The Legacy of African-American Farmers in Erin Mauldin’s “Unredeemed Land” and Monica White’s “Freedom Farmers”

by Cynthia Greenlee Ph.D.

Published: 2/28/19, Last updated: 3/05/19

Land is both power and powerlessness. In the United States, it’s traditionally been the source of wealth for those who own it; owning it has been an aspiration for many who don’t. But all who work the land are subject to nature’s vagaries: pests, soil quality, drought, and all manner of climate change.

Two recent books shed light on how land use, environmental change, and labor exploitation can ensnare farmers in a cycle of debt and distress or, on the other side, empower workers to organize. They offer an analysis of Southern history, both before and after the Civil War, revealing how the agricultural system depended on racism and black labor.  They demonstrate how “un-free” Southern agriculture — and by extension US farming as a whole — has been and continue to be.

Historian Erin Stewart Mauldin’s “Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of the Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South” explores ecological, technical and labor transformations wrought by the Civil War and slavery’s abolition — a tectonic shift of (unpaid) workers that was, in and of itself, enough to rock regional and national farming systems. Monica White’s “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement” picks up the story largely after the war, when Black people could own themselves, land and other property. African-Americans walked into freedom with profound agricultural knowledge — and techniques that we would now refer to as sustainable — and new rights that were frequently violated by white Southerners. As White recounts it, they met white violence and land dispossession with collective resistance. They founded agricultural co-ops and strategized ways that even the most marginalized sharecroppers could move toward economic autonomy and racial justice.

War, Disruption of Sustainable Farming and King Cotton

Like all wars, the Civil War brought food shortages through the South. In a region known for its love of swine, pork supplies dwindled. Salt grew scarce, and corn withered with no one, neither slave nor white farmer, to harvest it.

But there were even more lasting and serious consequences for the agricultural system. As Mauldin writes, the region that consisted largely of small farmers — large plantations such as Gone with the Wind’s palatial and slave-rich Tara were relatively few and far between — had survived on diversified agriculture. But with the wartime economy in freefall, farmers began abandoning the techniques that had until then coaxed abundance from poor-quality Southern soils: a cycle of clearing new land while resting old fields and letting livestock forage common land while revitalizing the soil with their manure. Such sustainable strategies had made sense in much of the agrarian Old South, where a seemingly endless supply of land belied the fact that much of it wasn’t even suitable for farming. Moving crops and cutting timber had been a matter of necessity, but these farming practices were also destructive: They denuded the landscape, reduced the uncultivated vegetation that fed livestock and sometimes contributed to erosion. The constant pressure to find new and potentially more productive farmland, Mauldin explains, was a significant factor in Southern slaveholders’ westward push before the Civil War.

Though cotton was big business well before the 1860s, distressed farmers looked toward the crop for economic redemption during and after the war. But it required intense cultivation that could sap already depleted-soils. In the words of one agricultural agent, “The only thing that pays is cotton, and cotton doesn’t pay.” King Cotton ruled, but was a punishing master. War pushed farmers already working with marginal lands to re-establish themselves with large cotton crops, which only further ruined the soil.

Billboard advertising fertilizer in cotton fields. Oct. 1939.
Billboard advertising fertilizer in cotton fields. October 1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Cyclical Trap of Fertilizer Use

To make cotton worth it, farmers upped their use of fertilizers. Wealthier planters bought pricey guano, bird droppings imported from Peru. But blockades cut off guano supplies even for those who could afford it. Without it, corn production dropped in the short term. But with heavy guano and phosphate fertilizer use over time, exhausted soil deteriorated more. The demands of cotton and the urgency of survival looped many Southern farmers into a cycle of debt. They owed because they had to abandon their land during the war; because collateral systems had collapsed; and because they increasingly relied on fertilizers, loans and one crop to keep afloat. Similar to the before the war, the practices that helped them survive — now cotton, mostly — were ultimately unsustainable for the land.

War and the Reconstruction period that followed (conventionally defined as 1865 to 1877) were great disruptors. “Unredeemed Land underscores how the stresses of conflict, individual choice, agricultural trends and ecological constraints accelerated agricultural change with mixed results. The book presents a devastating account of how instability forced farmers to adapt their techniques to a shifting landscape. Techniques that worked during an early stage of the war didn’t always deliver later. Farmers pursued advances that didn’t pan out, suffered setbacks and tried to return to previous practices better suited for the antebellum economy than the postbellum order. For example, farmers who left their fields for the battlefield often returned to land partly rejuvenated by rest and new-growth vegetation. Seeing these lush fields and mistaking (perhaps hopefully) the fleeting effects of nutrient infusion for overall soil health, they increasingly planted cotton, perpetuating a cycle of monocropping.

The costs of experimentation are always high, especially for farmers. But the war had narrowed the margins for success and, as a result, opened the door wider for cotton, one-crop farming and more labor inequality across the region. These 19th century workers were the ancestors of the 21st century farmer. Today’s farmer often struggles to balance the advantages of monocropping — easier harvesting and planting, ability to use the same fertilizer across large swaths of land and sometimes higher profits — with disadvantages that have changed relatively little over time: diminished nitrogen stores that help soil thrive; erosion; and the reliance on chemicals to overcorrect problems worsened by land use patterns.

Reconstructing the Labor Force — Without Slavery

However, the biggest loss for Southern agriculture, of course, was emancipation. A millions-strong captive labor force — and much of the region’s wealth — literally was no longer available to non-waged work. Freedpeople were not chained to the land, could move freely, be paid and, importantly, make legal contract agreements.

In this new order, freedpeople often balked at clearing forests and digging ditches as just another part of the job or as unpaid labor, writes Mauldin. Their erstwhile masters — now chafing at being employers — took note. Some farmers let fields lapse because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay freedpeople to clear them. Whites issued the standard complaints that shiftless freedpeople were responsible for weedy expanses.

With such a sordid and bloody history — and systematic denial of bank loans to black farmers — it should be no surprise that, in 2012 (the latest data available), less than two percent of US farmers were black.

Contract Disputes and Racial Violence Shaped the Land

Contract disputes became frequent and contentious and happened on massive scale. They forced broader conversations about just how black Americans would work the land with whites after slavery’s end — and ultimately shaped the land itself. Many localities and states passed ordinances or laws to make illegal to not have a work contract, and “vagrants” who opted out of the labor market could be jailed. To be landless and jobless was increasingly a crime. Contract disagreements with a white landowner could end in attacks, and though Mauldin does not focus on racial terror as a powerful factor that pushed black Americans from the land, such violence chased many a black landowner, sharecropper or tenant farmer from their fields before they could literally reap and sow.

And the right to own land didn’t guarantee it. The “40 acres and a mule” promised to freedpeople along part of the Southern coastline never materialized. And those newly released from bondage could hardly be expected to have money for the land, and many worked as renters or sharecroppers in hopes of having their own farm one day. Neither could they afford the best land. Some freedpeople founded all-black towns in marshy land that was prone to flooding, such as Princeville, North Carolina, and others — sometimes called Exodusters — fled the South and went west to find homesteads and hope before the Great Migration to points North. Still others were run off their land by “night riders” of the Klan and other white vigilantes. With such a sordid and bloody history — and systematic denial of bank loans to black farmers — it should be no surprise that, in 2012 (the latest data available), less than two percent of US farmers were black.

Imagining Black Futures in Farming

Monica White’s “Freedom Farmers” takes readers into these discussions, centering African-American perspective and the violent dispossession that made so many black agricultural workers landless. The struggles that African-Americans faced during and immediately after the Civil War took related but different form in the mid-twentieth century. “Freedom Farmers describes the efforts of 20th-century Southern agricultural workers to assert their rights to land and livelihood in the Deep South. White argues that economic cooperatives and their members — among them sharecroppers, tenant farmers, farmworkers, farm owners and others— demonstrated a community-based form of black resistance. And that resistance is part of a continuum that includes the well-known stories of marches and sit-ins, though the experiences of rural agricultural workers have rarely been given their due. It’s also a continuum that stretches into the future, as black farmers in deindustrialized Detroit reclaim city spaces with urban gardening, group work and community building.

The push toward black self-reliance in agriculture had its roots in the labor shifts of freedom and emancipation, but also in the theories of African-American thinkers. Theorizers no less esteemed than Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and George Washington Carver — whom White calls “The Three Wise Men” — all had their say.

George Washington Carver: Sustainable Farming Educator

Today known mostly for the many products he made from peanuts, George Washington Carver influenced how Southern black farmers “made do” with the very limited resources at their fingertips. Hired by Washington, he turned his research position at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute into a platform to directly teach black Southerners. He steered many to avoid many of the pitfalls that hamstrung the region’s residents during and after the War. Taking his scientific advice on the road, he preached a gospel of crop diversification, climate observation, foraging and growing feed crops for family and livestock. He understood that picking the right crops was of amplified importance to poor black farmers. They could less afford failure.

Carver was also the sweet potato’s chief evangelist, urging farmers to use its nutrients to rebuild tired soil and add bulk to their own diets. He de-emphasized one-crop cultivation and cotton as a cure-all for the farmer’s perpetual economic woes. In its place, he advocated alternatives such as the cowpea, which he labeled with nerdy delight a “poor man’s bank or mortgage-lifter.”

Though Carver spoke to a mainly black audience — and in fact, turned down a lucrative job offer from automotive mogul Henry Ford — his championing of crop rotation, natural fertilizers and composting made him a forefather of little-recognized organic and sustainable agriculture. Those methods were later endorsed by publisher J.I. Rodale, who founded the magazine Organic Farming and Gardening in 1942. But Carver had been publishing about the chemistry behind agriculture for years, extolling the virtues of “barnyard fertilizer” and testing how quickly different plants broke down during composting. He believed that even the lowliest farmer could beneficially combine new science and the knowledge they’d already gleaned from seasons of planting.

W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and the Rise of the Black Farmer Co-op

For their part, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington jousted about whether the future of black Americans rested in vocational training for hands-on work like farming and whether or not it should happen in cooperation with whites. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881 on the assumption that farming was an inescapable feature of freedpeople’s lives and futures. The school operated two farms, sponsored an annual farmers conference that encouraged collaboration — with each other — and housed the region’s first black extension officers, who assisted growers who were pointedly ignored by white agents.

While DuBois argued for a black elite to “guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst” (and towards more intellectual pursuits), he found common cause with Washington in thinking about the multiplying power of collaboration. Some of his early sociological research focused on black farmers. In the structures of black culture and institutions, he saw strength in numbers and the possibility of economic cooperation among farmers and laborers in generals. If churches tithed for collective improvement, he ventured, black farmers could do the same. Later, after co-founding the NAACP, DuBois called together national leaders to form a Negro Co-op Guild, though there’s little existing information about its work.

While Mauldin’s 19th-century subjects faced an environmental and labor crisis, White’s largely 20th-century subjects faced pushback when they tried to join the civil rights movement or advocate for better wages. In places like Mississippi’s Sunflower County in the late 1960s, a majority of Black laborers worked on farms, fisheries, or as domestic servants. In Leland, Mississippi, black farmers staged a work stoppage to ask for a meager raise to the 1965 minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. All the protesters were fired, but they tried out the direct-action techniques of the civil rights and labor movements by setting up a “Strike City” outside the farm. It was a risky proposition. The jobs of Deep South workers were endangered by new machinery (which White mentions but doesn’t explore in detail), the ever-present threat of bad weather and punitive white employers.

Groups such as the Mississippi-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) explicitly organized to prevent black land loss and to provide key technical services such as bookkeeping. And when an Alabama plantation owner refused his black workers their rightful share of federal cotton subsidies and evicted them from their housing because they tried to vote — in 1970, years after the Voting Rights Act of 1964 — the federation raised funds for the affected farmers to buy acreage they would tend together. The FSC helped farmers buy and sell in bulk, allowing them to bypass white-controlled markets where they’d be charged exorbitant rates for the tools or seeds they needed but paid a pittance when the harvests came in. This communal ethic recognized white violence, whether poverty wages, control of lodging, “company-store” domination, or actual physical harm. But, as White claims, it was much more than reactive or an individual response to oppression. It depended on black ingenuity, knowledge and collective responsibility.

Growing Food Can Grow Consciousness

Though these co-ops challenged racism and economic inequality, they didn’t dismantle them. And indeed they couldn’t. Dismantling these social forces required an attack on the very idea of farming we know it — a system of production built on exploited labor and land — and fashioning new alternatives.

In Detroit, where activists such as Malik Yakini have built the successful urban D-Town Farm (a project of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Coalition), White sees the legacy of thinkers like Washington; former sharecropper and civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer; and the men and women who donated their labor to collective farms in the Deep South. Largely left out of Detroit’s initial urban farming initiatives, DBCFSN’s members have grown up to 30 different crops in a city where food insecurity rages and grocery stores are few, feeding themselves and others with the produce. Much like George Washington Carver advocated, they sponsor wide-ranging activities such as diabetes screenings, talks with nutritionists and trainings for volunteers to work the land. Their mantra, much as those before them, is that growing food can grow consciousness.

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