I Won’t Stop Talking About the Need to Account for Black Farmers’ Land Loss, and Neither Should You

“When they steal your land, they steal your future.”

— Stephanie Hagans, whose Black ancestors had 35 acres of land taken by a white lawyer in Matthews, North Carolina even though they were current on their debt payments.

I come from white farming and homesteading people who settled and colonized the Upper South/Lower Midwest. My family’s homeplace these days is in West Missouri farm country, by way of other strands from the hills of Northeastern Oklahoma and the swampy bottoms of East-Central Arkansas.

My family isn’t by most measures what you would call “winners” of the last century of agriculture’s trajectory. Us Oateses and Starks and Richmonds and Greens are not owners of thousands of acres or million dollar combines. We aren’t invited to run for Farm Service Agency County Committee or Farm Bureau leadership. And the farming biz has been hit or miss, with wage labor and day-jobs being the rule even for those of us with the farming inclination. We’ve rented and bought and lost a lot of land, myself included. My most prosperous family members were smart — but mostly lucky — to land a union job in construction or at a factory or burning coal or sorting mail.

I also want to point out that my family, for the most part, hasn’t been on history’s “losing side” either. Undeniably the Indigenous people of the region (in this case the Osage and Quapaw mostly) suffered far worse than my kin when their land was stolen and their people massacred by the Westward-moving American Empire.

Another oppressed and dispossessed people during the last century has been Black farmers, whose land and wealth has been cut down to a very tiny percentage of its former collective size. Last week, scholars and researchers released a report that estimates Black farmers’ land losses account for hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s money.

“When the federal government undertook to assist white Southerners in the dispossession of Black-owned farmland, it succeeded in destroying a significant share of Black wealth. Black families lost at least 14 million acres after 1910. We estimate that the portion lost between 1920 and 1997, along with the lost income from that land, would be worth around $326 billion today. If this amount were distributed across all Black families, their median household wealth would nearly double, from $21,000 to $37,000,” the authors wrote.

The most damning part of the Black farmer land loss story, in addition to the huge loss of wealth, is that it was sanctioned by federal government policy and action. While my white great-grandparents were given some relief through the Roosevelt era’s New Deal farming programs, Black farmers further South and Southeast were being systematically stripped of what little farmland they had been able to accumulate through Reconstruction and the late 1800s. It’s a tragedy and an injustice that we are still reckoning to understand, let alone address.

Longtime Keep It Rural readers know that we’ve been tracking the Democrats’ push to cancel debt for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, a provision in last year’s American Rescue Plan Act. USDA’s slow implementation of the program and poor legal strategy have failed to deliver on the promises of that important assistance, and many of the few remaining Black and Indigenous farmers are rightfully ringing alarms about their land tenure because of the legal limbo that is their current reality. History appears to be repeating itself, unfortunately, and with it comes another lost opportunity to enact a bit of justice and equity for the farming peoples who have lost too much already.

Rural Reading List

Not a jubilant beginning to the newsletter, I know. It’s not all roses and fried morels when it comes to rural reporting. But here’s some other news of the week to fill your information and analysis cup:

Arts-Based Residencies Influence Rural Communities Both Culturally And Economically

On the sunnier side of the mountain, the Daily Yonder has a look at successful rural arts-based residencies that are brightening up life throughout the country.

Rural Superintendents Lament: ‘We Went from Being Heroes to Villains’

A Daily Yonder/The Conversation look at the difficult environment during the ongoing pandemic for rural school superintendents (along with a Keep It Rural shout-out to my big brother, Heath, who happens to be one of them).

An Iowa Powerbroker Plans to Make a Windfall From Piping Ethanol Emissions

Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott gets into the mix on the messy situation, and rigged politics, of the CO2 pipeline issue.

Abandoned Mine Lands Restoration Brings Excitement, but Long-Term Challenges Remain for Mountain Communities

Ohio Valley Resource with a deep dive into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s promises, and limits, in cleaning up after spent mines in Appalachia.

One More Thing: The Heroes of Locally-Led Land Conservation

This is my sixth year covering rural policy for the Daily Yonder. And among my so-called “beats” is the interconnected spectrum of public lands, natural resource management, the rural outdoor recreation economy and the politics of conservation. The Yonder published one such story yesterday, where I reported on the Biden Administration’s recent Executive Order on old growth forests and its potential impact here in Western North Carolina where I currently type this newsletter.

As part of the reporting, I had the pleasure of interviewing The Wilderness Society’s Hugh Irwin, a longtime conservation advocate and participant in countless efforts to protect and improve public lands management of Southern Appalachian forests. Irwin is a wealth of direct information going back decades in the region, a goldmine of context and history that doesn’t come through in a 900-word news story.

One of the things Hugh told me during our interview that I wanted to share is how “powerful and impactful it has been to participate in collaborative, locally-led conservation” partnerships that include local businesses, environmental groups, outdoors enthusiasts, hunting and fishing groups and public land managers. These partnerships and collaborations happen all over the country, quietly working to reconcile supposedly high-conflict natural resource extraction, conservation, needs for recreation, and more.

While there are certainly contentious issues (development, industrialization) of public lands at times, I find that to be the exception rather than the rule. In every place where there is a locally-led conservation solution to these potential conflicts, there are conservation heroes like Hugh who go to countless meetings, participate in years-long public input processes, compromise with business and industry leaders, and generally drive the democratic process through patience and dogged determination/love of land and place. I tip my hat to Hugh Irwin and other leaders like him who do this incredibly important and under-appreciated-but-necessary public service.

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