I wanted to contextualize the current work of Black Farmers in Detroit who are using a community/cooperative approach to re-build our city from the ground up. I became interested in understanding other moments when Black Farmers have engaged agriculture to build community. After lots of digging, I discovered the importance of agricultural cooperatives as a critical strategy used by Black Farmers dating back to the late 1880s. I also noticed that their contributions to the over century-long Black Freedom Movement had been largely ignored by academic and activist communities.
An analysis of Black Freedom Struggles offers gendered experiences and contributions, charismatic leaders, preachers, students, Black social/political institutions like the church, sites and locations of resistance like employment, lunch counters, schools and the voting booth. I was left with questions: What were/are the contributions of Black Farmers to the Black Freedom Movement and where are their stories?
I asked a few founding members of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to describe the contributions of Farmers to the Movement. They all pointed me to Lowndes County (You wouldn't believe how much I love Lowndes County). They told me about the Gardner family, Black landowners who allowed Freedom Riders to camp on their land. Not only were they able to stay there, but they were also fed. In Lowndes and in other places throughout the south, they spoke of others who posted their land to bail civil rights activists out of jail.
They also spoke about the self-determination of a Farmer, the autonomy and the freedom to take a stand. Even more clear was that the success of Black Farmers wasn't a selfish, individual or independent endeavor, it was communal. Black Farmers often played a critical role in developing the community through social and political institutions, such as offering land and building schools, banking and micro-lending arrangements, health care and newsletters that were informative but also used for literacy. They shared resources and bought land together, shared tools and planted on the moon cycle to get the biggest harvest for the highest profit. They created these agricultural cooperatives that helped care for their families but also build their communities. This self-determination reminds me of a quote that Ms. Fannie Lou often said, as long as she had a 'pig and a garden' no one could tell her what to do. These stories validated what I had long suspected in the hours spent in the archives. They made clear the relationship between land, food and freedom for Black Farmers. They lived, breathed, planted and harvested dreams of freedom and self-sufficiency.
My goal in researching and writing Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement is to offer scholarship that challenges the persistent frame of agriculture as a site of oppression (i.e., slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming). The richness and complexity that is our agricultural history can be detailed from a place of resistance. These are the stories that I heard in the work of Black Farmers in Lowndes County, Alabama; Holmes County, Mississippi; and Detroit, my very own hometown.
These are the stories that I cannot wait to share with you.