Black cotton-farming family (c. 1890s).
Black cotton-working convicts (1911).
African-American farmer in corn field, Alachua County, Florida (1913)
Black sharecropper picking cotton (1939).
Rice plantation

The role of African Americans in the agricultural history of the United States includes roles as the main work force when they were enslaved on cotton and tobacco plantations in the Antebellum South. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863-1865 most stayed in farming as very poor sharecroppers, who rarely owned land. They began the Great Migration to cities in the mid-20th century. About 40,000 are farmers today.


Eighteenth century

Plantation owners brought a mass of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean and Mexico to farm the fields during cotton harvests.[1] Black women and children were also enslaved in the industry.[2] The growth of Slavery in the United States is closely tied to the expansion of plantation agriculture. The contributions of enslaved people on early American agriculture has largely been discounted and ignored, mainly because of the lack of records not created by the slaveholder, often writing to justify enslavement[3]

However, many plantation owners relied on the agricultural knowledge that Africans brought over from across the Atlantic. The slaves had experience with farming and they used the knowledge they had with growing food and the owners needed them to use the skills they learned from their country before they became slaves. Perhaps the best example of this is rice cultivation in South Carolina, relying on indigenous West African knowledge of growing Oryza glaberrima. This specific knowledge was invaluable in transforming South Carolina into a rice producing powerhouse.[4]

While enslaved, African Americans on plantations found ways to supplement their meager food rations by cultivating slave gardens.[5] These slave gardens were usually near the slave cabins or remote areas of the plantation, and provided slaves with three benefits: nourishment, financial independence, and medicinal uses. These slave gardens allowed enslaved people some level of autonomy and agency; when they grew more than they could consume, they were able to sell.[6]

Nineteenth century

Antebellum South

The great majority of black farmworkers before 1865 were enslaved workers on Southern farms and plantations. Smaller numbers were free employees or farm owners. In South Carolina there were about 400 free black farmers in the rural parishes surrounding Charleston. As farmers their strategies, production, and rural lives resembled the poor white neighbors. Survival was a high priority and involved establishing economic self-sufficiency through concentration on food crops for their own families, and then by cultivating social advantages such as having a rich white patron.[7]

Virginia had a large free black element. By 1860, there were 58,000 free Black people living in Virginia; 80 percent in rural areas. Most lived on the Eastern Shore. One out of eight Black people in the state was free and the rest were enslaved in 1860. There were severe legal restrictions and terms of nonvoting, not testifying in court, not attending schools. Newly manumitted ex-slaves had to leave the state. However the same property laws were applied, allowing free Black people to own and operated 1202 small farms in 1860. They were patronized by some wealthy white landowners, who would hire them for cash wages from time to time. They were especially needed at harvest time, and when it was necessary to replant the small tobacco plants. It was a political movement in 1853 to expel all free Black people from Virginia, but key White landowners intervened to block the proposal; they appreciated and often needed the labor of the free Black people. From the point of view of the free Black people, the small amounts of cash were useful; probably even more useful it was to be paid with old clothes, used tools, or young animals in lieu of cash wages. Above all, it was essential to their survival to be useful and available to politically powerful white neighbors.[8]

After emancipation

After emancipation and the passage of the thirteenth amendment, Black slaves were legally freed, but most of them lacked any kind of material wealth and were thus led into other oppressive relationships.[9] Many Black agriculturists were subjugated to land tenure agreements and working as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and within the crop-lien system.[10] Southern black cotton farmers faced discrimination from the north. Many white Democrats were concerned about how many of African Americans were being employed in the US cotton industry and the dramatic growth of black landowners.[11][12] They urged white farmers in the south to take control of the industry, which from time to time resulted in strikes by black cotton pickers; for instance Black people led by the Colored Farmer's Association (CFA) strikers from Memphis organized the Cotton pickers strike of 1891 in Lee County in September, which resulted in much violence.[2]

Black cotton farmers were very important to entrepreneurs which emerged during industrialization in the United States, particularly Henry Ford.[13] The United States Emancipation Proclamation came into power on January 1, 1863, allowing a "new journey for people of African ancestry to participate in the U.S. Agriculture Industry in a new way."[14]

Sharecropping became widespread in the South during and after the Reconstruction Era.[15][16]

Twentieth century

A woman and 3 young girls picking cotton in a field (1937)

The conditions for black cotton farmers gradually improved during the twentieth century. Ralph J. Bunche, an expert in Negro suffrage in the United States, observed in 1940 that "many thousands of black cotton farmers each year now go to the polls, stand in line with their white neighbors, and mark their ballots independently without protest or intimidation, in order to determine government policy toward cotton production control."[17] However, discrimination towards Black people continued as it did in the rest of society, and isolated incidents often broke out. On 25 September 1961 Herbert Lee, a black cotton farmer and voter-registration organizer, was shot on the head by white State legislator E. H. Hurst in Liberty, Mississippi.[18][19] Yet the cotton industry continued to be very important for Black people in the southern United States, much more so than for whites. By the late 1920s around two-thirds of all African-American tenants and almost three-fourths of the croppers worked on cotton farms.[20] 3 out of every 4 black farm operators earned at least 40% of their income from cotton farming during this period.[20] Studies conducted during the same period indicated that 2 in 3 black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming.[21] In 1920, 24% (218,612) of farms in the nation were Black-operated, less than 1% (2,026) were managed by Black people, and 76% (705,070) of Black farm operators were tenants.[22]

The cotton industry in the United States hit a crisis in the early 1920s. Cotton and tobacco prices collapsed in 1920 following overproduction and the boll weevil pest wiped out the sea island cotton crop in 1921. Annual production slumped from 1,365,000 bales in the 1910s to 801,000 in the 1920s.[23] In South Carolina, Williamsburg County production fell from 37,000 bales in 1920 to 2,700 bales in 1922 and one farmer in McCormick County produced 65 bales in 1921 and just 6 in 1922.[23] As a result of the devastating harvest of 1922, some 50,000 black cotton workers left South Carolina, and by the 1930s the state population had declined some 15%, largely due to cotton stagnation.[23] However, it wasn't the collapse of prices or pests which resulted in the mass decline of African-American employment in agriculture in the American south. The mechanization of agriculture is undoubtedly the most important reason why many Black people moved to northern American cities in the 1940s and 1950s during the "Great Migration" as mechanization of agriculture was introduced, leaving many unemployed.[24] The Hopson Planting Company produced the first crop of cotton to be entirely planted, harvested and baled by machinery in 1944.[24]

Twenty-first century

See also: Pigford v. Glickman

In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture vowed to pay some forty thousand black farmers $1.2 billion in total, as compensation for years of undue discrimination. Though funds were intended to be distributed by the end of 2012, the black farmers had yet to receive the designated remuneration by March 2013.[25] In all, farmers in Pigford I who filed timely claims had received over $1 billion in payments. More than 60,000 farmers submitted late claim petitions in Pigford I. Late claimants in Pigford I were able to receive $1.1 billion in payments in the Pigford II claims process. 33,000 Black farmers in Pigford II received decision letters dated August 30, 2013, resulting from the late claims process that closed on May 11, 2012. About 18,000 Pigford II claims were eventually decided in favor of the farmers and 15,000 claims were denied.[26]

As of 2012, there were 44,629 African-American farmers in the United States. The vast majority of African-American farmers were in southern states.[27]

In 2021, the Biden Administration proposed the American Rescue Plan, which will support agriculture, and of this, $10.4 billion will be allocated to "disadvantaged" farmers; Black farmers make up a quarter of these farmers. While the plan is associated with the administration's COVID-19 stimulus relief packages, it is the first wave of relief for Black farmers since the extent of the debt-relief Pigford v. Glickman was to offer.[28]

In popular culture

James Hopkinsons Plantation slaves planting sweet potatoes (c. 1862)

Picking cotton was often a subject which was mentioned in songs by African-American blues and jazz musicians in the 1920s–1940s, reflecting their grievances. In 1940, jazz pianist Duke Ellington composed "Cotton Tail" and blues musician Lead Belly wrote "Cotton Fields". In 1951, Big Mama Thornton wrote "Cotton Picking Blues." A number of blues and jazz musicians had worked on cotton plantations. Blues pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins for instance had once been a tractor driver on a Mississippi plantation before enjoying a successful career with Muddy Waters.[24] Lord Buckley once sang a song titled "Black Cross", pertaining to an educated black farmer murdered by a mob comprising white men.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Foley, Neil (1997). The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in the Cotton Culture of Central Texas. University of California Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-520-91852-8. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  2. ^ a b Walker, Melissa; Dunn, Jeanette R.; Dunn, Joe P. (1 January 2003). Southern Women at the Millennium: A Historical Perspective. University of Missouri Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8262-6456-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  3. ^ WISECUP, KELLY, "Foodways and Resistance", Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop, University of Arkansas Press, pp. 3–16, doi:10.2307/j.ctt1ffjdh9.7, retrieved 2022-04-12
  4. ^ Carney, Judith A. (2021-03-24), "From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy", Agriculture, Resource Exploitation, and Environmental Change, Routledge, pp. 189–218, doi:10.4324/9781315263113-11, ISBN 9781315263113, S2CID 233075860, retrieved 2022-04-26
  5. ^ Ball, Charles (1854). Slavery in the United States. A narrative of the life and adventures of Charles Ball, a black man, who lived forty years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a slave. OCLC 640002486.
  6. ^ Eisnach, Dwight (2019). "Slave Gardens in the Antebellum South: The Resolve of a Tormented People". The Southern Quarterly. 57 (1): 11–23 – via Project Muse.
  7. ^ Dangerfield (2015). "Turning the Earth: Free Black Yeomanry in the Antebellum South Carolina Lowcountry". Agricultural History. 89 (2): 200–224. doi:10.3098/ah.2015.089.2.200. JSTOR 10.3098/ah.2015.089.2.200.
  8. ^ Luther Porter Jackson, "The Virginia Free Negro Farmer and Property Owner, 1830-1860." Journal of Negro History 24.4 (1939): 390-439 Online.
  9. ^ "5. After Slavery: Freedmen", Invisible Romans, Harvard University Press, pp. 170–195, 2011-12-31, doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674063280.c5, ISBN 9780674063280, retrieved 2022-04-12
  10. ^ Green, John J. Cultivating Food and Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability.
  11. ^ Mccartney, John (20 July 1993). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Political Thought. Temple University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-56639-145-0. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  12. ^ Barnes, Donna A. (18 May 2011). The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900. LSU Press. p. 1851. ISBN 978-0-8071-3935-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  13. ^ Skrabec, Quentin R. (11 March 2013). The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry. McFarland. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-7864-6982-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  14. ^ "Freedom's Eve". Black Agriculture. Retrieved June 5, 2013.
  15. ^ Sharon Monteith, ed. (2013). The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South. Cambridge U.P. p. 94. ISBN 9781107036789.
  16. ^ Joseph D. Reid, "Sharecropping as an understandable market response: The post-bellum South." Journal of Economic History (1973) 33#1 pp: 106-130. in JSTOR
  17. ^ Lawson, Steven F. (1 January 1999). Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944 - 1969. Lexington Books. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7391-0087-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  18. ^ "Herbert Lee Murdered". SNCC Digital Gateway. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  19. ^ Green, Ruthie (August 2012). A Chain of Events: A Black Woman's Perspective on Our Rise to Prominence from Slavery to the White House. iUniverse. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4697-7390-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  20. ^ a b Myrdal, Gunnar (1995). Black and African-American Studies: American Dilemma, the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Transaction Publishers. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-4128-1510-9. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  21. ^ Sharpless, Rebecca (1999). Fertile ground, narrow choices: women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940. UNC Press Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8078-4760-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  22. ^ "USDA - National Agricultural Statistics Service - Census of Agriculture". Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  23. ^ a b c Edgar, Walter (1998). South Carolina: a history. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 485. ISBN 978-1-57003-255-4. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  24. ^ a b c "Cotton Pickin' Blues". Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  25. ^ Whaley, Natelege (March 18, 2013). "Black Farmers Still Waiting for Money From $1.2 Billion Settlement". BET.
  26. ^ Black Farmers Lawsuits are closed Black Farmers Lawsuit Update – Part II Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Greene County Democrat, October 30, 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  27. ^ "USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service - Highlights" (PDF). USDA National Agricultural Statistics. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 10 December 2016.
  28. ^ "Relief bill is most significant legislation for Black farmers since Civil Rights Act, experts say". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2021-05-07.
  29. ^ Swiss, Thomas (2009). Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World. U of Minnesota. pp. 46–. ISBN 9780816660995.

Further reading