What Does a Legacy of Colonization and Enslavement Mean for Today’s Food and Farm Systems?

A legacy of stolen land and stolen labor

The history of agriculture in the US is one of colonization and enslavement, followed by a long history of denying land rights to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color which manifests differently in urban and rural areas. Between 1784 and 1887, 1.5 billion acres of land was stolen from indigenous people—through war and attempts at genocide, outright theft and legislative appropriations like the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Homestead Act of 1862 (the total landmass of what is now the United States is 1.9 billion acres). From the vast plains of Iowa to the fertile acres of California’s Central Valley, America’s farms are on land that was taken from the Indigenous communities that once stewarded it. 

The violent colonization was an act of physical and cultural genocide; not only were millions of Indigenous people killed, but a majority of them were removed from their homelands, which they had stewarded for thousands of years. As a result, they were disconnected from their traditional foodways and forced to assume European systems of land ownership through legislation such as the Dawes Act. To date, profit-driven corporations and the U.S. government continue to violate treaties and extract oil, water, minerals, and more from lands that even by U.S. law are governed by indigenous communities. 

EXPLORE: To learn more about the indigenous lands you currently occupy, explore this map. You can also download an app.

From the early 1600s, enslaved Africans were abducted from their homelands to cultivate cotton, sugarcane, tobacco and more on monoculture plantations on these stolen lands—these were some of the nation’s most valuable exports at the time and served to lay the foundations for American capitalism, and simultaneously set the scene for American agriculture for centuries to come.

Towards the end of the Civil War, in 1865, Union leaders met with a group of Black leaders in Savannah, Ga to discuss how the Union government could support previously enslaved Black people. In 1865, based on what he heard from those leaders, Union General William T. Sherman passed an Order declaring that each family would be given land to farm on—“a plot of 40 acres of tillable ground”. Subsequently, 400,000 acres that were confiscated from confederate soldiers were set aside to be distributed among Black families. This was the first systematic attempt at reparations for Black people, but it didn’t last long. Less than a year after the Order was passed, it was reversed. The land went back to its former Confederate owners, under who it remains to this date. Land ownership remains tenuous for Black and Indigenous farmers today. 

READ: The invasion of America: The story of Native American dispossession is too easily swept aside, but new visualizations should make it unforgettable

WATCH: Food justice: a vision deeper than the problem | Anim Steel | TEDxManhattan 

Contemporary land struggles

Despite this history, by 1920, the United States had about 1 million Black farmers; however as of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, this number is closer to 45,000, and just 0.52% of the total farmland in the country is owned or operated by a Black farmer. How did this happen? 

Over the last century, Black farmers were dispossessed of 12 million acres of land.  A significant portion of this—6 million acres—occurred between 1950 to 1969, and according to writer Vann R. Newkirk II, can be tied with the rise of the civil rights movement. Additionally, federal programs during that time were designed to create larger, more consolidated farms (more on this later!) that drove many small and medium scale farmers off their land. Black farmers, and especially those that were in the South, were particularly vulnerable due to the systemic racism that persisted in federal agencies that were charged with providing credit, capital, and insurance to farmers that would help them remain on their land. Aside from this, legal loopholes like ‘Heir’s property’ prevented and continue to impede Black people from using their land to get loans or available federal disaster relief, and maintain control over its sale. 

WATCH: The Great Land Robbery: How Federal Policies Dispossessed Black Americans of Millions of Acres 

Indigenous producers and communities face different challenges when it comes to land. In 1848, the Dawes Act, or the Allotment act forced indigenous people into a system of private property ownership that did not exist in their traditional land tenure systems and enabled the sale of ‘surplus’ land to non-Natives. After being dispossessed from land that their ancestors stewarded for centuries, many indigenous communities are still fighting for sovereignty over their land and its resources. Forcing indigenous people to assume a capitalist, proprietary relationship with the land has not only threatened their sovereignty over the land but fractured their spiritual connection with the land—a vital component of indigenous culture.

report on the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 found that the decision to intern more than 110,000 people was partly initiated by West Coast farmers’ racist resentment of Japanese farmers. During that time, Japanese-American farmers produced more than 40 percent of California’s commercial vegetable crop alone and generated a much higher income per acre than white farmers. West Coast farmers who were threatened saw the war as an opportunity to rid themselves of the competition, and also gain access to some of the most fertile farmland in the region. About 258,000 acres of land was ‘confiscated’ from Japanese farmers and was never fully returned to them; and the impact of their dislocation has had a generational effect. 

READ: The dangerous economics of racial resentment during World War II  

Reevaluating our relationship with the land

Starting with indigenous ancestors that fought back against relocation and the group of Black leaders in Savannah, GA who advocated that ‘40 acres and a mule’ be given to previously enslaved families, to organizations like the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), the Land Loss Prevention Project,  Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust,  White Earth Nation and BIPOC producers who are growing food and advocating for themselves across the country, the desire to maintain relationship to the land among BIPOC communities is as old as the attempts to deny them land access and sovereignty. 

While these organizations lead the fight to ensure land access for existing BIPOC producers, those like New Communities Land Trust are providing spaces where people from BIPOC communities can reconnect with land and farming. In urban areas, where communities are burdened by the twin forces of gentrification and food apartheid, community gardens stewarded serve not only as a source of food but as a community meeting space and sanctuaries. 

As European settlers colonized North America, they also exposed vast expanses of land to the plow for the first time and it only took a few decades until their mode of farming drove around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. Much of the work being done by traditional farmers and new proponents of regenerative agriculture is geared towards undoing this colonial legacy and restoring land to its earlier, more fertile state. Together, the work of these organizations plays a crucial role in redefining our collective relationship with the land, nurturing food sovereignty, mitigating food apartheid, and healing the planet. 

Despite being denied access to land and resources, and historically left out of policy decisions, BIPOC communities retain a deep connection to land and agriculture. For many BIPOC communities, working together has been critical to surviving systems that were designed to work against them. For BIPOC producers, finding alternatives to private land ownership, as well as utilizing traditional agricultural practices that rely on ecological knowledge has been crucial to surviving a capitalist food system. Indigenous practices, BIPOC led food sovereignty, climate justice, and civil rights movements also spearheaded practices that are essential to contemporary food movements such as regenerative agriculture, cooperative ownership, and community-stewardship of land and water. However, increasing consolidation in the food and farming industry and a host of other barriers including a race-based wealth gap, institutional discrimination, and lack of market access has made it increasingly difficult for BIPOC farmers and fishers to continue these practices.