The Disinheriting of Black Farmers Before and After Juneteenth

Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith

By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith

The earth and all in it belong to God.” (Psalm 24:1)

Recently, we celebrated the new U.S. federal holiday of Juneteenth. Many of us rejoiced in this moment, which makes more visible our nation’s history of chattel slavery and the post-enslavement period known as Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a time of investment in land and food production to benefit formerly enslaved African-descended people.

But these gains quickly ceased. And much like during the enslavement period, people of African descent were disinherited from the bounty that God intended for all of us. In sum, they were legally free, but they were prevented from becoming financially free and food secure. Many were left with sharecropping as a primary way of life, leaving them in perpetual debt for generations.

At the peak, Black American farmers owned 16-19 million acres. Now, Black farmers own only 3.6 million acres—less than 1% of the farmland in the United States. Because of the inequities during the enslavement period and during the following century of Jim Crow laws, Black farmers remain structurally challenged when it comes to owning land and producing food today.

Recently, I was honored to be a part of the organizing team for a United Nations consultation with U.S. Black farmers in preparation for the upcoming 2021 Food Systems Summit. The consultation was co-hosted by the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA), the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF), and Bread for the World. The Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP) also participated.

The consultation recognized the legacy of poverty caused by lack of investment in land and resources, with a focus on three issues:

  1. Racial discrimination against black farmers.
  2. Best farming practices to address food access, food justice, and food sovereignty.
  3. Necessary resources to advance equitable livelihood.

Our recommendations focused on the need for a concerted and substantial transfer of capital. These are our specific recommendations:

  1. Establish a separate fund for Black farmers, run by Black farmers. This is a key solution for redressing the exclusion of Black farmers from the food systems.
  2. Create a Black-owned-and-operated resource arm that corrects previous mistreatment of Black farmers by advocating for them and by providing loans and capital.
  3. Promote sustainable fruit and vegetable consumption, educating consumers about the diversity of foods and destigmatizing locally grown produce.

Please commit to learn more about our effort to create a path to equitable livelihoods for Black American farmers. Here is the link to the dialogue. May we all discover renewed ways to insure all people have access to God’s gift of the land and being fed.

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


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