Black and other colored farmers see the recovery of land stolen or defrauded from them as an important step in strengthening their economic power.
When black land rights activists were offered a 60-acre parcel in Amelia County, Virginia, they saw it as an opportunity to right a historic wrong.
Black Americans lost 90% of their land in the United States in the 20th century, government figures show, due to factors such as predatory developers and a lack of access to the legal system and expert advice.
Now an alliance of black farmers and community groups wants to recover an equal number of properties.
“We have been robbed of that land,” said Kenya Crumel, a director of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance (NBFJA), which includes nearly 50 black-led organizations.
“Land is freedom. Historically, in this country, there were so many policies associated with land ownership — you couldn’t vote if you didn’t own land,” Crumel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The echoes of that loss continue to reverberate to this day, she said, noting that it has a huge impact on “generational wealth.”
The group is in the process of taking ownership of that southern lot, which is being donated, as its first piece of land.
The goal is ultimately to obtain between 15 million and 20 million hectares in both rural and urban areas – an amount that Crumel says may seem “ridiculous” today, but would correspond to the estimated total acreage lost by black households.
The project comes amid a growing focus on black farmers and land expropriation, with projects helping them get a fairer share.
White people own 98% of U.S. farmland, said Duron Chavis, a board member of the new nonprofit Central Virginia Agrarian Commons (CVAC), which supports farmers of color.
“The gap we’re trying to fill is the land control, land tenure and land tenure gap that Black and Brown communities face, not just in Virginia, but across the country,” he said. “Our job is to break that inequality and put the country back in the hands of the most marginalized in our community.”
The organization raises money to buy land and asks for donations.
This month, landowner Callie Walker will give away 75 acres of her family plot in Amelia County, Virginia, so colored farmers can set up homes and farms, such as vegetable farming or beekeeping.
On a sunny May day, she surveyed the rolling fields and woods where she grew up, about an hour’s drive west of the state capital of Richmond. A row of bright orange surveyor flags marked where the site should be split in two.
“I’ve seen other people try to start a farm dream on borrowed land or some other kind of land deal, and it always seems to fail,” said Walker, a United Methodist pastor. “The vision is to gather upstart farmers or expropriated farmers and get the housing that they can try to live and farm here.”
The nascent effort is also increasingly targeting urban areas.
The 2020 national racial justice protests following the police murder of unarmed civilian George Floyd fueled growing momentum around the use of urban lands to promote agricultural work by small-scale farmers of color.
Those were also the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when communities were suddenly faced with empty supermarket shelves fueled by widespread panic buying, recalls Erin PJ Bevel, co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund.
“It got really scary,” she recalled the confluence of Floyd’s murder and the pandemic. “This was a crisis for black people.”
Not only did the experience heighten interest in locally produced food, she said, but it also brought new attention to Detroit’s network of urban farmers who had been growing on empty urban lots for years — often in a legal gray area.
Detroit has been plagued by population loss for decades and has left significant amounts of urban land empty.
While some of those properties were available for a few hundred dollars, others in gentrifying areas are priced at more than $6,000, Bevel said.
Two years ago, on the anniversary of the end of slavery on June 19, a coalition of groups created the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to tackle the problem.
Since then, the fund has crowdsourced more than $200,000, collected donated land and helped 70 farmers and ranches navigate urban processes, enabling them to purchase vacant urban lots.
Bevel said she sees the initiative as an example of a ‘recovery economy’, which seeks to repair the damage caused by injustice and empower local residents to shape their own communities.
“We had no idea it was going to explode like this,” she said, noting that the project has spawned at least two similar funds in Michigan alone.
One of those the fund wants to help is Timothy Jackson, 38, co-executive director of Detroit Hives, a nonprofit that sells about 700 pounds (320 kilograms) of raw honey annually.
The grant will help Detroit Hives purchase two vacant lots.
“If you own your project in your community, you can make a serious investment — you’re not just renting,” Jackson said.
Another local farmer, Erin Cole, runs Nurturing Our Seeds, a farm that grows “anything that can be grown” and sold more than $30,000 worth of produce last year.
The farm began as an attempt to tame a vacant lot and has grown to eight lots in the past decade, six of which were aided in the non-profit purchase by the fund last year.
Other projects are also looking to develop urban spaces for black growers.
For example, the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons is in the process of purchasing lots totaling nearly 9 acres in the cities of Petersburg and Roanoke, said Ian McSweeney, director of the National Agrarian Trust.
The plots are in areas officially designated as “food deserts” where residents do not have access to fresh food, he said. They will be used for cultivation, agricultural training and as a base to help growers on Walker’s land and elsewhere connect with urban markets.
The NBFJA wants to use its collective leverage to buy up spaces that are already being used informally.
“A lot of black people farm on vacant lots, and often they don’t own those lots, but you can negotiate with cities or counties to get ownership,” Crumel said. “So we want to take advantage of that and use our power as a group to negotiate those terms, thereby limiting the loss.”
This story was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who are struggling to live a free or fair life. This story was republished here as part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s SoJo Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues. It has been lightly edited for YES! Magazine.
Carey L. Biron
covers Washington DC land and property rights. He has covered South and Southeast Asia for 15 years and has been reporting on global development from Washington since 2012. Carey also works as an editor for the Washington Post.