Al Green Led Me to The Stripping Room

I learned the seasons, the rhythms and timing of tobacco or at least when they were supposed to be. They weren’t always in sync with each other. On this fall Monday morning, it was the rhythms of Al Green’s music that led me to tobacco and the stripping room.

It was back in 2001, I had seen Mr. Winn in church the day before. He told me he would be stripping tobacco in his barn the next morning if I wanted to come. Mr. Figgs had gone to Mr. Winn as the the seasons changed. I suppose I now made the cut of friendship, which allowed me to call him that. He said I could find him in the stripping room at 9:00AM.

If Mr. Winn needed extra help he would often drive down to the Salvation Army and find people in need of work and pay them in cash, always more then minimum wage. He is that kind of kind person. That Monday, I headed out to his barn. I had been all over that barn a number of times. But this time I walked in and could not understand for the life of me where the stripping room was. I could not find it. Then I heard Al Green and he had a back up singer, Mr. Winn. Now I love Al Green, but Mr. Winn, that man can sing! The music and dust were seeping out and under a small door. I walked in, Mr. Winn with his ever present corn cob pipe, Roslyn with her fresh braids, Clarence, the gas heater and Al Green warming up the room. There was a rhythm besides the music, one that I did not want to interrupt, and I don’t know that I could have anyway. They had a speed, a system, a rhythm of their own. I went unnoticed, snapping photos as they worked on.

Stripping Leaves

I had been told about a tobacco press, and like the room itself, I could not find it. I suppose I expected something mechanical and shiny, not pieces of wood. The process involved stepping on the leaves, and then they were tied up and pressed. Time flew by; so much so I didn’t realize the fine coat of dust that had built up on and over me, and all my equipment until I left. It was like I had been in a room time forgot and the dust had settled in and on everything, including me. Old school Al Green music seeming like it was brand new.

Proof Sheet
Stripping Room

The Homeplace and Me

The Homeplace is comfort. The place you can go back to no matter how many years have passed. It will always hold something familiar something safe.

The sky passes in blurs, fleeting and fast moments.  It began as I stood looking through a machine of glass and mirrors trying in an instant to capture all that was. I now feel the blur of lives that have left and I have lost. I am left with those static moments.  Wishing those moments would move and bring me back to all that was.

I am strapped down and can’t move. I know I have something running through my veins, as the pain is less. The florescent lights overhead are all that I can see. They blur as I am wheeled quickly through the halls. I am the patient that they make way for.  The captain of the medevac is still pushing me.  Numbers are called out, stats of heart rate and blood pressure. What is my name? What is my birthday? Do I remember what happened? I feel the tears run down my cheeks. I don’t. I know my daughter is alive and safe. I know that the medevac team was like the cavalry coming to take me out of the small ill equipped and scary hospital that I was in. I have always been afraid of helicopters. Today, in my morphine haze, I have never been so grateful to have been in one.

I am being wheeled through the emergency room of UK hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.  I am brought into yet another emergency room I can still only look up. I see the eyes that are Derek’s, the same eyes his daddy had. He strokes my hair that is matted and covered in dried blood. His warm coal colored hand holds my cold pasty white one. The nurse says, “Only relatives are allowed in here how are you two related?” I hear the smile in Derek’s voice, “It’s a long story.”

Twenty years ago I stood in the middle of Frogtown Lane with a map in hand. I didn’t know a soul. Now twenty years later, I know everyone on that lane and those who have passed away. I have been to basket meetings, funerals and family reunions. Even when I am not there in the communities they are always right here with me.

My project is a tribute to the residents of these hamlets, a salute to the elders who learned of slavery at their grandparent’s knees and endured the Jim Crow South. Who lived ‘separate but equal’ and saw the decades of milestones and their impacts, including desegregation, social segregation, and ultimately the election of Barack Obama. The residents did much more than endure and survive negative circumstances; they rose above them and thrived. 

Over the years, like so many other documentary photographers, I apply for grants to help me fund my work. I would love to be rewarded with funding; it would certainly help, but rewards come in different forms. As was the case when I first read this, written over ten years ago by one of the residents.

“Her presence in our communities over the years has renewed a pride in the old hamlets. She is well-known and received by the older members of the communities who are often very skeptical when visitors “show up” but yet have been revitalized because someone is taking the time to show sincere interest and concern for them. I only wish I could fully express the importance of her work and what it means to all of us. From Maddoxtown to Jimtown, from New Zion to New Vine, from Utteringtown to Peytontown, from Bracktown to Cadentown (to name a few), she has made good friends, who eagerly anticipate her arrival each time she ventures from Chicago, Illinois. As a result, she has compiled a list of names—friends given her by local residents—that is quite extensive and she manages to keep in contact with many of us by phone. She is so highly favored because she did not come to take away from us like so many do, but unknowingly, she has restored a sense of pride once again in our African-American heritage. “

I feel Derek squeeze my hand, I breathe shallow and painful breaths, but I breathe.  I realize that I am not done yet, that I am back home at The Homeplace, and I am rewarded yet again.

Mayor of Frogtown

“Hock” and Ruth Beatty

Ole Blue

What began as strictly a documentary project turned into something else along the way. My life became intertwined with those in the communities I have been photographing. They became my friends, my family. Back in 2003, a photography publication did an article on me and included my statement that I was not an objective observer. That still holds true. Especially here.

In the spring of 2001, I was visiting Miss Lydia. She said I should go next door to meet Miss Sarah. After visiting and photographing Miss Sarah, she had me go next door, on the other side, to meet Mr. Figgs. And so it began, and continues.

He wasn’t out in the field where Miss Sarah said he would be, so I knocked on the door. He had me come into the kitchen, and he explained to me how it was too muddy to be out in the field this day. He had me sit down, and I began to learn about his life, the community and tobacco. He spoke of working with the horses, which he had done for a number of years, but it he had not always been treated nor paid fairly. With tobacco he told me, he could rely and count on himself. He still had a few cows back then and at least 20 acres of land. We talked and I photographed and he invited me back anytime. It wasn’t until July that I made it back, by then the tobacco was already in the ground.

I found Mr. Figgs out in the field with “old blue” as he called his tractor. On this day, Ole Blue was a bit stubborn as far as wanting to keep moving forward.

Miss Lydia

Broken Tractor

The Repair

Mr. Figgs and Ole Blue

Past, present, future.

National Archives photos from 2020/01/17 search

None of us work in a vacuum. There’s a history behind every picture, every
oral story, every recording, every single utterance we make. For a lot of the
work I did in the Bootheel of Missouri, I didn’t quite understand that context. I felt like I was the only person paying attention. Sometimes that feeling scared me. It was too much narrative weight to carry to think that the only stories told about this area, these families, these issues, these people would be the ones I could find a way to tell.

Few of us can carry such a load. There’s a risk that we adapt by either adopting
either a narcissist’s point of view (Only I can do this. This is my story
and no one else has the right to tell it. These people are lucky to have me
around to tell their story.
And so on, into an infinity of self-inflating
bullshit), or despair (I’m not a good enough photographer/writer/filmmaker/
researcher/whatever to tell this story. I don’t have the lived experience
necessary to understand this story.
Etc into paralyzing inaction). Both of
these sins descend on our storytelling heads when we forget that there is
context to every story. There is a past, there is a present and there is a
future. We are simply a part of that continuum, and our job is to bring
whatever skills, sensibilities, education, knowledge, lived experience and
wisdom, if we have any, to the storytelling.

So, Will Atwater and I went to the National Archives outside of Washington
DC (back when public appearances in public institutions was still part of
normal life) to go see what we, as taxpaying United States citizens, owned in
the way of context for stories we hope to place within Cultivating Justice.
We were overwhelmed by the kindness of the archivists, who seemed genuinely
excited about the project and who knew the collections impossibly well. Taxes
well spent.

What we found was the past, as expected, but also a connection to the
present. The photo at the top of this blog is a great example. We don’t know
anything about the people in this photo except for the very sparse caption
attached. But it is not hard to think about what this photo might get us to think about — from land ownership, economic relationships, race, history and any number of other ways to see. What do you see?

 – Torsten 

 

Note: We will post more of the amazing photos we found in the archives. When institutions open for public consumption again, we’re planning to go back for more photo research and a serious look at the Archives film library, as well. 

 

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.