American Agriculture: Stolen land, stolen labor and stolen wealth
When I sat down to write this blog, I had no idea where it would take me. It feels overwhelming to write. Do you know that feeling, when you discover something that just blows your mind, and you can’t help but wonder what life would be like, if you had known this (whatever “this” is) long before now? Even more anxiety-inducing is the idea that anyone else has to “suffer” through life without knowing this incredible “thing”. Can you relate? Now, imagine if this “thing” was multiple “things” over days and days, and months, and years. Well, that’s me. And this “thing” is the untold history of African Americans in the United States. It’s the true story, that I’m convinced, if everyone opened their hearts and minds, and invested in a process of unlearning, we’d be witness to true transformation. But, that’s not how culture and socialization work. That’s not how power and privilege work. So, as I set out to write this complex history, I don’t even know where to start!
So, fast-forward to hours after my first attempt to write this blog, I decided to start with a trip back in time. I want to start with one powerful way people in America can accumulate wealth: land. This land, what we now call America, was stolen from the Indigenous people who inhabited these lands hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” (more like conquered and colonized) it. This stolen land, with free labor through chattel slavery is how the nation's first economy was built: Agriculture. We cannot understand the deep-seeded racism within the Agricultural industry without understanding land ownership, and how it was stolen, yet again, from African Americans.
There are so many resources out there already that do a tremendous job of writing the countless stories of how land has been stolen as a means to maintain, and perpetuate white wealth and power. So, I decided to do a “cliff-notes” version of history through a timeline. I encourage you to google the key terms I highlight, and begin your own journey of unlearning.
1770’s-1830’s: Slavery and the Invention of Race
America was founded on chattel slavery and stolen land. And with that, the nation's first economy was birthed: Agriculture. In fact, some of our most cherished sustainable farming practices have roots in African and Indigenous wisdom. This knowledge was often acquired by white American farmers, and stolen and appropriated from Indigenous and African/African diaspora knowledges. Europeans saw the easiest way to conquer the surplus of the Indians’ land was to “civilize” them. In order to justify slavery, Europeans had to “prove” that Africans/African Americans were not fully human. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, implied that Indians could be assimilated into American society, but not Black people. This construction of race still exists in today's American society. White people on the top. Black people on the bottom.
1850’s-1870’s American Civil War and Reconstruction
The 1843 Homestead Acts gave (not leased) 160 acres in the West to citizens who were without money (poor whites). During this time, most African Americans were not considered citizens and therefore, regardless of how impoverished, were ineligible. The National Park Service estimates that about 93 million people are descendants of people who received land through the Homestead Acts.
By 1860, 80% of the nation’s gross national product was tied to slavery. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the market value of slaves in the U.S. exceeded that of banks, factories and railroads combined. The end of the Civil War did not bring economic freedom to former slaves. Confederate States of America (CSA) Vice President Alexandre H. Stephens was on record saying, “What did we go to war for, but to protect our property?” Property, meaning slaves.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia, providing $300 per freed slave compensation to former slaveholders. You heard that right, those who owned slaves were paid reparations for losing their free labor!
In March 1865, Congress created an organization, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedman’s Bureau), which had a number of responsibilities including the reallocation of abandoned Southern land to the newly emancipated. President Andrew Johnson overturned General Sherman’s 40 acres and a mule, (worth at least $6.4 trillion today) which would have distributed roughly 400,000 acres to newly freed Black families.
13th Amendment Loophole and Black codes
After Emancipation, more than 1,000 formerly enslaved people were elected to public office. Others started businesses, fraternal orders and institutions. White farmers lost the unpaid labor of more than 4 million people of African descent overnight. As you can imagine, this was not good for white farmers. And, it caused fear and rage. The solution, in part, was embedded in the 13th Amendment.
What’s the 13th Amendment loophole? “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the US or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Black codes (strict local and state laws that detailed when, where and how formerly enslaved people could work, and for how much compensation) in the South created new types of ways newly freed African Americans would be forced into indentured servitude, their voting rights taken away, and more. In many instances, prison for stupid things, like “not showing proper respect” (of course, as determined by the white man who just lost their free labor) could land a newly freed person back to the same plantation they had just been freed from. Convict-leasing programs ran rampant during this time, forcing Black prisoners to work on plantations against their will for no pay for decades after the Civil War.
1870’s-1930’s Jim Crow Laws and Black migration to World War II
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 sought to raise and stabilize farm commodity prices by reducing production. The lack of outreach to tenant farmers coupled with higher levels of illiteracy (let’s remember that enslaved Africans were tortured or killed for learning to read, and once slavery “ended” they were not aloud to go to white schools. But, despite all these setbacks, 100’s of schools were built by Black people...their resilience is amazing) among Black tenant farmers led to Black tenant farmers being exploited in huge numbers by white landowners. For example, White landowners often pocketed government benefit payments for decreasing acreage under cultivation, instead of distributing that money to their sharecropping tenants.
Georgia’s Greene County, Black people received 20% less direct relief than whites (Federal Emergency Relief Administration). In Macon County, white people received double the amount of direct relief as Black farmers, even though the average income of a white family was almost triple that of a Black family. Social security originally excluded domestic and agricultural workers (mostly African Americans), especially in the south. Black people in the South received 23% of the allocated standard rehabilitation loans but made up 37% of all low-income farmers in the South (Farm Security Administration, 1937 New Deal Program).
Civil Rights to Present
In 1982, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights finds examples of discrimination throughout USDA, primarily regarding how services and relief dollars were allocated to Black vs. white farmers. In 1983, the USDA Office of Civil Rights conveniently closed as part of the year’s federal budget cuts (all cases just sitting there...collecting dust).
“Throughout the 1900’s, multiple reports outlined equal opportunity violations at county-level offices where Black farmers were denied loan applications or suffered discriminatory delays. Additionally, county-level USDA employees denied black farmers loan restructuring assistance, and because farmers couldn’t restructure loans, they had to foreclose, their property liquidated and sold by county supervisors. As recently as the 1990s, when blacks did receive loans, their average processing time was 220 days, compared with just 60 days for whites. The delays in loan processing—typically due to discrimination—led many farmers to lose the full benefits of the entire farming season and thus experience large losses in profits. Discriminatory county supervisors consistently excluded black farmers from many of the USDA programs meant to assist low-income farmers. This resulted in a dramatic loss of wealth for black farmers, and many blacks left the farming profession altogether. Avoidable foreclosures and loss of property have damaged credit scores and ruined the lives of black farmers and their descendants, all while USDA programs have helped lift white farmers out of poverty.”
Real action to address this problem did not begin until 1997, when Timothy Pigford filed a class action lawsuit-Pigford v. Glickman-on behalf of Black farmers, alleging that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers from 1983 to 1997.
1910: 14% Black or African American Owner-operators
2012: < 1.5% Black or African American Owner-operators
U.S. Average Farm Acreage: 434 acres
Black Average Farm Acreage: 125 acres
Black Farm Acreage today represents about 0.4% of all farm acreage.
40% of land owned by Black farmers is heirs’ property (no formal will or title) which makes it ineligible for federal farm programs such as subsidies or crop insurance. The 2018 Farm Bill allows heirs’ property to obtain a farm number for USDA programs, which is a step in the right direction.
This blog post was meant to get you started on your journey of uncovering the racism in America’s Agricultural Industry. It only scratches the surface. I know for many of those who made it to the end (thank you!), you’re probably wondering, Well, what the heck do I do about it? There are some things you can do about it. But, I am intentionally not providing suggestions on the action, because I believe this part of our unlearning is so important. Take it in. Reflect on it. Do your research. Ask the hard questions.
Also, I don’t think there is a silver bullet fix. Because, White Supremacy and White Power is protected in this country, at all costs. In a future blog post, I will explore the idea of reparations, as well as other ways we can right the wrongs of our history. Until then, happy Unlearning.
Quote: Castro Abril, Willingham Zoe. Progressive Governance Can Turn the Tide for Black Farmers. Center for American Progress website. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/04/03/467892/progressive-governance-can-turn-tide-black-farmers/. Published April 3, 2019. Accessed July 13, 2020.
Homestead Site. National Monument of America Nebraska. https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/bynumbers.htm. Updated September 20, 2019. Accessed July 17, 2020.
Neumann Jeff, Loeffelholz Tracy Matsue. 40 Acres and a Mule Would Be at Least $6.4 Trillion Today- What the U.S. Really Owes Black America. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/make-right/2015/05/14/infographic-40-acres-and-a-mule-would-be-at-least-64-trillion-today/. Published May 14, 2015. Accessed July 16, 2020.
Anderson, Carol. White Rage:The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA; 2016.