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The value of land in a post-Katrina America

By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Mar 21, 2006 - 6:51:00 PM

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A landless people is a hopeless people


TILLERY, N.C. - For decades, Black farmers have been struggling to stay on their land and remain in farming. In response to the needs of Black farmers, the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), the Land Loss Fund (LLF) and Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT) organized the 8th National Black Land Loss Summit, held Feb. 17-19, to continue bringing recognition to the problem and the work being done to regain lost land.

The first day of the summit would be hosted in the Historic New Deal community of Tillery at the Tillery Community Center. Gary Grant, founding president of BFAA, gave everyone a tour of the Resettlement History House and Photo Exhibit, which is housed in one of the original resettlement homes.

In 1936, the Roanoke-Tillery Resettlement Community, which later became known as the Roanoke Farms, was officially approved as a Resettlement Project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” By 1937, the Tillery Community Center was established and included a 650-seat auditorium, basketball court and hosted several programs.

As the song “Wade in the Water” was played in the background, viewers soaked in the rich history of struggle and success displayed in priceless artifacts. One could read about the historic “River of Death,” or the 1940 lightning strike that burned the community center down and how the CCT renovated the damaged area to cultivate the structure that stands today. Everyone then convened inside the community center for dinner and a special program, which opened with a powerful welcome by Gary Grant’s nephew.

“While Dick Cheney drinks beer, hunts quail and guns down people, our people that were displaced are hunting down a decent place to stay!” said Gary Redding, who also serves as the youngest chairperson for the CCT. “Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.”

North Carolina Senator Robert Holloman acknowledged that the CCT is making a difference. “I am so impressed with this organization,” he remarked. “As a people, we must stop looking at our liabilities and look at our possibilities. We must learn how to pass down land.”

Our stories, our land

Gary Grant expressed the importance of practicing the principles of Kwanzaa every day, before delving into his Powerpoint presentation entitled, “In Search of a New Deal,” which gave the history of Tillery and the ongoing struggles faced by Black farmers.

He explained that Tillery was the largest resettlement, consisting of 18,000 acres of land, with 12,000 acres originally owned by Blacks. Participants learned of the racist practices that stripped Blacks of that land.

“We are not telling our story enough. We must share our stories,” he insisted. “With all of our college degrees, we are losing 900 acres a week. Something is wrong.”

He concluded his presentation listing statistics of various lawsuits against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). He later brought forth the energetic V.J. Switzer, a farmer and author, to inform everyone about his two children’s books that teach youth about farm life, entitled “Puffy the Watermelon” and “Lucy the Cantaloupe.”

The next day, workshops were hosted at the Franklinton Center at Bricks. Reverend Ervin Milton, director of the center, welcomed everyone and shared a thought-provoking history of the site, which was a former plantation. The center traces its beginnings to the founding of the Franklinton Christian College in 1871 and the Congregationalist Bricks School in 1895. A merger in the 1950s formed the Franklinton Center at Bricks, which is related to the United Church of Christ and managed and staffed by the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries. A magnolia tree called the “whipping post” still remains which, according to legend, was the place of punishment for the toughest slaves who constantly resisted oppression.

“Many people have given their life for us to be here at this moment,” Rev. Milton stressed. “To be a part of a place where people were once used and abused, to now being a place where people are taught and uplifted is powerful.”

The day consisted of the “Returning the Land to Our Youth” workshop facilitated by Michael Harris of the BFAA chapter in Sacramento, Calif. John Zippert, of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, covered the basics of cooperative development in the “From the Land to the Man” workshop. With a desire to connect “city cousins” with their “country cousins,” Teresa Cosby, of the Black Family Land Trust, shared critical tools necessary to keep land Black-owned, receiving positive feedback from the audience and promising ideas she intends to use. World-renowned photographer John Ficara discussed his book, “Black Farmers in America,” which chronicles their rich history.

At the awards luncheon, more stories of struggle and progress were shared, beginning with the heartfelt presentation by Williard Young of Benson, N.C. The Young Family’s 100-year-old farm heritage was unjustly destroyed in November 2005 by a foreclosure-sell forced by the USDA. His father, Harry Young, was the only Black farmer in the state of Kentucky in the early 1900s and has since been a target. While holdiång back tears, Mr. Young declared that he will continue to fight and asked everyone to continue to support their plight and others who are being discriminated against by the USDA.

“This is spiritual and mental warfare,” contended Mr. Young, who is a fourth-generation farmer. “We will continue to fight on.”

Attorney Stephon Bowens gave an update on the Wise v. Johanns class action and other lawsuits against the USDA. “This suit is not just about money!” Atty. Bowen said. “This is about challenging a system wherein USDA employees have systemically discriminated against women and Black farmers.”

He noted that USDA employees have spent over 56,000 hours in denying claims over the last years. Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, came to the podium to declare unity with Gary Grant.

“I want to dispel all of the talk that Gary (Grant) and I are divided. We stand here together and we will continue to work together,” he insisted, as the crowd applauded with joy.

He then announced the Black Farmers March for Justice scheduled for April 26 in Washington, D.C., where Black farmers will protest the discriminatory treatment by the USDA.

Awards included the “A Man Called Mathew” award, named in honor of Mr. Grant’s father, Mathew Grant, and designed to pay tribute to outstanding individuals who support community-based economic development through African American land retention, family farm sustainability and the development of youth entrepreneurial leadership. This year’s winner was Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min, Nation of Islam Minister of Agriculture and manager of the 1600-acre Muhammad Farms in southwest Georgia.

The second session of workshops explored the international implications of land loss, farm policies and the Endangered Black Farmer Act of 2006. Dr. Ridgely concluded the power-packed day with a workshop, “How Katrina Changed Black America,” which evoked a standing ovation from the audience.

“The psychological impact of Katrina is being compared to the psychological impacts of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King,” he shared. “Katrina was used to separate the wheat from the tare. This should have shown you that these people hate us!”

He also stressed the importance of boycotting fast food chains, encouraged people to cook and explained the need to reinstate African culture of land ownership and food independence. His presentation brought the crowd to their feet.

The wrap-up session the following day included goal-setting, strategies and planning for the development of BFAA.

“Unless people who eat become concerned about what they eat,” implored Mr. Grant, “they (USDA) will continue to do these things to Black farmers.”