The Historic Role of African Americans in Farming Cooperatives

Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Alex Treyz

“Land holds the key to unlocking the shackles of white supremacy,” wrote food justice advocate LaDonna Redmond in the forward of “Freedom Farmers,” a new book by University of Wisconsin-Madison environmental justice Professor Dr. Monica White.

White was the keynote speaker at the Rural Advancement Foundation International Come To The Table Conference (, which I attended alongside the World Food Policy Center’s Graduate Research Assistant, Emma Lietz-Bilecky last week in Charlotte, NC. Hundreds of people - from faith leaders to farmers, land loss prevention advocates to lawyers, writers to scholars – gathered to gain more in-depth knowledge and inspiration around "Uprooting Hunger and Cultivating Justice."

The issue of land ownership and land loss surfaced over and over again during the conference, reminding me of Jillian Hishaw's talk from the WFPC's Inaugural Food & Faith Convening, which focused on moving from charity to justice. In her keynote address, Dr. Monica White focused upon the relationship between land, food, and freedom. Her impetus for writing “Freedom Farmers” developed when she noticed a lack of nuanced analysis describing the experiences of black farmers in relation to the land. The real and powerful narratives what happened during the Great Migration such as forced resettlement, and black farmers losing access to lands they have worked and owned.

“There had to be more to the story,” she said. As a farmer and sociologist herself, she then focused on creating a body of scholarly work that engaged in a more thorough exploration of the identity and experience of black farmers and growers. “There had to be some positive reasons why black folks engaged in agriculture in the past,” she explained. “…reasons apart from the history of forced enslavement and oppression tied to the land.”

She chose to start from a different perspective – not from a deficit model, but from an asset-based perspective. Since “everything has something positive upon which we can build,” she conceptualized black farming as, in a sense, engaging in a form of resistance.

African Americans didn’t leave the south during the Great Migration because of a negative relationship with the land, Dr. White writes. They left because of the exploitative conditions surrounding working the land through systems of tenant sharecropping, discrimination, racial terrorism, voter intimidation, and harsh Jim Crow laws.

Dr. White highlighted the resistance of black farmers like Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer, who ultimately became an internationally renowned activist, launched an African American farming cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi in 1967 as a form of resistance. The cooperative led to greater self-sufficiency and therefore an avenue for African Americans to escape poverty. Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative created an alternative food system built upon what Dr. White categorizes as collective agency and community resilience. White quotes Hamer as saying: “Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon.”

Dr. White helps readers to understand that the consequences for seeking equal rights were often linked to hunger and starvation. I admit that I was surprised to learn that prior to starting Freedom Farm Cooperative, Hamer was evicted from the land she tended with her husband after her white landlord learned of her efforts to register to vote. Removal from land meant loss of livelihood, and the chance to grow food to sustain oneself and one's family. The state denied Mrs. Hamer the right to vote, on the grounds that she had failed a "literacy test," a commonly used policy tool of the Jim Crow era to block African Americans from voting. Later Mrs. Hamer was arrested when she again attempted to register to vote, and then beaten in jail. She testified about these experiences at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

Hamer is quoted to have said: "But if you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family, and nobody can push you around. Ifwe have something like some pigs and some gardens and a few things like that, even if we have no jobs, we can eat, and we can look after our families."

Dr. White notes that at the time, rates of chronic disease in Sunflower County, Mississippi were markedly high. African Americans had high rates of malnutrition, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic health conditions related to food and diet. At the time, Mississippi was also one of the poorest states in the country.

Dr. White explains that Hamer “envisioned a model in which the community could achieve self-sufficiency, even within the context of the racially contentious Jim Crow state of Mississippi.” She cites an article published in 1971, in which Hamer wrote: “land is the key. It’s tied to voter registration.”

It’s important to note that land provided the means to not only achieve economic self-sufficiency but gave space for the "development of a free mind, an opportunity to create new identities" beyond the oppressive parameters of Mississippi’s racial hierarchy. In 1972, the Freedom Farm Cooperative’s land fed over 1,600 families with produce ranging from kale, okra, and butter beans.

The community garden/urban agriculture movements may seem new, springing up in cities and in rural places in just the last 10-15 years. But it’s actually an old movement with origins in First Nations and African American Communities. According to Dr. White, the real roots go back to movements such as the black agricultural cooperative movement, in places like Freedom Farm in Ruleville, Mississippi.

The African American farming cooperative movement began with the work of African American farmers and scholars such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, who, according to White, are the “intellectual precursors of collective agency and community resilience.”  She cites Booker T. Washington in 1903 as saying that “laying an economic foundation and…proper cultivation and ownership of the soil” led to “self-reliance” and “self-sufficiency.” African American sociologist, scholar, and writer W.E.B. Du Bois was “convinced that cooperatives were the key way to obtain freedom,” writes Dr. White.

When I first began working at Duke’s World Food Policy Center as the Food & Faith Research Associate, I did not know the roots of this origin story. I did not realize the importance of Mrs. Hamer’s name beyond her famous saying, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Last summer, I attended Wake Forest Divinity School’s Summer Institute, a week-long intensive learning course. Reverend Dr. Heber Brown of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore and the Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN) served as Pastor in Residence. While teaching me and my cohort about the origins of today’s food and faith movement, he described Mrs. Hamer as a Patron Saint and guiding ancestor of the BCFSN’s work to connect black farmers with black churches, with the goal of providing healthy and nutritious food. 

I recently learned that, while still in jail after her brutal beating, Mrs. Hamer sang two spirituals, merging “Go Down Moses” and “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” The first spiritual recalls the Biblical story of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian enslavement; the second the birth of Jesus:

“Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go. Had no money for to go their bail, let my people go. Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go. Jail doors open and they walked out, let my people go...Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain, to let my people go!” 

Hamer’s Christian faith sustained her throughout her life, from Winona Jail, to her continued work registering African Americans to vote, to building Freedom Farm Cooperative. In his book “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights,” Charles Marsh quotes Hamer describing her Christian faith:

“Sure, ‘I’m a Christian,’ and talk a big game…You can pray until you faint…but if you’re not gonna get up and do something, God is not gonna put it in your lap.”

The prevailing food and faith narrative and discourse can, at times, lean too heavily on the work of white-led institutions, white authors, and white farmers and growers for its own self-understanding.  The erasure of the black agricultural cooperative movement in broader discussions of food and faith is therefore problematic.

For instance, without knowing the stories of Mrs. Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative, or the work of key leaders like George Washington Carver, my understanding of and engagement with today’s broad food and faith movement is woefully short-sighted. Without an understanding of systemic racism and its relationship to the food system, I and others risk perpetuating racial inequity.  As a white woman engaging in this work, I am leaning into learning beyond the prevailing narrative – namely into deeper understanding of the importance of land and its intrinsic links to freedom, racial equity, self-determination, and flourishing. I have much to learn – and much to un-learn.

Throughout the Come to the Table Conference, many speakers shared their perspectives on the centrality of land to the food/faith/sustainable agriculture movement:

  • For Rev. Dele of Soil and Souls, we must live and work in such a way that we honor and replenish the land’s soil, rather than extract from and destroy it.
  • Food First’s Dr. Eric Holt-Giménez named how mono-cropping practices denude the soil of nutrients, and lead to the loss of irreplaceable, nutrient-rich topsoil necessary for the very growth of food.
  • In a workshop titled “Sacred Practices of Food and Land,” Matt Gundlach, a permaculture consultant and former manager of Beautitude Garden in Todd, North Carolina, reminded participants that “we are people of the soil. But we have forgotten our identity. We misuse the soil due to our disconnection from it.”
  • Sarah Horton-Campbell of Common Life Church and Farm reminded us that we need to know the history of the land we're on: who lived on it and why, and who cultivated it and how.
  • Jarrod Davis, Pastor of Center United Methodist Church in North Carolina, reminded us that as people of faith we are called into right relationship with God, neighbor, the land, and all of God’s creation.

Throughout the Come to the Table Conference, the prevailing food justice movement narrative –which could be said to focus primarily on local food production, land access, and sustainable agricultural practices – was questioned, with speakers such as Dr. White and Dr. Eric Holt-Giménez naming and celebrating key figures like Mrs. Hamer whose work directly addressed the root causes of hunger - racial inequity, structural racism, and systemic poverty  - and key figures who promoted food sovereignty as opposed to food assistance.  The charitable model of food assistance for addressing hunger was disrupted, for how can a model of hand-outs permanently lift people up from their current state of poverty and hunger?

Faith communities have a long history of charitable giving, often to great and transformative effect: life-saving hospitals were built, and edifying schools were founded. I attended one such school, Davidson College, founded in 1837 by the Concord Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, which purchased 469 acres of land for the building of the College. Similarly, my seminary alma mater Duke Divinity School was founded thanks to a philanthropic endowment established by James B. Duke.

I am currently a lay Presbyterian (PCUSA) Pastor thanks to the charitable giving of Presbyterians nearly 200 years ago and United Methodist James B. Duke almost 100 years ago. I do believe there is a need for charitable giving. However charitable giving is not enough. What is needed, in my view, is a wider re-examination and re-making of the food system from the perspective of those whom it has failed, and food and faith work steeped in a deeper understanding of the history of food in the United States from the perspective of those most affected by its failures, impacts, and injustices.