When Monica M. White was growing up, her family would travel from Detroit to visit her grandparents in Eden, North Carolina, where they kept a small store in their living room. The store came with the ever-present promise of sweets, her mother’s warnings not to eat too much junk, and her grandparents’ determination to slip her snacks nevertheless.
It was only recently—when the sociologist and University of Wisconsin professor was researching for her new book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and Black Freedom Movement—that White’s aunt explained the store was more than just her own personal candy jar.
“It was called The Community Store. My grandfather, Kenneth, along with eight other Black farmers, co-owned a car and the store was their co-op … I knew my granddaddy was a farmer, but I had no idea he was a member of a cooperative,” said White. “To hear about the collective … I still get goosebumps even just mentioning it, because it shows the serendipity of how we study who we are.”
Freedom Farmers tells the story of how Black farmers in the Deep South and Detroit—independent farmers who owned their property, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and urban gardeners alike—banded together to counter white racism, fight economic deprivation in an age of increasing mechanization and commercial agriculture, and articulate a different vision of the future.
Many of these groups were founded in remote places that were hotbeds for grassroots labor agitation. Take Mississippi’s North Bolivar County Farm Collective (NBCFC). It was formed in 1965 when a group of Black farmers, many of whom were tractor drivers on a white-owned plantation, turned off their engines to demand a better hourly wage. After they were fired and evicted from their homes, they built a temporary tent settlement, Strike City, close to the plantation.
Two years later, the NBCFC was up and running, with its members loaning land, tools, and divvying up the resources and work. The collective fed farmers and their families, provided children with clothing so they could attend school, and launched conversations about the need to disrupt the entire food system—from decisions about what to plant to how to keep the power to process food out of factories.
Freedom Farmers is not your conventional Civil Rights narrative, couched in terms of campaigns for voting rights, school desegregation, and lunch counter seats, though there are familiar historical figures: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Fannie Lou Hamer, whose Freedom Farm Cooperative gave the book its title. It’s a timely, connective, and expansive book; one that reframes the whiteness of agricultural history and calls us to remember the fact that the Black freedom struggle is an ongoing labor movement in places far and wide.
It also locates Black farmers in a Civil Rights narrative that goes beyond their historic and continuing legal struggles against USDA discrimination. Freedom Farmers moves beyond stories of subsistence and survival; it centers Black farmers as unsung food justice advocates and organic intellectuals who imagined better communities, food systems, and politics. And then, depending on one another, they started building.
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