Capturing The Oral Histories Of NC’s Black Farmers And Fishermen

Aug 7, 2019

The number of black farmers in the United States has dropped exponentially since the beginning of the 20th century.  2017 data from the Department of Agriculture shows African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the country’s 3.4 million farmers. That year, there were just over 2,000 black farmers in North Carolina.

Melody Hunter-Pillion wants to capture the life histories of black farmers before their stories disappear. Hunter-Pillion is a Ph.D. student in public history at North Carolina State University. She profiled farmers and a shrimper in Brunswick County and wove together those experiences in an audio documentary project. The doc highlights the importance of passing on knowledge and stories, the push to protect farmland from development, and the many ways climate change is affecting the livelihood of those who fish and harvest the state’s food.

Host Frank Stasio hears from Hunter-Pillion about her project and about her own family’s history as sharecroppers in Scotland County. Hunter-Pillion will share her work at the Black Communities Conference, at The Carolina Theatre in Durham from Sept. 9-11.

Interview Highlights

Hunter-Pillion on the dramatic drop in the number of black farmers:

In 1920, one in every seven farmers in America were African American farmers. And the latest USDA census report that came out in April of this year [shows] that that was down to just 1.3% of all farmers in America ... And part of it was Jim Crow. After enslavement and people were set free, Jim Crow laws made it very difficult for African Americans to own land. Those African Americans who did own land and were able to farm found it very difficult to garner support from the federal government. The USDA had loans but they were administered by, usually, local Southern folk, who did not deal fairly.

On land loss for black farmers:

They were able to come together as much as they could to keep the land between themselves. Another problem that you had with land loss was the migration of African Americans during Jim Crow, because they went to the north or to the Middle West for what they thought might be better opportunities. And then just legally, African Americans did not have the resources to hold on to their land. So the way that they were passing the land down was more of a personal thing to family members, rather than a legal thing. So there was no clear title, no clear wills — and that made it easier for other people to then take those lands.

On the importance of stories and history in black farming families:

So they still count on those old stories that they brought down from their grandparents, or great-grandparents. And everyone I interviewed connected their larger story to their slave ancestors. They were all able to point to “when my people came to this part of Brunswick County.” And that's a part of their story, is the history. It's very present today.

On climate change and its impact on farmers:

One of the things I want to say about Lewis Dozier and the other gentlemen that I interview: When it comes to climate change, they work intimately with the land, and with water. They see the changes. They know. Now one thing they will always tell you is that they're not scientists. They don't necessarily call it climate change. But what they do tell you is: We know our land, we know the water, we know the things around us and we are seeing a change ... What are things that we can do, we can't necessarily stop climate change. But we can sort of mitigate how we are going about how we plant, or how we fish.