Black history is deeply rooted and intertwined within the foundations of our food system here in the U.S. Historically and currently, Black communities build from rich agricultural traditions to foster community, tend vibrant farming ecosystems, and regain ownership of land – all while fighting systems that were violently exclusionary and biased.
This February, in acknowledgment and celebration of Black History Month, we are providing information and resources about systemic injustices, highlighting Black joy and knowledge, and Black community accomplishments within our food system.
Approximately “45,000 out of the 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. identify as Black according to the United States Department of Agriculture.” In Oregon, this number is even lower, with a 2017 OSU Extension fact sheet identifying only 64 Black farmers out of 67,595 census respondents.
Oregon’s exclusionary history directly shapes our current food system. It is essential to understand the Black contributions and history’s impact in order to build a just and equitable future in the food system. Follow along with the timeline to learn more about Oregon’s and the USA’s 100+ years of Black history in regard to the food system.
In Oregon, the food system plays an important role in Black history. The state’s original constitution banned all Black individuals and families from owning property, homesteading, or becoming citizens from 1850 until 1926.
Oregon/National Black Led Organizations to Support
100+ Years in the Oregon Food System
The Oregon Donation Land Act “codified the rights of ‘white male citizens and their wives’ to claims of 640 acres of “public” land. Blacks were excluded by virtue of being neither “white” nor “citizens.” This act, while enacted before Emancipation, directly created an environment of racism and hostility to future Black communities well into the 20th Century (Oregon Public Broadcasting).
The Oregon constitution bans slavery but also excludes Blacks from obtaining legal residence (Oregon Public Broadcasting). In 1863, a Black woman, Letitia Carson, filed a claim for 160 acres on South Myrtle Creek in Douglas County, Oregon. She filed as a “widow” and single mother of two children, and although the Act included “freed slaves,” Letitia didn’t claim that identity on the paperwork. Six years later, her claim was certified by President Ulysses S. Grant, making her the only Black woman in Oregon to successfully secure a homestead claim. (State of Oregon: Black in Oregon)
Oregon repeals several Black exclusionary policies written in the constitution, yet they are still a major deterrent for Black folks looking to move to the state for many years to come.
Agricultural Adjustment Act: In an effort to help farmers recover from the Great Depression, the US government began buying excess grain from farmers in order to raise the price of farm goods. Financial incentives were given for corn and grains grown on a certain percentage of farmland. This was intended to reduce market glut, but in practice it displaced many farmers who were occupying now valuable, farmable land.
Specifically, Black farmers in the South were disproportionately impacted by this displacement. By restricting acreage and guaranteeing minimum prices for cotton, White landowners simply informed Black farmers and tenants that their labor was no longer necessary or that their land was desirable, and evicted them from the land. This practice of excess buying of commodity crops led to the construction of the Farm Bill five years later, which designates funding for all agricultural use. Decades later Black farmers are still fighting to reclaim their family farms.
Throughout the period of the Civil Rights movement, Black communities in Oregon continued to struggle against decades of systemic oppression and racial aggression. Despite the challenges, Black communities started small businesses, clubs, and neighborhoods after an influx of industry jobs brought thousands of Black people to Portland following WWII.
This time period in Oregon included legislative achievements by Blacks such as a fair employment law in 1949, a public accommodations law in 1953, and a fair housing law in 1957. These laws advocated for more equity in Blacks ability to use, exist in, and own property in spaces throughout Oregon (Oregon Encyclopedia). Although these new laws did not immediately change prevailing racist structures, they did represent a beginning of the countering to Oregon’s anti-Black traditions.
“I know what the pain of hunger is about”
– Fannie Lou Hamer
“I know what the pain of hunger is about” Freedom Farm Cooperative founder, Fannie Lou Hamer, told a gathered crowd. “The time has come now when we are going to have to get what we need ourselves. We may get a little help here and there, but in the end, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.” The Cooperative was a rural economic and political organizing project focused on self-sufficient farming for poor Black and white farmers. Through Hamer’s tireless work and grassroots participation, the farm grew to 680 acres of land and served over 1,500 families.
Similar to Freedom Farm Cooperative, today The Black Oregon Land Trust (BOLT) works to secure land access specifically for Black agricultural efforts across the state. Leadership team member Mia O’Connor Smith reminisces on the founding of BOLT during COVID-19 pandemic, saying “by co-creating Black Oregon Land Trust, we are collectively putting the power back into the community and how we wish to see it; [it’s] one of many solutions to our existence in capitalism, without abandoning our people.” – Atmos Earth
Black Panther Party Free Breakfast: Also in 1969, The Black Panther Party started a free breakfast program in Oakland, CA. By the end of the year, the Black Panthers were serving free breakfasts to 20,000 school-aged children in 19 cities around the country. In Oregon, the Portland Black Panther Party started the same year and started a Children’s Breakfast Program at Highland United Church of Christ to feed 125 children each morning before school.
These breakfast programs eventually led to the foundation of the National School Lunch program. In 2020, 49.2% of Oregon children were eligible for free/reduced lunch from their schools (Oregon Department of Education).
Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit was filed by Timothy Pigford and joined by 400 additional African-American plaintiffs claiming that USDA loan programs discriminated against Black farmers and ranchers on the basis of race. Allegations noted that USDA was unfair towards Black farmers when deciding to allocate price support loans, disaster payments, and farm ownership loans and that the USDA had ultimately failed to follow up on complaints about racial discrimination.
These discriminatory practices led to the foreclosure of hundreds of Black-owned farms. On average it took 3x longer for the USDA to process a black farmer’s application in comparison to a white farmer’s application. To date, almost US$1 billion has been paid or credited to less than 20,000 farmers. Over 22,000 Black farmers made claims; 13,500 were approved, making it the largest civil rights settlement in history.
Moving into the early 2000s and the present day, the effects of history and the legacy of Black agriculturalists and activists continue to play out in the food system. In Oregon, there have been decades of intense racial discrimination, loss of Black generational wealth in farmland and property, and increasing levels of food insecurity. However, every year there are more Black-led and owned organizations, farms, ranches, and collectives challenging the status quo in our food system and battling systems of oppression.
This Black History Month, join HDFFA in educating your community about the contributions and traditions of Black communities in the food system. The agriculture and local food community can move forward together by sharing resources to further our education. Additionally, we can work to empower modern-day Black farmers, ranchers, businesses, and landowners in Oregon. Together we can create an equitable food system where everyone can access and produce affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods.