Today, June 19, is the holiday known as Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when word reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas that they had been freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. Black communities across the county have celebrated Juneteeth ever since, making it the oldest annual celebration of the end of slavery and the fight for freedom. Festivities traditionally involve barbecue and a feast of foods specially prepared for the occasion, participants dressing in their finest clothes, prayer, speeches, and games. Understanding history in order to make progress as individuals and as a society has always been a primary focus of Juneteeth ceremonies.
In light of this focus, I’d like to share what I’m learning about the work of Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm Cooperative, which exemplified a movement using farming as a vehicle for empowerment, self-determination, and resistance against oppression that stretches through history to the present.
Fannie Lou Hamer is best known for her voting rights work, her activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and her cofounding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But, born in 1917 into a Mississippi sharecropping family, she knew firsthand the way that the mainstream agricultural system oppressed People of Color, keeping them enslaved in all but name. Not only did the sharecropping system keep Hamer and others like her in constant poverty, hunger, and debt, but also deprived them of control over their own lives. When Hamer overcame the many barriers in place to disenfranchise Black citizens and successfully registered to vote, the owner of the plantation where she worked ordered her to rescind her voter registration. Hamer’s reply: “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” He promptly fired her and evicted her from the property. This was a common experience among other Black folks fighting for the right to vote.
In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) as an alternative farming model to that which forced Black Mississippians to labor either as sharecroppers or to struggle with poverty on their own small farms. “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 main we’re going to have to do it ourselves,” Hamer stated. With financial backing from from a Wisconsin-based non-profit, Hamer bought 40 acres of farmland to grow vegetables to feed member families and cash crops to support the co-op’s operational expenses. In addition to vegetables, the farm also fed its members through a “pig bank” that raised and distributed thousands of pigs to participating families. Poverty was the only qualification for joining the co-op, Hamer explained. “This is the first kind of program that has ever been sponsored in the country in letting local people do their thing themselves.”
Under Hamer’s tireless leadership, the FFC grew exponentially over the next few years. By the early 1970s, the farm comprised nearly 700 acres, and the co-op expanded to a comprehensive system of community and individual empowerment. Its programs included child education, affordable housing, job training, and health care. It housed a sewing cooperative, a tool library, a commercial kitchen, and community gardens. The Freedom Farm Cooperative strived to address each of the various ways the community had been oppressed and deprived of opportunity, and to provide the tools and the space for members to reclaim their agency and liberate themselves. It envisioned a system that lifted people up rather than crushing them and grinding them down.
The Freedom Farm Collective received little institutional support and dissolved by the mid-1970s. However, other farmers have continued its work and legacy in various ways. Today, farms from Soul Fire Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley to Oakland, California-based Black Earth Farms work to end food apartheid and center People of Color in all they do. Soul Fire Farm offers a multitude of workshops and immersion programs for Farmers of Color, operates a sliding-scale CSA to fight food insecurity, and provides an interactive Reparations Map on its website that connects potential donors with Black and Indigenous-led farming projects seeking resources. Black Earth Farms is a collective of Black and Indigenous Farmers that works to decolonize the food system and provide fresh produce to the unhoused and others in need, including people protesting for racial justice in recent weeks. Other farms in this movement of farming as activism include:
“The people in the South are like seeds, each with the potential to grow and spread more seeds, for more growth: creating gardens and forests of themselves—lawns of living. They are planted in their lives.” –"Fannie Lou Hamer, Crabgrass Politician,” in SNCC’s The Movement, August 1965. https://www.crmvet.org/docs/mvmt/6508mvmt.pdf.
Fannie Lou Hamer. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html
Freedom Farm Cooperative. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html
Sunflower County, Mississippi Sewing Co-op. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html