Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next few weeks. Here is part two.

A National Overview

Historical Context

Free and enslaved blacks have farmed the American soil for almost four centuries. One of the earliest black farm owners in the USA is believed to be Anthony (Antonio) Johnson, an Angolan, who was brought to Jamestown in colonial Virginia in 1619 as an indentured servant. After gaining his freedom around 1835, Johnson and his wife, Mary, grew corn and tobacco on their 250-acre farm. The wealthy couple later moved to Somerset County, Maryland, where they cultivated 300 acres of land (Berlin 1998; Hinson and Robinson 2008, p. 284; Foner 1980; Breen and Innis 1980, pp. 10–17).

The Johnson’s success is unusual because it was difficult for blacks to own land and operate farms of their own. There were legislative attempts to prohibit black landownership as early as 1818, and the barriers erected to prevent blacks from acquiring land in the South were very effective. In only one state, Virginia, was there substantial black landowners. In 1860, blacks owned 13,000 tracts of land in the state’s Tidewater counties (Gray 1949, p. 528; Fisher 1973, p. 481). Up until the early 1860s, black landownership was realized in a haphazard fashion. As the Civil War waned, attempts to sell land to blacks became more structured. The first attempt at organized land distribution involving blacks occurred in 1862 when William Tecumseh Sherman ordered confiscated Confederate plantations to be sold (Reynolds 2002, p. 20; Pease and Pease 1963, pp. 139–141; Hinson and Robison 2008, p. 286).

Farming by free blacks accelerated during reconstruction as increased numbers of blacks acquired their own land. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1865 called for 40-acre parcels to be carved out of abandoned plantations and unsettled lands and sold to former slaves. That year, about 40,000 blacks were settled on tracts on the Carolina Sea Islands and cultivated thousands of acres of environmentally vulnerable lands in swamps, tidal flats, river bottomlands, and flood zones. The opposition to black landownership was strong and some blacks were forced off the land they had acquired. Consequently, by late 1865, Andrew Johnson’s administration halted the Union Army’s efforts to distribute land to blacks. A second Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed in 1866 but it had no specifications for distributing tracts of land to blacksFootnote1(Bennett 1993, pp. 186–191; Reynolds 2002, p. 2–3; Shannon 1968, p. 84). Eventually, most of the land confiscated from former plantation owners were restored to the former owners and the impact of the Freedmen’s Bureau was quite limited (Fisher 1973, p. 482). The government’s reluctance to subdivide plantations hindered widespread distribution of land to blacks (Reynolds 2002, p. 3).

Some blacks did manage to obtain land through the Southern Homestead Act of 1866. Patterned after the 1862 Homestead Act, the Southern Homestead Act was in effect from 1866 to 1876 and was intended to help freed slaves and whites who took an oath of loyalty to gain access to 80-acre parcels of farmland. The Act opened up and sold off about 46.4 million acres of land in the public domain in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi; however, much of this land was pine woods and swamplands that were unfit for cultivation. Blacks seeking homesteads were threatened, intimidated, or barriers erected to make it difficult for them to participate in the program. This was the case because white plantation owners saw independent black land owners and farmers as a threat to the plantation system that was heavily dependent on cheap and servile labor. Consequently, only 4000 of the 67,600 applicants to the program were black. Notwithstanding, blacks secured homesteads in Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia (Franklin and Moss Jr. 1994, p. 234; Meinig 2000, pp. 195–198; Oliver and Shapiro 1996, pp. 14–15; Oubre 1978; Ferguson 1998, pp. 37–38).

A system of forced labor based on tenancy and peonage laws bound most blacks to the plantations as effectively as slavery. Thus, in 1890, seven out of every eight blacks worked on a plantation or as a domestic servant. However, the Second Morrill Act which enabled the establishment of state agricultural colleges for black students was passed in 1890. The agricultural program at Tuskegee Institute was one of these programs (Reynolds 2002, p. 5). Despite this development, peonage in the form of share cropping and tenant farming remained common. Though peonage laws were found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1911, a year later roughly 250,000 blacks were still being held to service on southern plantations against their will (Bennett 1993, pp. 218, 245–249; 252–255; Drake and Cayton 1993, p. 53; Tolnay and Beck 1991, p. 25).

Notwithstanding, black landownership grew during the second half of the nineteenth century. W. E. B. Du Bois estimates that collectively blacks owned 3 million acres of land in 1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900 (Du Bois 1935, p. 4). By 1910, blacks owned roughly 16 million acres of farmland (Schweninger 1989, pp. 41–69; Daniel 2007, p. 3). However, the practice of selling or placing blacks on marginal, degraded, hazard prone, or agriculturally unproductive lands was so commonplace that Du Bois referred to these as waste lands (Du Bois 1901, p. 665; Fisher 1973, p. 483).

Blacks farmed significant acreage, but by the early part of the twentieth century, black landownership and farming began to plummet. Nationwide, blacks constituted 13% of the farmers in 1900 (see Table 1); however, they operated 29.4% of the least valuable farms and only 1% of the most valuable ones. The most common crops grown by black farmers were cotton and rice. That is, 49.1% of the farmers growing cotton were black, so were 37.3% of those growing rice, 18.3% of those growing tobacco, 14.8% of those growing sugar, and 10% of those growing vegetables. Black farm operators were so dependent on cotton that 70.5% derived their primary income from cotton. Another 6.9% obtained their primary income from hay and grain, 4.1% from livestock, and 2.6% from tobacco (U.S. Census Bureau 1902, pp. 48–112).