Black individuals have long played a critical role in farming and agriculture in the United States. In colonial times, Africans brought to the Americas as enslaved people provided not only essential agricultural labor but also knowledge and skills that were critical to developing the American farming industry and agricultural system for years to come. After centuries of enslavement, discrimination, and failed land distribution policies that stripped Black people of their land and livelihoods as farmers, only 2 percent of farmable land is owned by Black farmers today. Contemporary food and agricultural justice movements are now calling for redress and reparations for Black farmers, yet racial injustices are still rampant within the food industry. For the final week of Black History Month, we are highlighting six rich contributions Black farmers, inventors, scientists, and activists have made to the food and agriculture industry in the hope that we can begin to rewrite the narrative of the history of U.S. agriculture and the food industry.
Community Land Trusts
Community land trusts are nonprofit community-based organizations that utilize cooperative ownership of land to work towards land conservation and stewardship, affordable housing, community gardens, and more. The story of community land trusts began in 1969 when Charles Sherrod, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and his wife Shirley founded New Communities Inc., a 5,735 acre farm collective in Lee County, Georgia. The couple’s vision for the project was to build a fully self-sufficient farm. In the following years, New Communities became a safe-haven for Black farmers in the South. Charles, Shirley, and other community members farmed the land, built communal housing, and created a vibrant community of farmers and families. The concept took off, spurring the creation of dozens of land trusts across the county and the world. Today, more than 225 community land trusts, many of which are in urban spaces, exist across the U.S. These community-based land cooperatives continue to provide vital spaces for community farming, conservation, and connection to the land. Many modern community land trusts focus on affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.
Community Supported Agriculture
The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model may now be a familiar feature of farmers’ markets and local farm offerings. While the practice got its start in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, the origin of CSAs in the U.S. is often attributed to the Indian Line CSA (South Egremont, MA) and Temple-Wilton Community Farm (Wilton, NH), both of which were founded by European men in 1986. But even though these farms played a key role in popularizing CSAs, the beginning of the practice can be traced further back, to Black horticulturist, author, and Tuskegee University Professor, Booker T. Whatley. In the 1960s and 1970s, Whatley believed in promoting the success of small farms, advocating for Pick Your Own farms and launching his “clientele membership clubs.” Through these “clientele membership clubs,” customers paid a recurring fee to receive a portion of the farmers’ harvests, helping farmers to plan production before the growing season began and guaranteeing a market from their products. These early direct-to-consumer models of farming live on in the popular modern CSA and U-Pick farm programs.
Crop Rotation and Cover Crops
One of the most notable figures in late 19th and early 20th century agriculture was George Washington Carver, a renowned agricultural scientist and inventor. While serving on the faculty of Tuskegee University in Alabama, Carver made several discoveries critical to the agriculture industry. Perhaps one of the most significant was his exploration of ways to combat soil depletion. After years of studying soil chemistry, Carver discovered that the cotton planting practices common in the American South were depleting the soil of nutrients and leading to low crop yields. Carver found that rotating cotton crops with nitrogen-fixing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, and sweet potatoes could replace those nutrients and allow crop yields to grow when the land was once again planted with cotton. Carver also found that planting cover crops, such as clover, in top soil could protect farmable land. Although these practices were not necessarily new, they were a revolutionary return to the “old ways” of farming during the Progressive Era, when the agriculture industry was heavily focused on industrialization and mechanization. These practices are now commonplace in the modern sustainable farming movement.
Origins of the Food Justice Movement
The food justice movement itself owes a great deal to many pioneering Black activists, farmers, and educators who saw agriculture as a form of Black self-sufficiency and community resilience. In the early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington helped to make agriculture a cornerstone of Black community development by training and supporting Black farmers at Tuskegee University. Later, during the Civil Rights movement, Black farmers played a critical role by allowing activists to stay on their land during marches and sit-ins, and working with students and activists on civil rights initiatives. Many Black women, including Fannie Lou Hamer, also played a critical role in developing the movement. In 1969, Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which provided food to the local Mississippi community with a bottom-up strategy aimed at generating community participation through farming and economic opportunities. The same year Hamer began the Freedom Farm Cooperative, the Black Panther Party started their Free Breakfast for Children in Oakland, CA. The program gained national attention and influenced Congress to expand free breakfast programs to serve children in all public schools. These programs, along with many other initiatives pioneered by Black food activists and farmers, showed a deep understanding of the connection between food and community-empowerment and devised new methods of feeding and empowering communities. Today, Black farmers, activists, educators, and policymakers continue to play a critical role in driving the food justice movement, calling for food policies that recognize the deep inequity in our current food system and address the need for community-empowerment through food.
Groundbreaking Agricultural and Food Industry Inventions
Throughout history many critical agricultural inventions can be attributed to Black individuals. In 1834, Henry Blair invented and patented a mechanical corn-planting machine. Assumed to be a free farmer (since the patent would not have been granted to a slave) Blair was the second African American to receive a U.S. patent. Two years later, he invented and patented a cotton-planting machine. Both of these seed planters enable farmers to sow seed faster and more efficiently, resulting in higher crop yields. In the late 1930s, another unsung Black inventor, Frederick McKinley Jones, pioneered an invention that would forever change food transportation. After his employer, Joseph Numero, promised to build a reliable truck refrigeration system for a local trucking company, Jones developed a small, durable refrigeration unit for trucks that allowed food to be transported across longer distances without spoiling. Jones and Numero later founded Thermo King Corporation in order to produce the units. The company became a multi-million dollar international corporation, transforming the shipping and grocery businesses and paving the way for the frozen food industry. Other Black agricultural inventors of note include George Washington Murray and Norbert Rillieux.
Rice Farming Practices and the Legacy of South Carolina Rice Plantations
Much of the wealth of corporate America was built through the hard work of enslaved Africans and African Americans; however, the specific knowledge these enslaved peoples brought to the American agriculture system is perhaps less well known. One of their key contributions was their knowledge of rice and grain farming practices, which helped to create the rich plantations of South Carolina. Rice grains originally came to the South Carolina region in the 17th century, when they were most likely farmed by enslaved West Africans as subsistence food. Then, in the 18th century, Carolina planters began to establish a lucrative rice export industry. Although the exact historical events surrounding these early rice-growing operations are unknown, many scholars argue that the knowledge of West African enslaved peoples, whose ancestors had farmed rice for thousands of years, was critical to the success of the South Carolina plantations. As these enslaved farmers, many of whom were women, cultivated the land, they taught the South Carolina plantation owners their traditional practices, and the wealth accumulated by the plantation owners helped to shape the economy of the American South.
This list is far from a complete catalog of the many critical contributions Black individuals have made to the agricultural and food industries over the years. Interested in learning more? Check out these resources for more information.:
African American Foodways edited by Anne Bower
Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith A. Carney
In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff