Black motherhood and the consequences of dispossessed land


By Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith

On January 14, 1954, my widowed paternal grandmother, Carrie Walker, and her 11 children were featured as the face of abject poverty and hunger in The Plain Dealer—a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio.

The story, “Slums Just 4 Minutes from Public Square,” highlighted their home, Area B of a stores-and-flats building that held six families with a total of 43 persons. It was crowded, unsafe, and severely debilitated.

My grandmother was part of the Great Migration from 1916-1970 that saw millions of African Americans flee the south due to violence, poverty, hunger, and Jim Crow laws and move to the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

The root causes of the migration include the legacy of enslavement, dispossessed land, and lack of public policy support for work with dignity and wealth creation.

In “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” author Isabel Wilkerson points out, “they were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country, not unlike refugees in other parts of the world fleeing famine, war and pestilence.”

This month’s Pan-African Devotional guide, “Lament and Hope,” highlights one of the root causes of the African American urban migration—the federal policy called U.S. Land Dispossession.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the 40-acre promise to former slaves who had fought for their country in the Civil War. The move prevented them from becoming fully independent from their former owners.

They were legally free, but they were prevented from becoming financially free. If the 4 million people forced into sharecropping had owned their land, they could have started earning income and eventually would have been able to put aside assets for the future. But sharecropping’s continual debt cycle made it nearly impossible to get enough to eat, let alone earn money.

Sharecropping continued for three generations. These families were often hungry and/or poorly nourished, far more likely to live in poverty than white people, and far less able to accumulate wealth. Yet, others left the south and went to the north in the United States and experienced the same conditions.

In the March devotional, Rev. Jennifer Bailey raises a biblical question around the dispossession of land policy. Where is home for African peoples in a “strange land” of discriminatory policies like land dispossession (Psalms 137: 4)?

She answers by stating that enslaved foremothers played a primary role of creating home. They did this in the face of family separation policies that removed black men and their children from them and community life. By the grace of God and their fortitude, these women weaved together a collective understanding of home from the fields to church fellowship halls to community centers ensuring a sense of belonging just like my grandmother Walker did.

During this Women’s History Month, the devotional invites you to consider the following questions. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, what unique role do women play in God’s vision of creating beloved community? How can you faithfully advocate for just policies to end hunger and poverty with a gender lens of empowerment?

Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.

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