Black History in Agriculture

Wrote this piece for an employer a few years ago. Still relevant now. Will update soon. 


Happy Black History Month!

Increased access to food and agricultural production can be seen as a form of empowerment for Black communities, despite the long history of enslavement tied to agricultural production and exclusion from equitable food systems.

Enslaved African peoples, who were brought to the US beginning in the 1600s, used their knowledge of rice cultivation to turn Southern swamplands into rice fields and produce one of the most lucrative crops in early American history. These enslaved peoples and their descendants were made to work in the fields throughout the Southern United States for over 200 years under slavery and later, a system called sharecropping. The free labor provided allowed for the first large-scale agriculture to take place in the US and, at their expense, created immense wealth for the country. They also had a distinct influence on the cuisine of the South adapting African recipes that are still staples in Southern and African-American cuisine today.

During the period immediately following Emancipation, Black farmers saw a brief rise in land ownership through programs from the Freedmen’s Bureau, often under the system of sharecropping where farmers gave back a portion of their crops to pay for the land. Since then, beginning in the 1920s, there has been a drastic decline in the amount of land owned by and number of Black farmers in the US. In 1910, there were 218,000 Black-owned farms with 15 million acres under cultivation. By the mid 1990s, there were only 18,000 Black farmers on 3.1 million acres. This was due to poor succession planning on farms, discriminatory farm credit lending programs, industrialization of agriculture, and the Great Migration where thousands of African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North to escape violence and seek better jobs and futures. Despite a troubled past, Black farming is on the rise! According to the most recent Census of Agriculture in 2012, the number of Black farmers has increased 12% since 2007, and represent almost 2% of the total farming population. Presently, they control 4.5 million acres or 0.5% of farmland.

In recent history, Black communities have begun to reclaim the narratives around food and agriculture through urban gardening and the burgeoning food justice movement. Urban and community gardens are a way to reinvest in communities, and provide local access to affordable, healthy foods that might not otherwise be available in the area. They coincide well with the food justice movement that aims to bring access to healthy, fresh, affordable, culturally-relevant food to communities of color and low-income communities. These communities often exist in food deserts, where these healthy food items are not easily accessible.

The food justice movement exists with the vision to re-empower communities, change the relation to food and the land, and reduce the health disparities caused by lifestyle diseases, such as hypertension and type II diabetes. These diseases, as well as obesity, are heavily affected by diet and are disproportionately represented in communities of color and low-income communities. The food justice movement deals not only with consumers but also with producers as well. It seeks to secure fair rights and wages for migrant workers as well as access to capital and equitable systems for farmers. As we continue to see access to healthy foods increase in these communities, and more agribusinesses supporting diverse suppliers and supply chains, we will see the food system in America become more equitable and able to support Black communities and Black farmers!


Fun fact sections:

  • Black Land-Grant Universities
    • In 1862, the Morrill Act allowed for the creation of public land-grant universities to educate people in agriculture, home economics, and other practical professions. In 1890, the second Morrill Act was passed. According to the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, the legislation gave states funds to establish state universities for persons of color if race was an admissions factor at the existing state university. Commonly referred to as 1890 Universities, these institutions have a track record of “serving the underserved” and “reaching the unreached.”
  • Black Panthers Free Breakfast Program
  • In 1968, the Black Panther Party created one of first organized school food breakfast programs in the country. By the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were serving full free breakfasts (including milk, bacon, eggs, grits, and toast) to 20,000 school aged children in 19 cities around the country, and in 23 local affiliates every school day. Inspired in part by the ideas and actions of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the School Breakfast Program . It now feeds nearly 13 million students every single day.


Famous inventors:

  • Frederick M. Jones (1892-1961) invented mobile refrigeration. His invention allowed the transportation of perishable foods such as produce and meats, which changed eating habits across the country. Thermo King, the company he co-founded, became a leading manufacturer of refrigerated transportation.
  • Norbert Rillieux (1804-1894) – Born the son of a French planter and a slave in New Orleans, Rillieux was educated in France. Returning to the U.S., he developed an evaporator for refining sugar, which he patented in 1846. Rillieux’s evaporation technique is still used in the sugar industry and in the manufacture of soap and other products.
  • George Crum invented the potato chip in 1853. Crum was a Native American/African American chef at the Moon Lake Lodge resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, USA. French fries were popular at the restaurant and one day a diner complained that the fries were too thick. Although Crum made a thinner batch, the customer was still unsatisfied. Crum finally made fries that were too thin to eat with a fork, hoping to annoy the extremely fussy customer. The customer, surprisingly enough, was happy – and potato chips were invented!


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