When Leah Penniman and her family founded Soul Fire Farm, in Petersburg, New York in 2011, they had a vision of a multi-racial, sustainable farming organization that would run food sovereignty programs with the goal of ending racism and injustice in the food system.
To achieve these goals, Soul Fire Farm offers training to Black and brown farmers, activism retreats, food justice education, subsidized food distribution, and, as of February, is leading a movement of Black farmers who are calling for reparations for centuries of slavery, systemic racism, and racial inequity in the U.S.
“If African-American people [had been] paid $20 per week for our agricultural labor rather than being enslaved, we would have trillions in the bank today,” Penniman says. She adds that those numbers don’t include the many other ways Black and brown people have been excluded from the tools that have allowed white people to succeed for centuries, such as access to credit, education, and home ownership opportunities.
“There is a reason why the typical white household today has 16 times the wealth of a typical Black household,” Penniman says, noting that the gap is “often traceable back to slavery.” According to the Brookings Institute, 35 to 45 percent of wealth in the U.S. is inherited rather than self-made and a recent report from the Center for American Progress on disparities in wealth between Blacks and whites suggests that long-held, structural racism is the biggest reason for the gap.
Many organizations and individuals have called for reparations—financial payments made today to help make good on the systemic injustices of the past 400 years—as a way to begin to level the playing field and create equity.
Penniman’s online mapping tool currently includes 52 organizations around the country led by farmers of color who are calling for reparations. The map details farmers in need of land, resources, and funding, and aims to connect them with organizations, foundations, and individual donors to support their work.
Clicking on one of the participating farms on the map reveals details of its operations, its needs, and how to engage with the people who run it. Penniman is careful to point out that the reparations map is an effort designed to be complementary to, but not a substitute for, the larger national effort for reparations being coordinated by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.
The History of Reparations
The call for reparations dates back to the federal government’s failure make good on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves after the Civil War under General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, created in January of 1865, and later approved by President Lincoln. By June of the same year, 40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of what was known as Sherman Land in the South.
The money generated from farming that land gave Black families the opportunity to create financial mobility and economic security. By 1920, Black Americans owned 925,000 farms, or 14 percent of the farms in the U.S. at that time.
Yet, the promise didn’t last. Over time, millions of farmers, including 600,000 Blacks, lost their farms—often because they lacked legal deeds to the land. By 1975, just 45,000 Black-owned farms remained. The 2012 Census of Agriculture estimated that Black farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers and 1 percent of rural landowners.
According to Penniman, the promised 40 acres and a mule would be worth $6.4 trillion collectively today. The call for reparations, and efforts like the map, are ways to help make Black farmers and their families whole. Penniman says her group used Google Maps to build the tool because “it’s simple to use and decentralized,” although she says she would love for “a techy person to take this over at some point and make the platform more sophisticated.”
The process is simple: Farmers file an application and Soul Fire adds their information to the map. From there the farmer can go into the map and make changes and add information on his or her own farm or needs. “We found that the mapping was more visually engaging compared to using a spreadsheet. Everyone can edit their own pin on the map without a gatekeeper,” Penniman says of the farmers who apply to be a part of the project. To date, more than 53,000 people have visited the map.
The Birth of the Reparations Map
The original idea to take on reparations came out of a conversation Penniman had with Viviana Moreno, a farmer from Chicago, at Soul Fire Farm’s Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI) program. “We were all talking about two farms, Harmony Homestead and Wildseed, as examples of reparations and restoration, and she said we need more of this type of people-to-people giving,” Penniman says.
“The realities of being Black, Indigenous, and brown people in the United States means many of us have little to no access to land, [or] many of the resources needed to run a small vegetable farm sustainably,” Moreno says. “As we were discussing this, I asked Penniman ‘Why, if there are so many of us, don’t we create a sort of database that would feature all of our collective needs and projects?’”
Penniman liked the idea, and she gathered with a group of Black and brown farmers to create the map over the next few months. As soon as it was up, the group sent invitations to all the farmer-alumni from the BLFI program, as well as to other Black, Indigenous, and brown farmers, asking them to add their projects to the map.
The farms and projects currently listed on the map are broadly diverse: Farmers identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and multi-racial, hail from large cities and rural communities, and are seeking help getting started or expanding their work to reach more farmers and eaters.
Moreno’s Catatumbo Cooperative Farm is now listed on the reparations map, seeking funds to start farming land in rural Illinois. Moreno and her partners, Jazmin Martinez and Nadia Sol Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, are all queer, immigrant worker-owners. Their long-term goal is to acquire land in rural Illinois while maintaining a connection to communities in Chicago.
Eduardo Rivera is another farmer that signed on to the reparations map. Currently leasing land outside of Minneapolis for Sin Fronteras Farm, he hopes to use the map to help him buy land or secure a much longer-term lease than his current leased lands. “I signed on after I saw what Soul Fire was doing and was hoping that it will help me acquire the land I need,” Rivera says.
“Being organic gives you more opportunities and access,” he says. “My plans are to grow organic year-round, but I can’t do that on leased land—I think the cost is prohibitive.” Rivera hopes to expand his operations to grow more foods for the Latinx/Mexicanx community and also create an incubator for other indigenous farmers and farmers of color. While it is still too soon to know if the mapping project will get him the land he needs, he says it has gotten him noticed, and he is hopeful.
According to Penniman, there were other projects that informed and inspired them in creating the reparations map. Pigford v. Glickman, the famous 1990s lawsuit from Black farmers who sued the USDA for racial bias in its lending practices, was the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history, and it still was not enough to stem the tide of Black land loss, according to Penniman. But she adds that they cannot rely on organizing around policy alone. “We need to rely on reaching out, and touching hearts, and catalyzing action in our communities.”
Soul Fire Farms trains farmers to become advocates for reparations. “Someone has to be doing the right storytelling and facing the foundations,” she says. They are calling upon funders to be partners in helping to make Black and brown farmers whole. “It’s not just about money. It’s about power and control. It should be the people who are directly affected who have that power and that control, not those who inherited extracted wealth,” Penniman says.
Penniman has a list of specific actions for foundations and other donors who want to help end racism in the food system as part of her upcoming book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Definitive Guide to Liberation on Land. “Some of the things foundations can do are to have more geographic, class, and racial equity, prioritizing funding for the Deep South and underfunded regions, as well as, streamline the reporting and applications process,” she says. “They need to transform the expectations and relationships tied to their funding to support the organizers on the frontlines.”
“Being a part of the project also helps us to start a discussion about issues around land justice, reparations, solidarity economies, and much more,” says Moreno. She adds that it is important because their work is not independent of other issues our communities face. “We definitely want to receive tangible resources, yet we are also looking to engage in conversations where we creatively think about what distribution of resources and wealth means and how to center the needs of historically oppressed communities.”
Penniman says that both systemic and policy change are important. “Some policies that we should all advocate for [include] passing H.R. 40,” Rep. John Conyers’ long-introduced but never-discussed proposal for a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African-Americans. Penniman says the bill could lead to such restorative solutions as a guaranteed minimum or universal basic income to cover all basic needs and free and universal education for pre-K through university.
While the reparations movement in the U.S. gets the most attention, Penniman points out that it isn’t the only place that is dealing with issues of land and money stolen from farmers of color. “I think there’s a lot of groups within Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, that have called for reparations as well,” she says. “Our work here is echoing that larger global movement in calling for the return of stolen land and resources.”
Top photo: Kevin and Amani tending onions at Soul Fire Farm. (Photo credit: Jonah Vitale-Wolff)