November 19, 2020 update: Today, Democratic senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand announced the planned introduction of the “Justice for Black Farmers Act,” which would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt reforms that increase access to land and funds for Black farmers and would-be farmers, including an $8 billion annual fund for purchasing land and granting it to Black farmers.
The name harkens back to the unrealized Reconstruction-era promise of reparations to 3.9 million formerly enslaved African Americans. According to the 1865 order issued by General William T. Sherman, Black Southerners would receive 400,000 acres of land—“a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast.”
President Abraham Lincoln approved the order, but after his assassination, President Andrew Johnson reversed it and returned the land to its previous owners. Ever since, African Americans have wondered how different their fate might have been if they had received that land. As Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put it in 2014:
“Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue, and pass on wealth.”
Lipscombe has pondered the “what ifs” as well. Had African Americans received reparations immediately after the Civil War, she wonders, how many more Black entrepreneurs would exist? There might have been dozens of affluent African American towns, she said, and more historical Black colleges and universities.
A Texas native, Lipscombe’s late great-grandfather taught her that land ownership is important because it gives people a sense of identity. “It allows you to become an entrepreneur, whether you’re a farmer, you decide to rent it, build a house on it, or live on it to raise a family,” she said. “It gives you something. That was always driven into me. When I had my first kid, my husband and I bought a house because I felt that we needed to buy property. It was never about me; it was always about the future generation.”
But Lipscombe didn’t decide to crowdfund for land until June when she started getting checks from strangers with no strings attached. They simply wanted to support her and her business in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which is just two-and-a-half hours away from La Crosse.
At first, Lipscombe wasn’t sure how to put these donations to use, but she eventually decided to use them to buy farmland. None of the local farmers who provide food to her restaurant are African American, she said, and fewer than 1 percent of all Wisconsin farmers are Black; purchasing land could help her support both Black farmers and Black foodways.
“If you look at the numbers, you know that there’s a high percentage of Black farmers who are over the age of 65,” Lipscombe said. “How do we protect their legacy and knowledge for the next generation?”
Lipscombe has raised more than $132,000 to date, and last week she received a $5,000 grant from Black Food Folks. Just last month, she announced that she had purchased 38 acres of land in St. Helena, South Carolina, in partnership with the nonprofit Muloma Heritage Center. In addition to using the land to teach others how to farm, she plans to partner with Muloma to create an archive with the help of chefs such as Mashama Bailey, Micheal Twitty, David Thomas, and Tonya Thomas. The focus will be on “developing a sanctuary to preserve for Black agriculture and foodways,” Lipscombe added.
The chef is also searching for farmland to purchase closer to home. However, finding it will be a challenge because land in the Midwest is much more expensive, she said.
Lipscombe isn’t alone in looking to crowdfunding as a form of reparations when it comes to land ownership. This year has seen several similar efforts, including Brianna Meeks’ effort to buy back her grandparents’ farm in Petersburg, Tennessee, which has been featured in People and has so far raised over $136,000.
The crowdfunding platform GoFundMe has also shined a spotlight on this important work. In July, a post on the company’s blog noted, “Farmers across the country are turning to crowdfunding to buy back the land of their ancestors, generate financial support for their operations, and rejoin the agricultural landscape on behalf of themselves and their communities.”
The Black Land Matters movement also includes New Yorker Amber Tamm, who became interested in farming to reconnect with the land. Her family has lived in the city for at least four generations, and has lost touch with the agricultural knowledge their ancestors had. Scores of other Black and brown New Yorkers find themselves in the same situation, said Tamm, and it’s a predicament she hopes to address through her Future Farm Fund, which has raised over $132,000. Having farmed for five years in an array of regions—upstate New York, Northern California, Hawaii, and Florida—Tamm would like to share what she’s learned with other Millennials of color interested in reclaiming their ancestors’ agricultural wisdom.
She decided to crowdfund for land after her Instagram followers repeatedly asked her if she owned a farm. When she told them that she did not, people began to send her Venmo donations earmarked as “reparations.” In June, she decided to launch a formal GoFundMe campaign and the donations came pouring in, a fact she attributes to the country’s current political climate.
“This round of Black Lives Matter [activism] amplified Black voices, including farmers,” said Tamm. “I think once people heard our stories, they felt very inclined to support us, especially because most of us are doing it for the community.”
But Tamm’s traumatic personal history has also compelled people to donate to her campaign. Six years ago, when she was a college student, she lost her parents to murder-suicide. She was left with no financial support and nowhere to go. As she tends to the earth, Tamm believes she is also tending to her mother, whom she buried in the earth after her policeman father took her life. Now she hopes to use any land she buys to grow food—and to provide a safe haven for others who’ve survived trauma and need a place to heal.
“As long as we’re living on other people’s land, in terms of system and government, then we’re not free,” Tamm said.
She’s now contemplating where to invest in land. Tamm would like to remain in New York, but with her end goal of $150,000, she might only be able to buy a few acres. In Alabama, she could buy as many as 240 acres for the same amount. But before she makes a transaction, she plans to apprentice with more experienced farmers—such as Mark Kimball of Essex Farm in New York, Jamila Norman from Patchwork City Farms in Georgia, and Chris Newman from Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia—to gain a better understanding how to manage a farm and own land.
Ultimately, Tamm would like to see the Black Land Matters movement result in an expansive Black food chain. “We want Black seed keepers,” she said. “We want Black truck drivers, Black farmers, Black chefs, Black composting companies, and Black restaurants. We want a whole Black food chain, so we can support each other first.”
Restitution for Black Landowners
The success that Lipscombe, Tamm, and others have had crowdfunding points to rising awareness among the public about the history and impact of Black land loss, says Texas A&M University law professor and 2020 MacArthur fellow Thomas W. Mitchell. He considers this a positive development, given how little interest there was in the issue at the start of his career in the 1990s, but he also questions whether crowdfunding efforts will produce widespread and lasting change. Crowdfunding for medical expenses, for example, doesn’t address the pervasive inequities in the nation’s healthcare system.
“It’s not going to move the needle in a significant way or really address the magnitude of the problem unless there is a far greater commitment of public resources,” said Mitchell. “Another issue is that more likely than not, the land acquired [through crowdfunding] is going to be small in the grand scheme of things.”
To expand and preserve Black landownership, Mitchell added, legislation designed to help African Americans needs to be passed at both the state and federal level.
Mitchell has worked to reform the laws and policies that have stripped African Americans of their land, particularly for families without written wills. An estimated 75 percent of African Americans die without wills, and court-ordered sales of heirs’ property typically lead to purchases of land for well under market price, further disadvantaging vulnerable Black families. Scholars estimate that in the South alone, heirs’ property is worth about $28 billion.
To help African Americans and other marginalized groups keep their land in their families, Mitchell worked with community stakeholders, attorneys, and scholars to write 2010’s Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which, among other reforms, includes provisions for co-owner buyouts, guidance for courts about resolving partition actions, and a procedure to ensure that sales reflect a property’s fair market value. To date, 17 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted the UPHPA, and Mitchell is working to see that others enact this legislation to help disadvantaged property owners keep their land and safeguard their real estate wealth.
Since then, agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), such as the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), have contacted Mitchell about collaborating on ways to better serve heirs’ property owners. But the notion that there’s virtually no Black-owned land left makes it harder to convince policymakers to advocate for African American landowners, he said.
Using figures from the Census of Agriculture, a number of media outlets have reported that African Americans lost 90 percent of their farmland from 1910 to 1997. Mitchell doesn’t dispute this figure; he said, however, that it needs to be qualified because the census doesn’t reflect African Americans who own agricultural land but don’t own or operate commercial farm operations. He argues that the 1999 Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey (AELOS) provides a more complete picture of Black landownership.
That survey found that “despite many decades of land loss,” African Americans own 7.8 million acres of land, significantly more than the 1.5 million acres cited in the 1997 census. According to the most recent count in 2017, Black-operated farms accounted for 4.7 million acres of farmland, but, again, this figure excludes African Americans who own land but don’t operate farms.
“By showing empirically that there actually is more Black-owned agricultural land or land in general than people realize, I’ve been able to develop this model state statute that would provide greater property rights protections to stabilize the ownership of this property for the families,” said Mitchell.
The 2018 Farm Bill also gave the UPHPA a boost because it gives states that have not yet enacted the legislation incentives to do so. Mitchell credits the farm bill with influencing states like Mississippi, Florida, Virginia, and Illinois to adopt the policy. The farm bill, he said, is his newest ally.
To effect long-term change, though, the government will ultimately need to provide restitution to Black families deprived of their land or create a program to enable African Americans to acquire land through grants, low-interest loans, technical assistance, or other methods. And restitution, he asserted, should include an acknowledgement of wrongdoing to the African American community.
“Specifically, it would take into account the long history of complicity of the federal government and state governments in undermining the ability of African Americans to maintain ownership of their property,” said Mitchell.
Adrian Lipscombe also points to extrajudicial violence, such as the 1919 Elaine Massacre of Black Arkansas sharecroppers, as an example of how racism thwarted the progress of African American farmers. She asks herself what Black Americans could have achieved in agriculture without generations of brutality and discrimination.
“Land has been driven into us since before we came here,” she said. “We were in tribes, and we lived off the land. We were brought here to cultivate the land, and after we moved here, we talked to the Indigenous people about the land. So, imagine if we were allowed to work the land without force, without violence.”
The Black Land Matters movement is not just imagining those possibilities but working to make them a reality.
Top photo by Amber Tamm.