By Mitch Holt, Staff Writer
In 1910, black farmers owned 15.6 million acres of all farmland in the United States; today, black farmers own less than 3.1 million acres of all farmland in the U.S., and this number is rapidly decreasing.
Statistics like these barely break the surface of the study performed by Dr. Waymon Hinson, professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, during his sabbatical last semester. Dr. Edward Robinson, professor of Bible and history, helped him with the study.
Hinson was introduced to the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, advocates for the rights of black farmers, in the early 1990s. During this time -a time Hinson said was a bit more prosperous for black farmers-he was hired by an attorney who worked closely with these farmers in the earliest cases of injustice filed against the federal government. Hinson said he witnessed the unfair treatment of minority farmers during his time as a psychological consultant.
“What I’ve seen is systematic racism at its worst,” Hinson said. “I decided this was something of importance that needed special attention.”
Stepping out on a limb
Finally, in the spring of 2005, he decided he would take a sabbatical leave in the fall to conduct a special study on the lives of these black farmers in the southern region of the United States. Shortly after, he began developing a relationship with Gary Grant, president of BFAA.
Prior to the study, Hinson expected to face some opposition and wariness from those he would attempt to talk to. Given he is white and was attempting to interview black farmers and their families, natural boundaries of distrust were expected, he said.
Hinson said he knew it would be quite a task to gain the respect of individuals different than him, and that he needed the help of Grant to gain credibility among these farmers.
During this e-mail correspondence, he said Grant asked him some penetrating questions. Grant told Hinson he knew this study would benefit him and his academia, then asked him, “But what’s in it for these farmers?”
“He compelled me to look at some things that I may not have looked at if he hadn’t asked me those questions,” Hinson said.
So the study began.
During the study, Hinson sat down with several black farmers and their families and asked them questions about their lives. He said these questions were very open-ended and related to their lives in regard to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I was in search of the dominant themes that form the basis for their lives,” he said.
The farmers told many stories on the topic, and themes of struggle and resilience seemed to stand out the most during these in-depth interviews.
A major problem among black farmers in the U.S. is the issue of operational loans, Hinson quickly found out. Operational loans are sums of money from the USDA that allow farmers to buy seeds, fertilizer and pay operational costs for their farms. These loans are essential to many farmers, especially smaller, family owned farms. Many black farmers are facing the problem of the USDA not sending these loans on time or at all, resulting in late or no harvest.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say that in the 1930s the rise of agribusiness and the industry has been systematically removing small farmers from the land – black and white,” Hinson said. “But if you look at the numbers, black farmers are losing land faster than white farmers.”
A different approach
Meanwhile, Robinson’s involvement in this project was more research-oriented than Hinson’s hands-on role. He surveyed African American involvement in farming from the Colonial Era, the 1600s to the 1920s, and delved into the history-based part of the topic, which is quite abundant.
Robinson said his research has shown him that blacks were, in fact, the agriculture pathfinders on the American frontier, transforming much of the North American wilderness into flourishing agricultural area.
He is in the process of writing an article that shows that even though blacks contributed greatly to the agricultural and economic development of North America, they seldom benefited from their labors.
“Racism not only excluded African Americans from equal educational opportunities and social and political rights, it also prevented black farmers from acquiring the land and economic success they desired,” Robinson said.
Much of this information is studied in Robinson’s class entitled, “The African-American Experience, 1850 to the present,” which is offered through the History Department.
Robinson said he believes Hinson is doing an outstanding job and will be speaking in his African-American history class in March.
Jan. 26-28, Hinson attended and spoke at the African American Farmers first national conference in Memphis, Tenn. According to the conference program, the conference issued forth an “urgent call to stop the on-going theft of life, dignity and land legacy of African Americans.”
The conference welcomed hundreds of white and black supporters from all over the country. The title of Hinson’s presentation was “African American Farmers: Stories of Struggle and Resilience: Mental and Physical Challenges.”
It highlighted his study in the lives of the farmers and proposed ways to bring an end to the issue at hand-psychologically, physically and spiritually.
Hinson has been working closely with Robinson in writing several literary pieces about their experiences with these farmers. The two professors have been brainstorming and exploring all kinds of possibilities, ranging from documentaries to books.
This whole project is not just about some black farmers and their stories, so it’s important that this is an ongoing project for Hinson and Robinson, even after he writes his pieces, he said.
“With a lot of prayer, reflection and talking with people,” Hinson said, “I’m looking for what else can be done with this project.”