Decades of structural racism within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has led to the virtual elimination of Black farmers, leaving their descendants to struggle to maintain or keep their property.
During Reconstruction, Black families began to settle in the south with hopes and the promise of 40 acres of Confederate land abandoned rice fields stretching across islands from Charleston to Florida, believing in an order written by Gen. William T. Sherman that the land would belong to them. However, the promise was reneged and former slave owners were given back their lands, forcing Black families into sharecropping or in most cases loss of their property or lives altogether.
The loss of Black farmland has had a profound impact on rural Black communities, which today suffer from severe economic challenges, among them a poverty rate twice that of rural white communities. Descendants are scrambling to prove and retain ownership which proves to be a complicated task thanks to a legal loophole that allows distant relatives and developers to obtain rights to lands that have been in families for generations.
Though the number of Black farmers has increased to 45,508 according to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census, Black farmers are losing land at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm, along with other groups are working to help Black, Latino and other minority farmers secure ownership of land, hoping to encourage new generations of farmers.
“Ninety-eight percent of rural land belongs to white people, and that’s so imbalanced,” Penniman told The Washington Post. “Land is the scene of the crime, but she wasn’t the criminal.”
Compiled by Olivia Boyd, WI Intern