This Juneteenth we look at a snapshot of the history of racism in American agriculture
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived at Galveston with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This date, now known as Juneteenth, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It took the Union two and half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to make sure every enslaved person knew they were free, and there are stories surrounding the delay. One story is that the news was deliberately withheld by enslavers in order to maintain the labor force on the plantations; another is that federal troops waited for slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Whether or not these stories are true, the relationship between Black Americans and agriculture have a long and tumultuous history.
As a people who were once considered property themselves, the idea of being able to call “40 acres and a mule” their own was momentous. Black farmers worked tirelessly to build their own agricultural economy, and by the time World War I happened, there were around 1 million Black farmers in the U.S. However, in 1992 there were only 18,000 Black farmers. What happened during that time, and what does it mean for the urban, local, and sustainable agricultural movements in Austin today?
Vann R. Newkirk II wrote a story in the Atlantic about the disgraceful dispossession of land from Black landowners in the United States. He notes that a war waged on deed titles led to 98 percent of Black farmers having 12 million acres stolen from them over the past century, 6 million of which were lost between 1950 and 1969 alone. This financial loss translates to trillions of dollars today.
Both private and public sector investigations have found that systemic racism impacted a Black farmer’s ability to take out loans and access legal services for succession planning. Outside of the legal systematic dispossession, physical violence and police brutality were used as intimidation tactics to force Black people off their land.
During the Civil Rights era, systems built from and for white wealth continued to disenfranchise people through methods reminiscent of Jim Crow. In the South, there were plans to crush small independent farmers, many of whom were Black, in order to force them out of the state to reduce their voting power.
In the mid-80s, an effort was made on the part of the U.S. government to help nearly 16,000 farmers maintain their land; only 209 of which were Black. Throughout the 20th century, the number of Black farmers decreased by 98 percent compared to only 66 percent of white farmers. In today’s America, fewer and fewer children of white landowners are choosing to continue farming, leading to much of U.S. farmland being sold to trusts and investors instead of to other farmers. Thus, the majority of land that was originally owned by Black farmers is now owned by either Whites or corporations.
Austin, in particular, has its own relationship between race and agriculture. A report by Kathryn Koebert Vickery showed that East Austin had been a farming community since 1883, but due to the economic crash of the 1920s, all of the farmers had to sell their land. Austin’s 1928 Comprehensive Plan, which was the formal push to force Black people out of the west side, encouraged toxic industrial businesses to reside on the east side as well, and in the 1960s I-35 was built to create a physical border between the wealthy white side and the impoverished black and brown side of the city.
Despite the industrial use of the east side, the land maintained its richness and farm-friendliness. The urban farming movement of the two decades has inspired a new generation of farmers, and those who live in Austin have chosen the healthy soils of the east side to start their enterprises. The fact that most of the visible urban farms are owned and operated by White people and reside in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods, coupled with the ever-increasing threat of gentrification that’s causing the housing crisis in these areas, leaves many communities of color at odds with the agricultural community. Studies have found that Black Americans often see in urban farming the echoes of slavery and sharecropping left behind in the migration from southern to northern cities.
Many Back Americans are choosing to reclaim their relationship with the land and are re-entering the agricultural field. But as history has shown us, Black farmers were assaulted on several fronts - from voting suppression to financial suppression to legal suppression to physical violence - and continue to face these barriers today. There is so much work left to do to ensure equity within the American agricultural system, and if we hope to grow the network of sustainable farms throughout the nation, the agricultural world MUST be inclusive to our Black brothers and sisters. It is from their lineage that the American economy and agricultural system was built in the first place, and this is something that must be remembered today as we commemorate Juneteenth. Celebrate the true Independence Day by supporting a local Black farmer near you!
For more resources about the history of racism in agricultural America, please visit any of the following pages:
If you are interested in learning how to actively work towards racial equity in our modern agricultural systems, visit the link below to view the Young Farmers Coalition Racial Equity Toolkit: