When Black land rights activists were offered a 150-acre (60-hectare) plot in the U.S. South, they saw it as an opportunity towards righting a historical wrong.
Black Americans lost 90 per cent of their lands across the United States during 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 civil society groups wants to get an equal amount of property back.
“We were stripped of that land,” said Kenya Crumel, a director at the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), which includes nearly 50 Black-led organisations.
“Land is freedom. Historically in this country, so many policies were connected to land ownership – you couldn’t vote if you didn’t have land,” Crumel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The echoes of that loss continue to reverberate today, she said, noting a huge impact on “generational wealth”.
The group is in the process of taking ownership of that Southern plot, which is being donated, as its first piece of land.
It ultimately aims to obtain between 15 million and 20 million acres across both rural and urban areas – an amount that Crumel said may seem “ridiculous” today but would match the estimated total acreage lost by Black households.
The project comes amid a growing focus on Black farmers and land dispossession, with projects working to help them get a fairer share.
White people own 98 per cent of U.S. farmland, said Duron Chavis, a board member of the new Central Virginia Agrarian Commons (CVAC) nonprofit, which supports farmers of colour.
“The gap we’re trying to fill is the land control, land ownership, land tenure gap that Black and brown communities face not only in Virginia but across the nation,” he said.
“Our work is to upset that inequity and put land back into the hands of the most marginalized in our community.”
The organization is fundraising to purchase land as well as soliciting donations.
This month, landowner Callie Walker will give away 75 acres of her family plot in Amelia County, Virginia, to allow farmers of colour to set up homes and agrarian businesses such as vegetable growing or beekeeping.
On a sunny May Day, she surveyed the rolling fields and woodlands where she grew up, about an hour’s drive west of the state capital Richmond. A line of bright orange surveyor’s flags showed where the property was to be split in two.
“I’ve watched other people try to start a farm dream on borrowed land or some other kind of land deal, and it seems like it always falls through,” said Walker, a United Methodist pastor.
“The vision is to collect beginning farmers or dispossessed farmers and to get the housing in place that would allow them to try living and farming here.”
The burgeoning effort is increasingly focused on urban areas, too.
The national racial justice protests of 2020 after the police murder of unarmed civilian George Floyd sparked a growing momentum around using urban lands to foster agricultural work by small-scale farmers of colour.
Those were also the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when communities suddenly faced empty supermarket shelves fuelled by widespread panic buying, recalled Erin PJ Bevel, co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund.
“It became very scary,” she recalled of the confluence of Floyd’s killing and the pandemic.
“This was a crisis for Black people.”
The experience not only increased interest in locally-produced food, she said, but also brought new attention to the network of Detroit urban farmers who had been growing on vacant urban plots for years – often in a legal grey area.
Detroit has been buffeted by population losses for decades and has significant amounts of urban land left vacant.
While some of those properties have been available for a few hundred dollars, others in gentrifying areas have been priced at upwards of USD 6,000, Bevel said.
Two years ago, on the 19 June commemoration of the end of slavery, a coalition of groups created the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to address the issue.
Since then, the fund has crowd sourced more than USD 200,000, gathered donated land, and helped 70 farmers and farm businesses to navigate city processes allowing them to buy vacant urban plots.
Bevel said she sees the initiative as an example of “restorative economics,” seeking to repair harm from injustices and help empower local residents to shape their own communities.
“We had no idea that this would blow up the way it did,” she said, noting the project has spawned at least two similar funds in Michigan alone.
One of those the fund is seeking to help is Timothy Jackson, 38, co-executive director of Detroit Hives, a non-profit that sells about 700 pounds (320 kg) of raw honey annually.
The grant will help Detroit Hives purchase two vacant lots.
“When you have ownership over your project in your community, it allows you to have a thorough investment – you’re not just renting,” Jackson said.
Another local farmer, Erin Cole, runs Nurturing Our Seeds, a farm that grows “everything that can be grown” and sold more than USD 30,000 in produce last year.
The farm started off as an effort to tame a vacant lot, and over the past decade has grown to eight lots – six of which the fund last year helped the non-profit purchase.
Other projects are also looking to develop urban spaces for Black growers.
The Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, for instance, is in the process of purchasing parcels totalling nearly nine 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 lack access to fresh food, he said.
They will be used for growing, farm training, and as a base to help growers on Walker’s land and elsewhere to connect with urban markets.
The NBFJA is looking to use its collective heft to buy up spaces that are already being used informally.
“A lot of Black people are farming 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, and through that mitigate loss.”
By Carey L. Biron and Sonia Elks