Maj. General William Tecumseh Sherman met with a group of Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia, to discuss the path forward for 3.9 million recently freed Black people. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor,” a Baptist minister and former slave named Garrison Frazier told Sherman. The general proposed to expropriate 400,000 acres owned by white plantation owners and grant it to freed slaves in allotments not to exceed 40 acres. The region would be politically autonomous, with the “sole and exclusive management of affairs...left to the freed people themselves.” Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, popularly known as “40 acres and a mule,” were soon approved by President Abraham Lincoln, but died with him; his successor, the Southern white supremacist Andrew Johnson, hastily canceled the orders.

As the land remained in the hands of white plantation owners, millions of Black people had little choice but to work as sharecroppers—tenants who rented a patch of farmland in exchange for an oftenmeager share of the harvest. This arrangement quickly morphed into a form of debt peonage. Sharecroppers had to rely on high-interest loans from their landlords and merchants to run their operations, leaving scant profit. The ruling white gentry, in turn, used credit as a tool to ramp up production, which “forced sharecroppers to grow ever more cotton, the only crop that could always be made into money,” Harvard historian Sven Beckert writes in his book Empire of Cotton: A Global History. As cotton output rose, prices fell, putting sharecroppers on a debt treadmill, enabling the Southern planter class to continue extracting monumental wealth from the labor of Black people long after abolition.

And yet, despite violent backlash from Southern planters, Black growers managed to gain a toehold. The key was collective action, University of Wisconsin sociologist Monica White explains in her book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, 1880– 2010. Launched in 1886 to organize landless Black farmers and to pool money to buy land and tools, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union boasted 1.2 million members at its peak. At the Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama land-grant college founded by Booker T. Washington and other formerly enslaved people, agricultural scientist George Washington Carver pushed crop diversification, composting, and other proto-organic methods to help sharecroppers “make enough profit to purchase their land, feed their families, and achieve economic autonomy,” White writes. Carver toured Alabama in an “agricultural wagon,” delivering lectures and demonstrations of his techniques.

These efforts helped Black farmers acquire land against long odds at a time when ownership was the surest path to a measure of economic security within a highly stratified, racist society. By 1910, although sharecropping remained dominant, a USDA census revealed that about 219,000 Black farmers owned land. Together, the Land Loss and Reparations Project found, they held an estimated 20 million acres. According to Thomas Mitchell, co-director of Texas A&M’s Real Estate and Community Development Law program and an expert on Black land tenure, as many as 80 percent of the Black middle or upper-middle-class were farm owners.

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