African-American history of agriculture in the United States

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Black cotton farming family (c. 1890s).
Black cotton working convicts (1911).
African American farmer in corn field, Alachua County, Florida (1913)
Black female sharecropper picking cotton (1939).

The role of African Americans in the agricultural history of the United States includes roles as the main work force when they were enslaved on cotton and tobacco plantations in the Antebellum South. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863-1865 most stayed in farming as very poor sharecroppers, who rarely owned land. They began the Great Migration to cities in the mid-20th century. About 40,000 are farmers today.


Eighteenth century[edit]

Plantation owners brought a mass of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean and Mexico to farm the fields during cotton harvests.[1] Black women and children were also enslaved in the industry.[2] The growth of Slavery in the United States is closely tied to the expansion of plantation agriculture.

Nineteenth century[edit]

Antebellum South[edit]

The great majority of black farmworkers before 1865 were enslaved workers on Southern farms and plantations. Smaller numbers were free employees or farm owners. The small free black population was poor, but not with a small proportion to owned 20 to 30 acres. In South Carolina there were about 400 free black farmers in the rural parishes surrounding Charleston. As farmers their strategies, production, and rural lives resembled the poor white neighbors. Survival was a high priority and involved establishing economic self-sufficiency through concentration on food crops for their own families, and then by cultivating social advantages such as having a rich white patron.[3]

Virginia had a large free black element. By 1860, there were 58,000 free Black people living in Virginia; 80 percent in rural areas. Most lived on the Eastern Shore. One out of eight Black people in the state was free and the rest were enslaved in 1860. There were severe legal restrictions and terms of nonvoting, not testifying in court, not attending schools. Newly manumitted ex-slaves had to leave the state. However the same property laws were applied, allowing free Black people to own and operated 1202 small farms in 1860. They were patronized by some wealthy white landowners, who would hire them for cash wages from time to time. They were especially needed at harvest time, and when it was necessary to replant the small tobacco plants. It was a political movement in 1853 to expel all free Black people from Virginia, but key White landowners intervened to block the proposal; they appreciated and often needed the labor of the free Black people. From the point of view of the free Black people, The small amounts of cash were useful; probably even more useful it was to be paid with old clothes, used tools, or young animals in lieu of cash wages. Above all, it was essential to their survival to be useful and available to politically powerful white neighbors.[4]

After emancipation[edit]

Former slaves were encouraged to partaken wage labor arrangements, which often failed because the "wage system was not a part of the culture of work" within the South's systems of agriculture. Many Black agriculturists were subjugated to land tenure agreements and working as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and within the crop-lien system.[5] Southern black cotton farmers faced discrimination from the north. Many white Democrats were concerned about how many of African Americans were being employed in the US cotton industry and the dramatic growth of black landowners.[6][7] They urged white farmers in the south to take control of the industry, which from time to time resulted in strikes by black cotton pickers; for instance Black people led by the Colored Farmer's Association (CFA) strikers from Memphis organized the Cotton pickers strike of 1891 in Lee County in September, which resulted in much violence.[2]

Black cotton farmers were very important to entrepreneurs which emerged during industrialization in the United States, particularly Henry Ford.[8] The United States Emancipation Proclamation came into power on January 1, 1863, allowing a "new journey for people of African ancestry to participate in the U.S. Agriculture Industry in a new way."[9]

Sharecropping became widespread in the South during and after the Reconstruction Era.[10][11]

Twentieth century[edit]

The conditions for black cotton farmers gradually improved during the twentieth century. Ralph J. Bunche, an expert in Negro suffrage in the United States, observed in 1940 that "many thousands of black cotton farmers each year now go to the polls, stand in line with their white neighbors, and mark their ballots independently without protest or intimidation, in order to determine government policy toward cotton production control."[12] However, discrimination towards Black people continued as it did in the rest of society, and isolated incidents often broke out. On 25 September 1961 Herbert Lee, a black cotton farmer and voter-registration organizer, was shot on the head by white State legislator E. H. Hurst in Liberty, Mississippi.[13][14] Yet the cotton industry continued to be very important for Black people in the southern United States, much more so than for whites. By the late 1920s around two-thirds of all African-American tenants and almost three-fourths of the croppers worked on cotton farms.[15] 3 out of every 4 black farm operators earned at least 40% of their income from cotton farming during this period.[15] Studies conducted during the same period indicated that 2 in 3 black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming.[16] In 1920, 24% (218,612) of farms in the nation were Black-operated, less than 1% (2,026) were managed by Black people, and 76% (705,070) of Black farm operators were tenants.[17]

The cotton industry in the United States hit a crisis in the early 1920s. Cotton and tobacco prices collapsed in 1920 following overproduction and the boll weevil pest wiped out the sea island cotton crop in 1921. Annual production slumped from 1,365,000 bales in the 1910s to 801,000 in the 1920s.[18] In South Carolina, Williamsburg County production fell from 37,000 bales in 1920 to 2,700 bales in 1922 and one farmer in McCormick County produced 65 bales in 1921 and just 6 in 1922.[18] As a result of the devastating harvest of 1922, some 50,000 black cotton workers left South Carolina, and by the 1930s the state population had declined some 15%, largely due to cotton stagnation.[18] However, it wasn't the collapse of prices or pests which resulted in the mass decline of African American employment in agriculture in the American south. The mechanization of agriculture is undoubtedly the most important reason why many Black people moved to northern American cities in the 1940s and 1950s during the "Great Migration" as mechanization of agriculture was introduced, leaving many unemployed.[19] The Hopson Planting Company produced the first crop of cotton to be entirely planted, harvested and baled by machinery in 1944.[19]

Throughout the twentieth century, Black farmers… yes?

Twenty-first century[edit]

In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture vowed to pay some forty thousand black farmers $1.2 billion in total, as compensation for years of undue discrimination. Though funds were intended to be distributed by the end of 2012, the black farmers had yet to receive the designated remuneration by March 2013.[20] In all, farmers in Pigford I who filed timely claims had received over $1 billion in payments. More than 60,000 farmers submitted late claim petitions in Pigford I. Late claimants in Pigford I was able to receive $1.1 billion in payments in the Pigford II claims process. 33,000 Black farmers in Pigford II received decision letters dated August 30, 2013, resulting from the late claims process that closed on May 11, 2012. About 18,000 Pigford II claims were eventually decided in favor of the farmers and 15,000 claims were denied.[21]

As of 2012, there were 44,629 African-American farmers in the United States. The vast majority of African-American farmers were in southern states.[22]

In 2021, the Biden Administration proposed the American Rescue Plan, which will support agriculture, and of this, $10.4 billion will be allocated to "disadvantaged" farmers; Black farmers make up a quarter of these farmers. While the plan is associated with the administration's COVID-19 stimulus relief packages, it is the first wave of relief for Black farmers since the extent of the debt-relief Pigford v. Glickman was to offer. [23]

In popular culture[edit]

James Hopkinsons Plantation slaves planting sweet potatoes (c. 1862)

Picking cotton was often a subject which was mentioned in songs by African-American blues and jazz musicians in the 1920s–1940s, reflecting their grievances. In 1940, jazz pianist Duke Ellington composed "Cotton Tail" and blues musician Lead Belly wrote "Cotton Fields". In 1951, Big Mama Thornton wrote "Cotton Picking Blues." A number of blues and jazz musicians had worked on cotton plantations. Blues pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins for instance had once been a tractor driver on a Mississippi plantation before enjoying a successful career with Muddy Waters.[19] Lord Buckley once sang a song titled "Black Cross", pertaining to an educated black farmer murdered by a mob comprising white men.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foley, Neil (1997). The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in the Cotton Culture of Central Texas. University of California Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-520-91852-8. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b Walker, Melissa; Dunn, Jeanette R.; Dunn, Joe P. (1 January 2003). Southern Women at the Millennium: A Historical Perspective. University of Missouri Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8262-6456-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  3. ^ David W. Dangerfield, "Turning the Earth: Free Black Yeomanry in the Antebellum South Carolina Lowcountry." Agricultural History 89.2 (2015): 200-224 Online.
  4. ^ Luther Porter Jackson, "The Virginia Free Negro Farmer and Property Owner, 1830-1860." Journal of Negro History 24.4 (1939): 390-439 Online.
  5. ^ Green, John J. Cultivating Food and Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability.
  6. ^ Mccartney, John (20 July 1993). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Political Thought. Temple University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-56639-145-0. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  7. ^ Barnes, Donna A. (18 May 2011). The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900. LSU Press. p. 1851. ISBN 978-0-8071-3935-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  8. ^ Skrabec, Quentin R. (11 March 2013). The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry. McFarland. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-7864-6982-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. ^ "Freedom's Eve". Black Agriculture. Retrieved June 5, 2013.
  10. ^ Sharon Monteith, ed. (2013). The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South. Cambridge U.P. p. 94.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Joseph D. Reid, "Sharecropping as an understandable market response: The post-bellum South." Journal of Economic History (1973) 33#1 pp: 106-130. in JSTOR
  12. ^ Lawson, Steven F. (1 January 1999). Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944 - 1969. Lexington Books. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7391-0087-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  13. ^ "Herbert Lee Murdered". SNCC Digital Gateway. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  14. ^ Green, Ruthie (August 2012). A Chain of Events: A Black Woman's Perspective on Our Rise to Prominence from Slavery to the White House. iUniverse. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4697-7390-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  15. ^ a b Myrdal, Gunnar (1995). Black and African-American Studies: American Dilemma, the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Transaction Publishers. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-4128-1510-9. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  16. ^ Sharpless, Rebecca (1999). Fertile ground, narrow choices: women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940. UNC Press Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8078-4760-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  17. ^ "USDA - National Agricultural Statistics Service - Census of Agriculture". Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  18. ^ a b c Edgar, Walter (1998). South Carolina: a history. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 485. ISBN 978-1-57003-255-4. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  19. ^ a b c "Cotton Pickin' Blues". Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  20. ^ Whaley, Natelege (March 18, 2013). "Black Farmers Still Waiting for Money From $1.2 Billion Settlement". BET.
  21. ^ Black Farmers Lawsuits are closed Black Farmers Lawsuit Update – Part II Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Greene County Democrat, October 30, 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  22. ^ "USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service - Highlights" (PDF). USDA National Agricultural Statistics. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  23. ^ "Relief bill is most significant legislation for Black farmers since Civil Rights Act, experts say". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  24. ^ Swiss, Thomas (2009). Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World. U of Minnesota. pp. 46–. ISBN 9780816660995.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alston, Lee J., and Joseph P. Ferrie. "Social Control and Labor Relations in the American South Before the Mechanization of the Cotton Harvest in the 1950s" Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (1989): 133-157 Online.
  • Brown, D. Clayton. King Cotton: A Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945 (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) 440 pp. ISBN 978-1-60473-798-1
  • Davis, Allison. Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941) classic case study from the late 1930s
  • Gibbs, Robert M. (2003). "Reconsidering the Southern Black Belt". The Review of Regional Studies. 33 (3): 254–263.
  • Johnson, Charles S. Statistical atlas of southern counties: listing and analysis of socio-economic indices of 1104 southern counties (1941). excerpt
  • Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (LSU Press, 1986) major scholarly survey with detailed bibliography; online free to borrow.
  • McDonald, Robin, and Valerie Pope Burnes. Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama (University of Alabama Press, 2015).
  • Ouzts, Clay. "Landlords and tenants: sharecropping and the cotton culture in Leon County, Florida, 1865-1885." Florida Historical Quarterly 75.1 (1996): 1-23. Online
  • Raper, Arthur F. Preface to peasantry: A tale of two black belt counties (1936, reprinted Univ of South Carolina Press, 2005), a classic study of Black Belt life excerpts; Online free to borrow.
  • Reynolds, Bruce J. Black farmers in America, 1865-2000: the pursuit of independent farming and the role of cooperatives (US Department of Agriculture . No. 1502-2016-130760. 2003) Online.
  • Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (2007)
  • Sharpless, Rebecca. Fertile ground, narrow choices: Women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940 ( UNC Press Books, 1999).
  • Sumners, Joe A. and Amelia H. Stehouwer. "Politics and Economic Development in the Southern Black Belt" in The Oxford handbook of Southern politics ed. by Charles S. Bullock III and Mark J. Rozell. (2010).
  • U. S. Civil Rights Commission. The Decline of Black Farming in America (1982).
  • Vance, Rupert B. Regionalism and the South (UNC Press Books, 1982).
  • Whayne, Jeannie. "Race in the Reconstruction of Rural Society in the Cotton South since the Civil War." in Race and Rurality in the Global Economy ed by Michaeline A. Crichlow, et al. (2018): 247–284.
  • Wimberley, Dale W. "Quality of life trends in the Southern Black Belt, 1980-2005: a research note." Journal of Rural Social Sciences 25.1 (2010) Online.
  • Winemiller, Terance L. "Black Belt Region in Alabama" Encyclopedia of Alabama (2009) online

External links[edit]