In a recent podcast, Mother Jones sat down with author and agricultural activist, Leah Penniman, to discuss the rarely acknowledged history of African American farming in the United States. While many recognize that agriculture’s history in America is one that invariably leads back to our society’s “original sin” of black enslavement, few are aware of the history of agriculture as it affected Black Americans in the decades after emancipation. This podcast takes the time to briefly explore this history, and we recommend it as a powerful, informative, listen.
Concerning both notes, Penniman wants to ensure that people have a clear understanding of the issue: On the history of black enslavement, as it relates to agriculture, Penniman discusses how black people were enslaved primarily for their diversity of agricultural expertise. The famed rice empires of our home region in the Carolinas, for example, were primarily the result of farming traditions developed by Africans in the Senegambia region of West Africa. Generally, this is a piece of information that tends to run counter to what many Americans are taught in school, or have learned in movies and popular culture. With regards to the history of black agriculture after emancipation, Penniman states that hard work was done through unfair systems such as sharecropping in order to control approximately a 14% share of all agricultural land (41.4 million acres) in America by 1920. This percentage is relatively consistent with the population proportions that Black Americans have held in the United States throughout the course of the 20th century, which is 14%. However, in 2020, only 1.4% of agricultural land is owned by African Americans. Penniman acknowledges that Black Farmers were, and still are, subject to the conventional problems of farming such as real estate development. However, she makes clear that many black farmers in the early 20th century were targets of domestic terrorism from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who would in many cases steal the land of owners who were driven from their property—or outright murdered. Additionally, she states that black farmers who experienced problems related to financing were unable to turn to the federal government for benefits and subsidies that were afforded to their white counterparts. By 1960, the federal government was the leading entity responsible for black farm closures. While Penniman believes that a whole host of solutions may be required by the federal government in order to remedy this problem, she also believes that as a farmer there is something she can do. Soul Fire Farm is a project that she Co-Directs in Petersburg, New York that focuses on training and educating the next generation of black and brown farmers and providing food as well as holistic medicines for their community. Soul Fire is an organization that is a part of a coalition of efforts advocating for the restoration of agricultural resources and land to disenfranchised black and brown Americans. Soul Fire is also the lead organization in the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which looks for good-hearted individuals to donate land for people of color to farm on. You can also read Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black, which covers these topics in much greater detail. (via Grist & Mother Jones)