Black History Month — Resistance Through Agricultural Innovations
By Samilya Zurawski, OM, Black Employment Program Manager
The 2023 Black History Month theme, “Black Resistance,” explores how African Americans have resisted repression. Despite discrimination and other obstacles, many African American innovators have contributed significantly to the advancement of agriculture in America.
One such innovator was Henry Blair, the second African American to be issued a patent in the United States. Despite his inability to read or write, Blair had a gift for invention and refused to allow illiteracy or other obstacles such as racial discrimination to hold him back. During his lifetime, Blair patented two inventions: a corn planter and a cotton planter. The corn planter had a compartment which held and dropped seeds to the ground; there was also a rake that followed to cover the seeds with soil. The cotton planter was horse-drawn and had two shovel-like attachments that divided the soil. Both of Blair’s inventions increased farming efficiency by reducing the labor and time needed for production; his inventions also helped improve the livelihood of other farmers.
After Emancipation, many farming cooperatives were established to increase opportunities, land ownership, agricultural education and living conditions for Black farmers. One such group, the Farmer’s Improvement Society of Texas, was founded in 1890 by educator, businessman and politician Robert Lloyd Smith. A key Society goal was to abolish the sharecropping and credit system that trapped the impoverished, and to encourage home and farm ownership instead. By 1898, the Society had over 1,500 members and 86 locations; and by 1912, the membership owned 75,000 acres of land that was valued at over a million dollars (about $30 million in today’s money).
Robert Lloyd Smith
In 1969, during the Civil Rights movement, activist Fannie Lou Hamer pioneered the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), an agricultural cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Hamer made it her mission to make land more accessible to African Americans. She started a small “pig bank” with an initial donation of 55 pigs. Families could care for a pregnant female pig until it bore its offspring; subsequently, the family would raise the piglets and use them for food and financial gain. Within five years, thousands of pigs were available for breeding. Hamer used this success to begin fundraising for the main farming corporation. Eventually, the FFC raised around $8,000 ($64,000 today), which allowed Hamer to purchase 40 acres of land, later known as the Freedom Farm. The farm had three main objectives: to establish an agricultural organization that could supplement nutritional needs; to provide acceptable housing development; and to create an entrepreneurial business incubator that would provide resources for new companies and re-training for those with limited education but manual labor experience.
Fannie Lou Hamer
History shows that with political activism, legal reforms, technological innovation, socio-economic cooperation and more, African Americans have improved U.S. agriculture and rural life; and in so doing have not only resisted repression but advanced to break down barriers to the benefit of the Black community and the country as a whole.