Arlean and Willie Peat

The first time I met Arlean and Willie Peat it was because their neighbor Ted Pullen introduced me. I don’t think they would have said anything to me had I showed up alone. As it was, all I got was a sideways look and a “Don’t make no never-mind,” from Arlean when I asked if I could come photograph on their farm as they lived and worked.

I never got a lot closer to understanding Arlean and her motives than that, and it shows in the photos I made of her.

For many visits over many months, that was the only sentence I heard, over and over, as I photographed their lives. In other words, I never knew if they put up with me only to keep from hurting Ted’s feelings, if they somehow enjoyed having me around and therefore didn’t run me off the place, or if they honestly didn’t care either way. The only time she epressed a desire was when she asked me not to photograph in her kitchen. That was both a heartbreak to me, because her kitchen showed the hard life they led, and a bit of a relief, because I took it to mean that she was okay with me photographing everywhere else on the farm – a conclusion that I was admittedly stretching to reach.

Both Willie and Arlean clearly loved Ted Pullen, who not only stopped by frequently to visit and check on them, but also lent his more modern farm equipment, his know-how and his kindness to their effort to squeeze a living out of 80 acres of Bootheel floodplain land using mostly hand tools – and one early 1950s John Deere tractor that was broken much of the time. Ted did his farm work and at least some of theirs every year, and it may have been what kept them from going under.

I eventually had some more relaxed conversation with Willie, who liked smoke breaks in the shade. But neither Arlean nor Willie showed much interest in the prints I brought back, and they weren’t eager to talk about their past – or their present, for that matter.

When I returned to the Bootheel in the early 2000s, both Willie and Arlean Peat had passed, buried in the Pullen Family Cemetery just down the street – among the people who supported them in life.

Their farm was quickly sold and was plowed under. Ted would have liked to buy that land, but it went to larger operators, almost all of whom are white.

Why photography?

In a world of overwhelming data, powerful statistical tools, wonderous data visualization and an army of people generating words to precisely dissect any issue, why would anyone mess around with something as ambiguous and non-literal as a still photograph?

The answer is in the question. Some photographs – the ones we remember – give us something visceral at first look, but then complicate your life as you keep looking. In other words, there’s an ambiguity in photographs, a non-literalness, that keeps us on edge. That edge is where we learn about the world we look at. That goes for the photographer, too. Maybe especially for the photographer.

Let me tell you a story about a photograph I made as one of many visits over several years in the 1990s to the three-generation Richardson farm near New Madrid, Missouri. The picture is of Grethel “Mama Gert” Richardson sitting in her wheelchair in her kitchen while one of her granddaughters brushes her hair. It’s not a great photograph, but it had lessons for me. Mama Gert spent most of her time in her kitchen, leaving only when she wheeled herself into the adjacent living room to watch TV. In the words of her grandson Justin, “Mama Gert ran that farm from her kitchen. It was control central.” That kitchen was spectacularly orderly and worn. I brought my biases to that kitchen when I was photographing, worrying that a picture that showed the wear of that kitchen would embarrass Mama Gert. So I was a little apprehensive when I brought back to her, as I always did, 8 x 10 prints of the photos I had made during the previous visit. I worried that she would feel disrespected if I showed her worn kitchen.

In the stack of four or five dozen prints I brought to her on an especially hot summer day, she picked out this one as her favorite. I was surprised and asked her why.

“Because it is a picture of how we teach girls to be women,” she said.

That had not occurred to me. What did occur to me was that photographers are not as in control of their photographs as we like to believe. Clearly, I had photographed something I could not even see – until Mama Gert helped me see it.

We photograph to feel, express and learn, sometimes even in that order.

Finding a Home

Three decades ago, I came to Columbia Missouri to go to the University of Missouri School of Journalism. It was a time of dramatic and unsettling changes. My wife and I had an toddler son at home, with a daughter on the way. The farms around me didn’t look at all like those I was used to in central Sweden or in Minnesota. And for the first time I was spending a lot of time with farmers who were not descendents of European immigrants, but rather the descendents of slaves. It is embarrassing now to acknowledge that I had not thought about that difference before beginning my work documenting agriculture in the Mississippi Delta — but it would be a lie to deny it. I got to know several Black farm families over the years in Missouri, while creating Black Soil, a documentary photography, writing and audio project that continues almost thirty years later as part of Cultivating Justice. One of the families I began to spend a lot of time with was the Richardsons, who farmed some 500 acres just outside of New Madrid, Missouri. The middle child was Justin, at left he’s about 8 years old. At right, he’s just about to retire from the ARMY, a father and living in St. Louis, Missouri. He has since moved to the DC area, and Will and I went to interview him a few months ago about his family farm’s history — in short, all that is left of the farm is the house, with all surrounding lands sold to primarily white farmers. I’ll roll out more of the Richardson family story, as well as that of the Pullen and Peat families, in subsequent blogs. For now, just know that working on these stories was one of the great privileges of my life, and I hope that by continuing the work through Cultivating Justice we can show respect and honesty about the lives of these families and others like them.

— Torsten Kjellstrand, Eugene, Oregon March 2, 2020

Connecting the Rural and Urban Experience

Hello. I’m excited to join the Cultivating Justice blog.  My perspective grows out of 25 years as a researcher and landscape architect studying historical and contemporary community open space, with particular focus on community gardens, urban agriculture, and the changing role of parks in low-income communities.  As passionate as I am that cities should provide places for people to grow food, I also appreciate that growing food is hard work and that the labor involved should be acknowledged through secure land tenure, educational opportunities, and community control.

I frequently speak with gardeners about why they want to garden, be it on their own land or in a shared space. While there are many reasons – food access, environmental restoration, community activism, education, etc. – quite often the underlying depth of commitment emerges from cultural ties to agriculture, ancestral stories, and childhoods spent visiting family farms. Over the years, I have heard many African American community gardeners talk about their family ties to farming as simultaneously positive and negative: the pride in self-sufficiency and skill mixed with anger over injustice and discrimination. Although I have focused most of my work in urban areas, the rural experience of farming is very present and continues to shape how we frame urban agriculture. 

Cultivating Justice is an important means to broaden the conversation so that it engages rural and urban, past and present, scholarship and practice. I look forward to the ongoing discussions.  

Heirs’ Property

It has been widely reported that African Americans own less land today than in the beginning of the 20th century. Two recent articles that do an excellent job of highlighting issues that have contributed to the decline of black-owned land are: “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery,” written by journalist Lizzie Presser, which appeared in the July 15th edition of ProPublica; and the other is “The Great Land Robbery,” written by journalist Vann R Newkirk II, published in the September 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Presser documents the Reel brother’s efforts to prevent developers from taking ownership of a section of family land purchased by their great-grandfather and passed down without a legal will. NewKirk’s article highlights a range of obstacles, including government policy, that have led to a drastic decline of black land ownership in the Deep South.

As highlighted in Presser’s story, a leading cause of black land loss is inherited land that is recognized as heirs’ property. This term refers to land informally passed down by a landowner to descendants without a written will. In this case, the descendants become co-owners and cannot apply for USDA loans to support farming endeavors or for disaster relief funding. According to estimates, roughly 30% of land owned by African Americans in the South is heirs’ property. However, this fall, both the House and Senate passed the FY 2020 Agriculture Appropriations Amendment #1067, which was introduced by Alabama Senator Doug Jones and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.

The following article about the bill and an explanation of Heirs’ Property is posted at scott.senate.gov:

Monday | October 28, 2019

Scott Applauds Passage of Heirs’ Property Amendment

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture. This amendment would appropriate funds for the Secretary to implement the pilot project for USDA to provide loans to help resolve heirs’ property issues. The amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 91-1.

Heirs’ property overwhelmingly impacts African-American land ownership, and in turn, prevents many farmers and ranchers from obtaining farm numbers and subsequent access to a multitude of USDA programs,” said Senator Scott. “I want to thank my colleague Senator Jones for working with me on this issue and this legislation. I am excited that our legislation took a step forward today and am hopeful that this will positively impact heirs’ property owners across South Carolina and the nation.”

Background

Heirs’ property refers to land that has been informally passed down within families, oftentimes for several generations, which often leads to legal complications and prevents landowners from qualifying for federal assistance. Sens. Scott and Jones introduced the Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S.3117) last year, and it was included in the 2018 Farm Bill. Details on the bill can be found here.

In the coming months, I will post what I learn about how and when the funds will be made available.

Resources:

“Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery” (features.propublica.org)

“The Great Land Robbery” (theatlantic.com)

Three organizations that assist with heirs’ property issues:

Land Loss Prevention Project (landloss.org)

Center for Heirs Property (heirsproperty.org)

Georgia Heirs’ Property Law Center (www.gahersproperty.org)

Introduction

My mother was born into a family of land-owning African American farmers. Her parents grew acres of corn and root crops while raising chickens and hogs. However, after the land was passed on to my mother and her siblings, she eventually sold her portion. Sadly, my mother did not realize the potential the land held. At the time, she only realized farming was not in her future but failed to realize the opportunities the land provided to build wealth for her and her descendants, even if she did not want to farm it herself. My mother’s story is but one example of how African Americans lost farmland that had been hard-won by their ancestors in the early 20th century. The year 1910 marked the height of landownership by black farmers, who owned between 15 and 19 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But by 1997, the number had dropped to 1.5 million acres. Today, African American farmers own less than 1% of the nation’s farmland, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, urban agriculture is providing new opportunities to engage in cultivation, although land tenure is an issue with that as well. This blog will serve as a platform for documentarians, researchers, scholars, investigative journalists, and food- and land-justice advocates interested in examining the topic of black agriculture, rural and urban, and the decline of black landownership. Cultivating Justice is the name we chose for this project because it acknowledges a history of unequal access to resources (land, education, financial supports) and the collaborative effort necessary to move forward as we explore opportunities for people of color to maintain land ownership or gain access to farming land. 

This blog is intended to start the initial discussion by developing a website central to our national conversation about African Americans and agriculture. The site will build knowledge and networks celebrating the rich personal, historical, cultural, and economic roles agriculture has played, and still plays, in rural and urban African American communities. The website will share stories – farmers struggling to sustain their communities, young farmers looking to acquire land, and urban activists using urban agriculture as a means to address food access and social justice – while also providing access to expert interviews highlighting critical aspects of African American history, a timeline of significant moments, historical photographs, interactive maps, and other data sources to better understand historic and contemporary trends. Through this compilation of information, we seek to create a place to publish, discuss, and garner support for a network engaged in ongoing work to build inclusive models for land access, agricultural education, and advocacy.