With climate change looming, wages stagnating and the internet connecting people who under pervious circumstances would have never met, the urban farming movement is becoming more approachable and popular than ever; but many are unaware of their new hobby’s radical history. Dr. Monica White’s new book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, catalogues the history of growing food alongside the history of the resistance of racial oppression and finds the reality of the past, as well as a possible path for the future, somewhere in the middle. What follows is a dive into the book with some additional thoughts from Dr. White on her journey researching and writing this book.
Like so many histories, the one of food has continually overlooked the contributions of the people of color. When most academics use the word “farmer” they are generally referring to land owners and ignoring those who work the land, especially those who work it by force (whether it be through slavery or economic oppression). When slavers first began operating farms, food and medicine were generally dispersed based on labor output, so many people relied on their own small “slave gardens” and knowledge of foraging to survive. They identified as many as 600 plants through foraging for consumption as well as medicinal purposes. Many thought of their gardens as a source of autonomy away from their captors and used them as a place to strategize resistance.
During the Jim Crow Era, many people of color “refused to migrate and fought to stay in the south and maintain communities around agriculture” by choosing to stay on as tenant farmers and sharecroppers, with some eventually becoming landowners themselves. They also created freedman settlements, which were small towns centered around a farm that was collectively owned and operated. That way they could practice economic autonomy away from the laws that unfairly governed them. These settlements, and later co-ops, became a place they could introduce “...insurance against unemployment, sickness, old age; to establish a system whereby loans can be made to deserving members without the onus of high interest rates. It aspires to help out in time[s] of strikes and lockouts, to provide club houses, hospitals, recreation centres” without the prejudice and hostility they experienced outside of their community spaces. Activist Fannie Lou Hamer said of the situation, “Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon. But if you have a pig in your backyard, if you have some vegetables in your garden, you can feed yourself and your family and nobody can push you around.” This history becomes a little tricky to pin down due in part to anti-literacy laws that had been in place throughout history, making it illegal for people of color to learn to read or write. Dr. White also ran into issues with some organizations archives being inaccessible for one reason or another. One of these organizations, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and has been helping groups buy land and equipment, pass down knowledge, and assist with temporary setbacks such as natural disasters or legal disputes since its conception.
During the Civil Rights Movement, these communities became more important than ever. While history frequently focuses on the “talented tenth” and urban resistance, farmers were crucial to the movement. Many co-ops would send food and resources to urban groups, and when the Freedom Riders rode south, these farmer’s helped feed, clothe, and post bail for the activists . Farms also played a large role in assisting with the more progressive social reform programs resistance groups spearheaded, such as the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program which fed underprivileged children before free school lunches were even a consideration. (See photos of the Free Breakfast Program in PAEOI 15.) Dr. White writes, “Using food as an organizing strategy pointed to the failure of the federal government to care for its citizens. More importantly, it showed the power of the people and the ways that collective social responsibility could provide what a community needs to be healthy, whole and liberated”. When asked why these farmers are so frequently forgotten when discussing the histories of farming and of resistance, Dr. White said “. . . we often overlook the laborers in these conversations, in many cases they grow the nation's food but are often food insecure themselves. [It’s] easy to overlook those who grow our food because they've been so successful that we take them for granted. We haven't had the same kinds of hunger crises that we've seen in other countries. Some of that is a result of the support from USDA but we can't forget those who labor.”
The importance of farming continued to be recognized within activist communities and when many cities were experiencing economic hardship and dwindling populations, urban activists looked to the past for inspiration and support. The book states, “Like African Americans who had found a way to remain in the South by developing cooperatives, Detroit’s remaining black community found a way to resist the pressure to leave by building sustainable communities around agriculture”. While today the urban gardening and co-op scene is thought of as being exclusive and expensive, in fact the opposite is true. Dr. White explained to me that there is a reputation of them being for a particular audience; middle class, white, concerned with health, and not overly concerned with cost. There is also more competition now with meal delivery services and things like that. Many co-ops are now undergoing a change to remember their histories in feeding the community. Cooperatives and the urban farming movement began as a way to practice self-reliance and support when none was being offered, as a way to take back the spaces they occupied and their communities at a time when they were being told to abandon them entirely, that they were essentially worthless. We see these seeds that were planted in the minds of the next generation took hold and are having large scale impact today with the inclusion of gardening in many science classes across the country, especially in urban environments where most families do not have access to the land necessary to operate their own garden.
Some farms and Co-ops to support:
Plus many more organizations throughout the country combining the economic, political and agricultural!
And you can buy the book here!