Reclaiming the Dream

To look at African America at present, one would not think of our agricultural past. Most Black people live in urban areas, and I can tell you very few harbor any dreams of the farm for themselves or their children. Similarly, just as many don’t want to go look at the African-American role in farming in a living history setting because to Black people, agriculture equals slavery, sharecropping and poverty.

Farmer, 1938, Library of Congress

It must be understood that for the most part, African Americans became city dwellers because America’s agriculture system betrayed them: first, of course, by making their ancestors slaves, and later, after emancipation, when government segregation laws and southern customs often doomed even the most industrious Black farmer to failure. For these very real and valid reasons, African Americans have detached themselves from their rural heritage. Although reestablishing the connection may seem vital to those of us involved in portraying farm and agricultural history, for many people—especially African American people—this history can be just too hard to encounter and contemplate.

Yet, I believe that while tragedy should be examined and portrayed, it should not obscure the achievements of those who fought the good fight and who tried to triumph over adversity. African Americans have survived in this country because they have celebrated joy even in the face of sorrow. This philosophy was given by African ancestors and has made mean and ugly times bearable.

Indeed there is untold tragedy in the history of African Americans’ involvement in America’s agricultural history, and for many, if the story of Blacks and farming does not end in the cotton fields of slavery, it certainly does later in the cotton fields of sharecropping. History books, movies and even family histories all tell us this is so. However, as with much of African American history, while the beginnings and even the ends of stories are known, the middle narratives, the muscle and meat of the truth, has been lost beneath racial myths, lies, stereotypes, misconceptions, and worse: shame.

Hidden in the stories of African American involvement in agriculture are the truths that African Americans struggled, sometimes at the cost of their lives, to obtain land and to become productive citizens by cultivating it. In addition, African Americans were involved in the creation of educational institutions and business organizations dedicated to the self-help and economic and spiritual improvement of Black farmers and their families in the South.

Field Work at Tuskegee Institute, c. 1910, Library of Congress

African Americans did not come out of slavery hating agriculture and farming. Emancipation brought out a hunger for land as deep as the ex-slaves’ desire for education. They believed that owning land would complete their independence: without it, they could not be economically autonomous, and their labor could be stolen again by former owners. Land ownership meant an ability to earn a living, but more important, land meant the stabilization of family life. A home on some farm land was a badge of freedom, the solid foundation upon which Black communities could flourish.

Studying Botany, Tuskegee Institute, c. 1910, Library of Congress

Few freed men and women would be able to achieve their dream of land, especially in the Black Belt of the South, where white men reasoned that the only land “Negroes” were entitled to was a grave. The southern post-Civil War economy, desperate to retain a cheap, albeit now free-labor force, could ill afford to give African Americans the choice of economic autonomy. It conspired with the forces of government, laws, societal restrictions and vigilante groups to prevent this. By the late 1800s African Americans were effectively disenfranchised, and dreams of land and homes were replaced with the realities of sharecropping and tenant shacks. Yet, on such soil, African Americans planted the seeds of a rural uplift movement.

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This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Karen L. Simpson, “If Ever A Wizard There Was: George Washington Carver and the Tuskegee Experiment Station,” in Proceedings of the 1994 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 30-33.

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