Saving Black Farmers / Land
Land ownership is, and primarily has been, the basic and major source of wealth and power for all Americans. Land ownership provides economic and political power to its owners. During the 20th Century, an ominous trend in landownership has been occurring with serious consequences for the social and economic well being of African Americans!
Historically, African Americans have been closely attached to the land. The vast majority of the slaves brought to this country worked either directly as field laborers or in some domestic capacity on a southern plantation.
When slavery was outlawed in the country, it was clear that two needs had to be met if Blacks were to survive as a people. They had to become educated and they had to acquire land. Especially since agriculture was the primary industry in the country and Blacks saw their survival directly related to their ability to become successful and prosperous farmers-and to own the land they farmed.
Land ownership marked an overwhelming economic achievement for Blacks after Emancipation. Not only did owning land provide an important alternative to wage labor and farm tenancy, but landowners were in a better position to educate their children, meet their own needs and become economically independent.
Despite the obstacles they faced that included racism, social isolation, a severe lack of and access to credit, many freed men and women were not deterred from their goal of owning land.
By 1910, the peak year of Black land ownership, Blacks had managed to own in full or in part more than 15 million acres, with 890,000 Black farmers/farms! The Black population in the country at the time was 9.8 million. In many ways it was miraculous that Blacks-released from slavery fifty years earlier with little more than the clothes on their backs-managed to overcome tremendous odds and control such a staggering amount of land!
Sixty eight years later, the 1978 U.S. Census of Agriculture revealed that the number of Black farm operators had dwindled to a mere 57,000 with control or access to only 4.7 million acres of land! By 1990, Black farmers constituted only 1.5% of farmers in the country. If current trends continue, there may be no Blacks operating farms by 2025!
With regard to Blacks, there are numerous reasons why the number of Black farmers and farms has dwindled. They include the inability to obtain credit on reasonable terms because of race and/or poverty, the racial discrimination they were subjected to by governmental agriculture agencies, discrimination in the marketplace, the general bias against small farmers that still permeates many government farm programs today and a lack of technical assistance and knowledge of marketing and business.
With regard to the loss of Black land, it almost always ends up forever removed from the Black community. The socio-economic consequences of Black land loss are staggering! The qualities of self-reliance, independence, and a sense of efficacy and self-worth which have been associated with landownership will be lost if the current trends continue.
Land represents a source of food, income, shelter, self-employment and wealth. The U. S. Civil Rights Commission warned of the consequences if Blacks lose all their land. “A society where whites control virtually all agricultural production and land development (including commercial, industrial and resort) is not racially equal. Such an imbalance can only serve to diminish the stake of Blacks in the social order and reinforce their skepticism regarding the concept of equality under the law.”
The crisis with regard to the loss of Black farmers and land that is Black owned is the consolidation of land control and food production! Those who control the land and its production can control people! The continued loss of small farms, which include 99% of Black farmers, combined with the growth of large scale commercial/super farms, which will account for over 80% of domestic food production in the very near future, will mark a radical and irreversible shift in agriculture.
The recent settlement of discrimination clams brought by thousands of Black farmers against the USDA, while historic, will not change the reality for most Black farmers! What is needed and beginning to develop are initiatives that connect Black farmers with consumers in urban communities and create new markets (i.e. farmer to consumer, school districts, etc.)
For African Americans who reside outside the South, it may appear that the problems of Black land loss and Black farmers are unimportant and have no effect on their lives. Many Blacks who reside in northern and urban areas have ownership interests, often unknown to them, in land located in rural areas because the land has been passed down from one generation to the heirs in the next generation. This land is known as “heir property”.
Land associated with heir property is a leading cause of the loss of Black owned land. The problem stems from landowners failure to write or prepare wills or engage in effective estate planning. Every state has statutes know as intestate succession laws, which govern the inheritance of property when persons die without making wills.
Because family members are at odds or often have different or incompatible ideas on what should be done with family land in the absence of a will, family disputes often erupt. This may lead to another way land is loss, partition sales. With no one responsible for looking after the land, it can also be lost through tax lien foreclosure and adverse possession.
When one reflects upon the collective history of Blacks in America, so much of our progress has been tied to land ownership and our history in agriculture! Whether it is the numerous Black towns in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the tremendous accomplishments of George Washington Carver, the creation and work of 1890 HBCU’s, or the key role Black farmers played in the civil rights movement in the south, African Americans throughout this nation must be enlightened and act to prevent the loss of our land and demise of our farmers!
A phrase that President Obama used in his historic 2008 campaign that applies to this issue is that “we are the change that we have been waiting for”!