“They ain’t making no mo’ land, so hold on to what we got.” These are the wise words my late father often shared with me. I promised him that I would do everything I could to ensure our little piece of land in Arkansas is not lost. Land ownership is an integral part of my Black and rural story.
Unfortunately, land and farm loss is a significant problem in America. Of the one billion acres of arable land in America, only about five million acres are Black-owned. Institutionalized racist policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862, the denial of USDA loans, forced sales of heir property, and crop liens, among other policies, were barriers to land acquisition and contributed to land loss. In 1920, 14% of farms were Black-owned; now, in 2021, less than 2% are Black-owned.
Last year, Senator Cory Booker introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act to “address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers, to require reforms within the Department of Agriculture to prevent future discrimination, and for other purposes.” This bill seeks to bring justice to unjust policies and build a future where more Black people have access to land and resources.
As we look toward a future that includes equitable land acquisition, protection, and resources, we must look to the past and acknowledge that despite the many barriers that Black farmers and landowners face, many of the most significant contributors to land protection and agriculture are Black. Here are four of these trailblazers.
IT’S OURS — I AM AN HEIR — PROTECT THE LAND
Dr. Karama Neal led efforts in Arkansas to pass the Heir Property Act. This law ensures families maintain ownership of their joint-owned land, and if families have to sell the land, a court-ordered, market-rate return has to happen so wealth is not lost. Since the law passed in Arkansas, sixteen states throughout the United States have passed similar laws.
THIS LAND — IT’S MINE AND YOURS — LET’S GET IT
Fannie Lou Hamer is well known for her resilient political activism, but her agricultural activism is also an example of her resilience. In 1968, Hamer launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative and eventually purchased over 640 acres of land for farmers and promoted land ownership as a form of self-sufficiency. She also started a “pig bank” to provide free pigs to Black farmers.
USE WHAT YOU GOT — COMPOST — GROW THE FOOD
George Washington Carver was one of the most significant contributors to agriculture in the world. He was an inventor, scientist, and agriculturist. Carver developed crop rotation methods and taught farmers to diversify their crops. He also promoted composting to help farmers introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Now, composting is a standard organic farming practice.
DON’T SPOIL IT — REFRIGERATE IT — SHIP IT
Frederick McKinley Jones is one of the greatest inventors ever to live. One of his inventions is one of the most important tools for agriculture: the refrigerated truck. His invention allowed fresh produce transport throughout the year. His invention revolutionized food transport globally.
Dr. Karama Neal, Fannie Lou Hamer, George Washington Carver, and Frederick Jones are just a few land and agriculture trailblazers. The impact of their work and the examples they set exemplify that land justice and agriculture are necessary parts of Black history. Their stories motivate us to work towards a more just future where Black land ownership is the norm and not the exception.