Twilight for Black Farms

Detail from ''Black Farmers in America'

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John Francis Ficara

A new book of photographs captures a portrait of America's black farmers as their numbers dwindle. Photographer John Ficara and NPR's Juan Williams, who wrote an essay for the book (below), talk about the black families who still work on American family farms, despite decades of tough times.

"The black farmer, working hard for his own, became the living symbol of the strong, independent black man," Williams writes. "Farming also allowed black families to move into other businesses, from funeral homes to preaching to construction, and thus served as the bedrock of all black wealth in America."

'Black Farmers in America'

Martin County, North Carolina i i

hide captionHerman Lynch worked on his grandfather's farm for many years, until the older man died. Because of legal problems with the farm's deed, the land was sold to a neighboring farmer. Lynch now tends his grandfather's land as hired help.

John Francis Ficara
Martin County, North Carolina

Herman Lynch worked on his grandfather's farm for many years, until the older man died. Because of legal problems with the farm's deed, the land was sold to a neighboring farmer. Lynch now tends his grandfather's land as hired help.

John Francis Ficara
Cumberland County, Virginia i i

hide captionLouden Marshall ties his grandson Cullen's shoelace as his son Louden III walks toward the house. Only days before, Louden III indicated that he did not want to continue working the family farm, preferring instead to seek employment off the farm.

John Francis Ficara
Cumberland County, Virginia

Louden Marshall ties his grandson Cullen's shoelace as his son Louden III walks toward the house. Only days before, Louden III indicated that he did not want to continue working the family farm, preferring instead to seek employment off the farm.

John Francis Ficara
Brooks County, Georgia i i

hide captionRosa Murphy, in her late '80s, continues to do light work in her fields.

John Francis Ficara
Brooks County, Georgia

Rosa Murphy, in her late '80s, continues to do light work in her fields.

John Francis Ficara
Allen Gooden, cattle farmer i i

hide captionAllen Gooden, cattle farmer

John Francis Ficara
Allen Gooden, cattle farmer

Allen Gooden, cattle farmer

John Francis Ficara
Marion County, Florida i i

hide captionA second generation farmer, John Burton grows and handpicks Velencia peanuts with the help of his wife, Evelena. Says John, "For many years I walked behind horses. Got a tractor and it made it a little easier."

John Francis Ficara
Marion County, Florida

A second generation farmer, John Burton grows and handpicks Velencia peanuts with the help of his wife, Evelena. Says John, "For many years I walked behind horses. Got a tractor and it made it a little easier."

John Francis Ficara
Washington D.C. i i

hide captionBlack Farmers protest outside the U.S. District Courthouse prior to a hearing on their class action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture.

John Francis Ficara
Washington D.C.

Black Farmers protest outside the U.S. District Courthouse prior to a hearing on their class action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture.

John Francis Ficara
Thomas County, Georgia i i

hide captionJames Marable shows the strain after returning to the family farm after having met with local USDA officials.

John Francis Ficara
Thomas County, Georgia

James Marable shows the strain after returning to the family farm after having met with local USDA officials.

John Francis Ficara
Thomas County, Georgia i i

hide captionJerry Singleton, 81 years old and last generation farmer, returns "Tat" to a grazing pasture after some light plowing. Singleton continues to farm 12 acres of produce, but uses an old tractor for heavier plowing.

John Francis Ficara
Thomas County, Georgia

Jerry Singleton, 81 years old and last generation farmer, returns "Tat" to a grazing pasture after some light plowing. Singleton continues to farm 12 acres of produce, but uses an old tractor for heavier plowing.

John Francis Ficara
Greene County, Alabama i i

hide captionDeserted Farmhouse

John Francis Ficara
Greene County, Alabama

Deserted Farmhouse

John Francis Ficara

How do you take a picture of the last moment of twilight?

Quickly! Take the photograph before that last light fades away for all time. Be careful as you take the pictures. What you capture with your eyes will have the last say on our memories.

Here are John Ficara's masterful images of a modern version of "twilight's last gleaming" — what is left of America's heritage of strong black farmers. These photographs are taken with the care required to preserve a precious American heritage. American history is on view here. These are deeply felt memories. There is much sweetness in these pictures but also a trace of bitterness. Today, all that remains of the nation's black farmers is a few older folks working the same rich, dark southern soil as their forefathers.

Just as slavery is now long gone, today's black farmers are on the edge of disappearing past twilight into darkness. Now John Ficara's photographs preserve their image — the distant echo of so much that has gone before. The beauty of these pictures is in the wealth of memory. It is also in the strength of the few black farmers still at work. They are now touchstones of all American life, like the patriots of the Revolutionary War; the cowboys of the Old West; or the trailblazers who settled the Pacific coast.

Images of emotional faces and determined eyes of the few black farmers that remain today evoke America's original sin — slavery — and its aftermath, sharecropping, liens, and peonage. Every image takes us back to the not-too-distant days of Jim Crow segregation.

Each photograph articulates the paradox facing black farmers: what looks like slavery is, in fact, the most courageous form of economic self-determination, and what looks like "the simple life" is, in fact, a profoundly complex and risky economic undertaking. Planting and harvesting, crop rotation, fertilizers, pests, insecticides, drought, pricing vagaries, Cleveland Jackson's decrepit sugar-cane harvester, replaceable only at a cost of well over two hundred thousand dollars — there is little here that can be called simple. And now, at the start of the twenty-first century, that golden legacy of black farmers has all but faded to silence. Only faint light and distant echoes remain — very few black farmers still working their acres like brave warriors in a battle with economics and racism that they refuse to lose. These heroes remain as a reminder to the nation of so many others who were pushed off their land or gave up when they could not get the loans or subsidies. And it was not only a lack of money that handicapped them. Black farmers often did not get the expert help they needed to succeed as farming became a business of chemical fertilizers, crop rotations, and foreign markets. The beauty of these remaining black farmers, their strength and power, is now down to a precious few. Their every remaining moment hangs in the air like an echo.

As each small farm depicted here is abandoned or sold off, more than the land is lost. The idea of the strong, black family reaches back to the days immediately after slavery ended. The best black families shared in the struggle to survive, to accumulate wealth and advance as the equal of white people. This is the same idea behind the Kibbutz in Israel and the youthful communes of the 1960s. The black farm is a symbol rich in these democratic ideals even today. It is a Garden of Eden in the African American memory where the first free black slaves, after the Civil War, worked to regain the humanity that had been robbed from them in slavery. This deep memory is at the core of the black experience. And yet, as more and more black farmers disappear, the reality of the black farmer is fading. What we see today are only faded images and echoes.

Among the black farmers pictured here are people determined to continue their family tradition. Their struggles will be arduous, but surely no more arduous than the long road from slavery, to forty acres and a mule, to putting four children through college on farm income, as James Davis Sr. was able to do in the 1950's and 60's.

Forty Acres and a Mule

Old, tangled roots tie black Americans to the nation's farmland. Black labor on Southern plantations formed the backbone of the nation's first economy, an agricultural economy. Slave labor provided the cheap cotton that set in motion the textile factories at the beginning of the industrial age and the rise of the American economy to the best in the world.

With the end of slavery, freed blacks began a struggle of biblical proportions to gain land and enjoy the same economic rewards as whites. At the heart of that gospel lay the failed promise of "Forty Acres and a Mule," which had its genesis in General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15, issued on January 16, 1865. The general's command allowed former slaves to begin farming on land abandoned by fleeing Confederate soldiers. In March of that year, the Congress authorized General Sherman to rent out the land and supply as many plow mules as possible to the new farmers.

At that time, life for most of the four million freed black people was desperate as they pushed away from the South and slave plantations with no clear idea of where to go and often with no food. In the words of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, "I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom — I was a stranger in a strange land." Many of the former slaves eventually returned to their old plantations, their spirits broken. They resumed working as field hands on farms, laboring under the same conditions as they had when they were slaves.

In this atmosphere of fear, poverty, and confusion, the promise of "Forty Acres and a Mule" was seen as a sign of God's own deliverance. The offer created a sensation among the nation's black population, which reacted as if Moses had parted the waters to the Promised Land. They could finally see a place in America where they could be self-sufficient and determine their own future. These newly liberated citizens generally had no resources or education, and farming was the one business that they knew firsthand. In the first six months after General Sherman offered the land to emancipated slaves, 40,000 black people settled on more than 400,000 acres of farmland along the eastern coast, including the Sea Islands off South Carolina and coastland in Georgia and Florida. General Sherman gave speeches trumpeting this land as a first step for freed slaves — a way to feed themselves and their families and even as a way to earn money by selling produce. As an added benefit, the rent they paid helped to support the Freedmen's Bureau.

But in May of 1865, the glimmer of hope faded even for the lucky black people who had received land and an animal with which it could be plowed. President Lincoln had been assassinated, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, ordered General Sherman to return the land to its Confederate owners as part of the effort to rebuild relations between the federal government and the defeated South. Thus, the offer of "Forty Acres and a Mule" vanished into the status of legend, becoming a catch-phrase for all the broken promises the government has ever made to black people.

Landowners at Last

Despite Johnson's decree, some former slaves made a way where there seemed to be none and obtained land to farm. To them, ownership of a farm meant more than owning a business: the deed to the land signified the end of their days as slaves, as sharecroppers, as workers for someone else. It was true emancipation — no one could confuse a slave with a landowner. To be a landowner meant status as a voter, taxpayer, and citizen. Thus, possession of land represented a defiant step toward racial equality with white farmers, who had constituted the heart of the ruling class in the early 1800s southland. Now, for the first time, blacks controlled their own future and fate.

The land offered a promise to future generations, too. No matter what misfortune or oppression might come (short of God's wrath of drought and pestilence), the family could support itself — raise its own food, tend its own pigs and chickens, and pass on that security to children and grandchildren.

The farm, then, went beyond land and ownership. To a black man or woman it was a ticket to self-sufficiency, as well as a sign of having arrived in the eyes of their neighbors and themselves. The black farmer, working hard for his own, became the living symbol of the strong, independent black man. Farming also allowed black families to move into other businesses, from funeral homes to preaching to construction, and thus served as the bedrock of all black wealth in America.

Discrimination at the USDA

The broken promise of "Forty Acres and a Mule" would be compounded in post–Civil War America by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Lincoln had founded in 1862. The racial tensions over slavery had spread from the political arena like a fungus among the 2,500 agricultural offices that had been established in various communities to help farmers. Called the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), these offices reflected local political power and the racial callousness of federal officials. In most cases black farmers lacked the education, money, or political connections to wield any influence in the community's FmHA branch. As a result, the Agriculture Department's own records show that black farmers' requests for help generally received scant consideration. Instead, the white southerners in charge gave first priority to helping white farmers, especially those who held large farms and were politically connected.

Fear also played a role in discouraging black farmers from seeking assistance from the local agricultural office. With good reason they worried about making their financial information available to local white farmers, many of whom stood ready to make a grab for their land and force them to work as sharecroppers or even day-laborers on larger, white-owned parcels.

Today, black farmers call the U.S. Department of Agriculture the "last plantation." In 1982 th Civil Rights Commission concluded that decades of bias against black farmers by the agriculture department threatened to kill off the few remaining black farmers. As recently as 1997, an internal audit conducted by the Agriculture Department concluded that in the southeastern United States, loan applications from black farmers took three times as long to be processed as loan requests from white farmers. It found that blacks in need of financial support met "bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness and indifference." Black officials at the Agriculture Department's headquarters in Washington told the Washington Post in the 1990s that the department continued to be a "hotbed of racial bias and harassment." They openly expressed exasperation at the difficulty of trying to change such a deeply insulated and racist system. Clearly, this fight was over more than farms. It was a strike against a sick culture festering with antipathy to people of color. This sinful history stretched back to the day President Lincoln created the Agriculture Department in 1862. Only a few months later he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing four million black slaves.

Decline of the Family Farm

In 1920 more than half of all black people in America lived on farms, mostly in the South. By comparison, only one quarter of white Americans lived on farms across the United States. That year, black Americans made up 14 percent of all the farmers in the nation and worked 16 million acres of land. By 2003, they accounted for less than 1 percent of the nation's farmers and cultivated less than .003 percent of the farmland. Today, battling the onslaught of globalization, changing technology, an aging workforce, racist lending policies, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, black farmers number below 18,000, and they till fewer than 3 million acres. Inside these statistics is a staggering story of human loss: when each farm closed, those farmers' spouses and children and grandchildren, and the people they hired, all had to leave a way of life.

Admittedly, these were tough times for all small farmers, black and white. Fifty-five percent of white farmers went out of business during the period of 1940 — 1978, while larger, corporate farms came to dominate food production and sales. Most benefits from government subsidies and access to international markets accrued to the corporate farms, operations larger than 1500 acres, which accounted for more than 83 percent of all U.S. farm products. The average black farmer, in contrast, was cultivating fewer than 120 acres in 1992, and half were hardly surviving on 50 acres and under. Far more often than their white peers, black farmers failed during that period of crushing economic pressure because the USDA forced them to the back of the line when every American farmer was desperate for subsidies to buffer them against changes in the farming business. Between 1985 and 1994, black farmers — 47 percent of whom had gross sales under $2,500 — averaged only $10,188 in yearly subsidies, less than a third of the average support payments given to white farmers, who were grossing almost four times as much in sales.

Barely making a living and often working their small piece of land to the point of depletion, many black farmers sought to buy improved seed, better machinery, or additional acreage to maximize their yield. But they lacked the necessary collateral in the form of land to secure loans from commercial banks, some of which were run by segregationists. And when the government, the final safety net, denied the black farmers' requests for loans or subsidies, their only option, in the words of the Civil Rights Commission, was to risk losing all by taking out personal loans at usurious interest rates. And it was not only a lack of money that handicapped black farmers: they seldom received the expert advice needed to succeed as farming became a business of chemical fertilizers, crop rotations, and foreign markets.

Gary Grant

Many black farmers literally died trying to hold their ground against these corrupt social forces. It is a story all too familiar to Gary Grant's family, who initiated the longest running lawsuit against the Agriculture Department. The Grants owned one of the larger and more successful farms, black or white, in Halifax County, North Carolina. Despite storms and drought that had bedeviled the area for three years, the Grant farm was still somehow making a go of it until the government denied loans to the family. Without the loan the Grant farm went into foreclosure. At that point, Grant's parents, Matthew and Florenza, sued the former Farmers Home Administration, now the Farm Service Agency, for racial discrimination: of the twelve farm families denied loans, ten were black and two were white.

Grant, fresh out of college at the time, remembers the emotional puzzle of watching loan agents tell his father, a farmer who had survived all manner of natural disasters, that he didn't know how to till the land. Grant and his five siblings, also in disbelief at what was happening, had made the difficult trek into the loan agency to support their father. But the show of family support didn't matter. The loan was still denied. "The day we sat and watch my father be told that there was nothing he could do, that was the worst. He was an honest man and a good Christian, all he wanted to do was pay his debt," Grant reflects. "It didn't make any difference who he brought in to help, they were going to buy him out, an officer told my father."

Later, the Agriculture Department attempted to foreclose with a brutal force that still chills the Grant family. In the early pre-dawn hours, the family heard six eighteen-wheelers approach the farm to remove all its equipment. Almost every marshal in the county accompanied the agricultural officials. The sight of the county's most successful black farmer losing his machinery attracted the attention of local television crews. The story was simple: the Grants were fighting the U.S. government for their farm's survival. The family never did quit the fight. Eventually the federal government offered a monetary settlement, but the family refused, saying the offer was simply too little and too late. In 2001, Grant's parents passed away without ever seeing a dime from the government.

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association

With his parents' death, Gary Grant stepped up his crusade to educate black farmers about their rights. Some had been afraid to be seen with the Grants because of their lawsuit against the U.S. government; still others were held back by their own superstitions (many older black farmers were afraid even to write their wills because they thought that doing so might lead to their death). All of these factors — lack of information about rights, fear, and superstition — combined to accelerate the demise of black farming. Denied the government aid that was rightfully theirs, black farmers were forced to sell off to large corporations and move their families to the city.

Grant decided there was strength in organizing black farmers, and he founded the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. In 1997, over one thousand black farmers demonstrated their collective power when they banded together to file suit against the USDA, alleging racial bias in the government's procedure for distributing farm loans and subsidies between 1981 and 1996.

The lawsuit added to black-white tension in many southern communities. After one black farmer joined the court action, all the white people in his town stopped talking to him. "Everyone thinks we wanted something for nothing," he said of white neighbors who thought nothing of allowing his business to fail for want of fair treatment but resented his decision to fight for his farm. They charged he was playing the race card, as if race had nothing to do with the predicament of black farmers. Indeed, some black people in those small southern towns questioned whether the lawsuit's direct challenge to the system might lead to Ku Klux Klan style retribution. So tense was the situation that Reverend Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and once an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hailed the black farmers who brought the lawsuit as heroes as daring as the bravest American pioneers. The detailed charges they outlined in the court case, Lowery said, also sent an important "message to the nation that the good ol' boy network is still alive and sick as ever."

In 1999 a federal judge found that the suit had merit and ordered the USDA to pay millions in claims to the black farmers. Under the settlement, black farmers who could prove that they were denied loans because of racial bias were eligible to receive $50,000 and have some taxes and debts forgiven; those able to show extensive damage were eligible for even larger settlements. Three years later, nearly 13,000 black farmers had been paid $623 million, and loans worth more than $17.2 million had been forgiven.

But another 8,500 black farmers, or 40 percent of the claimants, had their requests for financial settlements rejected. And judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals said that the plaintiffs' lawyers, who had been paid $15 million in fees, had created a "double betrayal" by often failing to meet deadlines and improperly filing legal papers so that many farmers who should have shared in the settlement received nothing. Those who did make it past the lawyers and over the bureaucratic hurdles often found that the one-time payments were too little to keep them going. Too many of the farmers were too far in debt and still lacked the credit or subsidies needed to succeed. Even the historic settlement with the government — compensation for all their pain and loss — often proved to be just another nail in the coffin of black American farmers.

The Young People Have Left

Today, so few black farmers remain that they are a rarity, specks of gold in a mine stripped bare long ago. The solitary, hard-pressed farmer still defiantly working his land has wrinkles not only from worry over money but from age: the young people have left. By 1994, 94 percent of the black farmers remaining were over thirty-five years old, and 35 percent were over sixty-five. The people now remaining on the land demonstrate a fierce attachment to farming as a way of black life. One half of those with their hands still covered in the good earth a decade ago said farming was their principle occupation despite the low wages. Congresswoman Eva Clayton, a North Carolina Democrat, once told reporters that most of the remaining black farmers are "farming out of tradition, now — not to make a living." Black people are no longer even the biggest minority group in the American farm business: Native Americans hold that honor, with 87 percent of the farmland operated by American minorities now in their hands.

Rosa Murphy

In the summer of 2005, ninety-one-year-old Rosa Murphy looks like a ghost from the past of black farming as she sits on the porch of her farmhouse in Brooks County, Georgia. With a visitor standing by she sorts vegetables, looking for the good ones. As a child, Rosa rode bareback across the farm where her parents worked as sharecroppers. When she married Eddie Lee, a fellow child of sharecroppers, they shared a yearning to own land that they and their families had bled and sweated upon for generations. In 1938 the couple took great pride in buying acreage that had been worked with slave labor; now it instead held a promise of prosperity and happiness that could be passed on to their descendants. At home she was surrounded by family and neighboring black farmers who supported each other through hard times. "We may not have been the most well off, but at least we always had plenty of food," she recalls.

Murphy never imagined that way of life would disappear so quickly. Sadly she tells a visitor that her neighbors, her children, her grandchildren have all moved away from the land. Of her twelve children who were born there, only four even remain in the county. When family and friends visit, they can't understand her abiding attachment to the land. "It's real sad to see how people have almost stopped even trying to farm," she says. And with the farm's irrigation system damaged by lightning, little hope remains for Murphy to make money as a farmer. She doesn't even think about asking the government for money to rebuild the irrigator. As she puts it, no one is going to give a loan to an old woman like her. All she wants is to pay off her bills before she dies. A religious woman, she prays to the Lord for help every day. "It was more than just love with the land, it was a livelihood. It was my life," Murphy whispers.

Today's remaining black farmers, unwavering in their determination to cultivate their own land and master their economic fate, open our eyes to the past as well as to the future. John Ficara's photographs afford us a unique angle for understanding why slaves freed after the Civil War sacrificed everything to buy land and become independent farmers. We experience their love of the land as a way of life, a life that will endure only if our society can muster the economic means to support small business owners in this most essential undertaking of feeding a country.

The artistry of Ficara's lens and his genius at portraiture are exceptional. With this book his contribution to photography as both an art form and a documentary medium is secure. But no less remarkable is his choice of subject matter: working the land is an archetypal image of humanity, the idealized pastoral life having captured the imagination of painters and poets for centuries. In the story of African American farming there is much bitterness and betrayal, but in these photographs that pastoral idealism is not entirely stripped away. We see evidence of America's on-going struggle with race; with the economic differences between white and black America. These images offer silent testimony to the sorrow and sense of loss at the heart of black America's cry for fairness.

These pictures are timeless and speak to the best virtues of the American heart.

Here is a golden twilight to treasure — the story of black American farmers.

Copyright (c) 2006 by The University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Books Featured In This Story

Black Farmers in America
Black Farmers in America

by John Francis Ficara and Juan Williams

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