This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”
In a country where less than one percent of the land is owned by African Americans, Black landownership has historically been a means to challenge the economic oppression imposed by white supremacy. The rise of Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century presented African Americans with two options: move North or own farmland. Sharecropping or working as a day laborer on a white-owned farm created minimal opportunity for economic advancement as racist landowners sought to keep their workers in debt. Thus the history of Black landownership in the Upper South poses an interesting juxtaposition to the disillusionment experienced by the six million or so African Americans who moved North during the Great Migration from the first World War to the1970s. Such a mass exodus simultaneously destabilized the Black family as it existed during the Reconstruction era and forged new meanings of kinship that helped sustain communities in the new Urban north. Conversely, those who stayed on farmlands along the Virginia-North Carolina border were engaged in a unique tobacco culture that was produced and sustained by the Black family. The tobacco culture that emerged at the hands of the Black family created avenues for Black entrepreneurship and Black landownership in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
An example of this complex history is at the foundations of the bright tobacco-growing region along the Virginia-North Carolina border. Known amongst tobacco farmers as the Old Bright Belt, the region had some of the highest levels of Black land ownership anywhere in the nation during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The highest rates of Black farm ownership occurred in the southeastern regions of Virginia, where former slaves and their children saw landownership as a vehicle to achieve financial freedom. With the large-scale division of plantation lands after the Civil War and the demand for tobacco increasing at the turn of the century, Black families in the Old Bright Belt were able to acquire small farms and make profits. As historian of the American South Evan P. Bennett has noted, it was the increasing willingness of white landowners to sell to African Americans, increasing availability of credit through Black-owned financial institutions, and encouragement from African American leaders that made land ownership a goal for Black rural families. By 1900 just over a third of Black farmers in the Virginia Southside counties owned their farms. Between 1900 and 1920, the number of Black landowners in Southside Virginia jumped 84 percent.
The breakdown of the plantation system post-slavery and the increasing demands for tobacco, coupled with access to cheap land and Black credit institutions, was a set of ideal historical circumstances that allowed Black families to acquire farmland in the Bright Belt. In addition to providing basic food essentials, acquiring farmlands enabled Black families to engage in a tobacco culture that looked markedly different from what existed on white-owned farmland during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century. A poignant example of these historical processes is the way Black farm owners hardly ever hired wage workers to assist in cultivating tobacco. Rather it was the wives and children of Black farm owners who comprised the labor force of the tobacco economy. The centrality of the Black family to tobacco culture is exemplified when examining the labor, and its gender divisions, required during harvest season.
After the 1880s, the process of priming—harvesting tobacco leaves as they ripened rather than all at once—was the primary method of pulling leaves and was arduous labor that required the hands of men and adolescent boys. Preparing the leaves for curing in the tobacco barn was a task delegated to farm women during which they tied the tobacco leaves to a stick and stacked them. Curing the tobacco required the labor of male family members as setting the leaves up for curing called for straddling different levels of tiers that comprised a typical tobacco barn. After the tobacco cured for roughly three days in the barn, farm women graded the leaves for quality before stripping and tying the tobacco in preparation for the market. Families then took their prepared tobacco leaves to the market to not only make money but also to showcase the beauty of their yields. Harvesting tobacco in the Bright Belt was so integral to the culture that the opening of schools in the fall could be delayed, or parents would keep children home from school if there were crops that needed harvesting.1
As farming had been fundamental to the white family power structure for centuries, the Black family also laid claim to occupational farming and, in the process, shaped tobacco culture in the Old Bright Belt. While white landowners tried to prevent landless African Americans from gaining access to landownership as a plot to coerce the latter into tenant farming, aspiring Black farmers in the Old Bright Belt navigated and challenged this rule using their networks to acquire land. The process of farming that land and the shaping of tobacco culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a product of the labor of the Black family as a collective unit. Further, the tobacco culture that emerged during the rise of tobacco in the Old Bright Belt was spearheaded by the Black family as they did not have the same means of production as white farmers.
Aside from Black families shaping tobacco culture, the expansion of Black landownership in the Old Bright Belt is partially due to generational succession of land. Black families navigated the economic politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then purchased and farmed land that served as means of employment and a space to a home for succeeding generations. In various dispositions, contemporary Black landownership in Virginia’s Southside counties is the result of these processes and has remained in family hands for generations. Black farmer and President of the National Black Farmers Association based in Bakersville, Virginia, John Boyd Jr., illustrates the centrality of family and farming in Black landownership: “I’m a fourth-generation farmer, and my dad is a farmer. My dad’s father was a farmer, his father was a farmer, and his father was a slave. The farm that my grandfather had has been in the family for over 100 years and passed down from generation to generation.”
At every stage of Black land ownership from Reconstruction to our contemporary era, the Black family has remained central to challenging the inaccessibility of economic security through land ownership. Ultimately, the Black family will be a critical actor in maintaining or expanding upon what remains of Black landownership.
Challenges to the economic security of African American farmers in the 1960s partially underscore the centrality of the Black family in future configurations of Black landownership. Black tobacco farmers faced the pressures of population outmigration, shifting industry standards, changing technology, the complexities of generational succession, and new research that delineated tobacco as cancerous. The percentage of Black landownership—the majority being farmland—fell dramatically after 1960, in part caused by discrimination by local and national agricultural agencies, and exclusionary USDA programs. Bennett explains, “Numbering in the tens of thousands in the 1950s, Black tobacco farmers have nearly disappeared. The 2002 agricultural census counted just over 900 Black tobacco farm operators nationwide.” Boyd, in his attempts “to do a wake-up call to Black America that land is power” through his organization, underscores the importance of Black landownership and its connections to farming and generational succession. “The three necessities of life come from land: food, clothing, and shelter. Black farm families have to get their kids and grandkids to show some interest. If we’re going to make changes, there has to be somebody, one person, in that family that’s interested in farming.” With the shift from small-scale farming to mass production, tobacco culture is no longer central to the Black family nor sustained by kinship networks, thus the remaining former farmland owned by Black families will face ownership challenges in every succeeding generation.
In thinking about Black landownership in the Upper South alongside the Great Migration, it is necessary to consider Black rural experiences beyond socioeconomic limitations and the yearning desire to move North. Rather the experiences of African Americans who remained in the rural South, more broadly, underscore Black southerners’ motivations not to migrate. Such narratives have the potential to uncover the complexities of Black labor in the rural South and challenges to the twentieth-century economic power structures upheld by white Americans, and how the Black family was at the center of these historical processes.
- Evan P. Bennett, When Tobacco Was King: Families, Farm Labor, and Federal Policy in the Piedmont (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2014), 8-9, 28-32. ↩