Clarissa Donnelly DeRoven
People wander into the Spring Lake Community Center on a cloudy December afternoon. The air is thick with unseasonably high humidity. The small town of Spring Lake Community Center is located just outside Fort Bragg, Cumberland County. It has about 11,000 residents. Many people greet one another with familiar smiles as they walk in.
The community center smells savory — of onions, garlic and ham — but before visitors can follow their noses, they must first stop at a table overlaid with a yellow cloth to have their temperatures taken and to fill out a contact tracing form.
“Keep the pen,” instructs Doris Lucas, one of the volunteers in charge of Covid protocols at the event, the 20th anniversary party for the Sandhills Family Heritage Association. Officially established in 2001, SFHA was an organization that celebrates and strengthens the relationship between rural Black residents of the Sandhills region in North Carolina and the land where they call home.
The agency provides services to all rural Black communities, but they are particularly focused on the preservation of the history of Black farmers in the region, as well as connecting and training younger Black residents.
“The first thing you think about when you think of land, you think about food, because that was our food source,” said SFHA’s 80-year-old founder Ammie Jenkins. “Not only was it our food source, it was also our income.”
The organization’s twin goals are cultural preservation and economic self-sufficiency.
The organization has faced significant health disparities since its inception. In 2015, for example, nearly 30 percent of Cumberland County residents had low access to grocery stores, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer were high.
Over the course of their 20-year history, organizers have taught classes on healthy cooking and shopping, as well as workshops on how you can make your own canning and quilting. In 2007, the organization started the first farmers market approved by the city, the Sandhills Farmers Market of Spring Lake, where many of the vendors are SFHA members.
“We try to invite people in for their mental health, to help people just relax and do something that they enjoy doing, and at the same time it helps us with our food program,” Lucas explained. In addition to leading the Covid team, she’s also in charge of the HealthWise program.
A 2017 study by the Cumberland County Health Department declared the group’s work successful. The Cumberland County Health Department cited SFHA as a key contributor to lowering the county’s rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Even before those results came in, a researcher at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia conducted a case study of SFHA, aiming to deduce how it became an “effective agent of social change.”
“Perhaps the key contribution of SFHA to social innovation is that it offers a vision of development in which economic well-being is attained through preserving and drawing on the local cultural heritage, rather than at the cost of disregarding or even destroying it,” wrote the study’s author, Yogesh Ghore.
“It illustrates not only a reclaiming of African American heritage and a resolution to the past wrongs that drove people off the land, but also a demonstration of how a local economy can be built on deeply grounded cultural connections, in a region which is otherwise dominated by industry, military and history of economic dependence.”
Many Black residents in this area can trace their roots. Some relatives were enslaved. Many more are aware of freed ancestors that gained land in the period immediately following emancipation.
By 1920, there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the U.S. who collectively owned between 15 and 20 million acres of land, larger than the entire state of West Virginia. This huge rise in land ownership was immediately followed by a sharp decline over 100 years.
SFHA’s origins lay in the 1980s, when Jenkins began exploring her own family history of land ownership, and loss. She spent the first 13 years of her life out in the country, “two miles away from the nearest house.” Her family had a house on 18-acres in a place called McRae Town, a 600+ acre plot of land in rural Harnett County. Her great grandfather, who was enslaved, founded the neighborhood.
In 1954, her father died. Her mother decided to move the family from Spring Lake to be near their extended family. They lost their land.
In similar situations, untold numbers of Black landowners across the South lost their land. Some were chased off by racist mobs, while others lost their land through something called “heirs’ property,” a legal process whereby a landowner who dies without a will has all their land passed on to surviving family members.
“If the original heirs then die without a will, and their descendants inherit the original heirs’ interests in the land, each additional heir now has an ownership interest in the entire property,” explains the Farmland Access Legal Toolkit, a project of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School.
“After a couple generations, there could be 25 heirs, each having an ownership interest in the land. There could be 50 owners after another generation. Yet, the deed to the land will still show the original ancestor, now perhaps the current heirs’ great grandfather, as the owner.”
Land becomes difficult to lose as land becomes less and less official ownership. If someone — or many someones — don’t pay taxes on the property, the land can fall into default and be repossessed. If one person decides to sell their stake to a speculator, that person can then petition a court to auction off the entire parcel.
Through these processes and others, Black landowners lost a massive share of their land, an estimated 90 percent. SFHA aims to help people regain what they lost.
A Return to the Farm
Steve Moore grew on a tobacco plant in Beaufort County.
“My dad was a farmer,” Moore said. “He also had corn, livestock. He also worked at the farmers market and the vegetables. He probably did that for 60 years at least.” After school, Moore and his five siblings would all come home and work on the farm.
“When I left school — high school — and went off to college, I said, ‘I’m done with farming,’” Moore remembered. He studied at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, got a degree in electrical engineering, and moved to Virginia where he worked on nuclear test equipment at Newport News Shipbuilding.
Moore and Delilah decided to take their retirement after 40 years. He realized how much he missed the land. He felt the region calling to him.
Moore farms on a large piece of land near Brooks Magnum Road, Harnett County. His nephew owns the land. He raised goats there until 2019, when a pair dogs broke into the farm and killed the flock.
“(My nephew) has a construction business, which keeps him pretty busy, and he said, ‘Hey unc, if you want to farm this land, you’re welcome to,’” Moore said.
Fertilized by years of goat droppings, Moore now uses the soil to grow veggies — collard greens, kale, turnips, broccoli. He’s also building a greenhouse.
“It’s therapy,” he said. “It keeps us active, me and the wife.”
Moore and his wife aren’t official members of SFHA, but last summer, they sold produce at the Spring Lake Farmers Market — cantaloupe, watermelon, peas. They’re also well versed in the ways heirs’ properties can lead to land loss.
The land Moore’s father farmed — the land he grew up on — was heir land.
“Which meant everybody in the family had a right to it, there was no wills. But my dad was the only one paying taxes on it for years and years and years because he farmed it,” Moore said. His father died four year ago. Since then, Moore and his brothers have continued paying the taxes, but that doesn’t mean the land is securely theirs: Moore’s father had 13 brothers and sisters.
“Even though we’re paying taxes for years and years, family members that have not paid taxes on it still have their share as far as their rights to that land. And if we don’t pay taxes, the state takes it, or the county, and they auction it off,” Moore said. “I believe it’s set up to take land from people.”
Home, Memories and Inheritance
Ms. Jenkins, as she’s affectionately known, was very deliberate as she designed the program for SFHA’s 20th anniversary. It all started with songs.
“You notice our logo was the Sankofa bird, and that Sankofa bird is representative of an African philosophy of learning from your past to understand your present, so you can build a better future,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know if anyone else noticed the sequence, but we felt it would flow if we started with Africa, slavery, and then negro spirituals, and then a Gospel tune.”
After the musical introduction, Spring Lake’s mayor, and mayor-elect, spoke. Other community partners included volunteers, workers, and others. All thanked SFHA and its staff for their efforts.
Marvin Lucas, a Democratic state representative, took the microphone after dinner and announced that SFHA had been granted $250,000 in the state budget for the renovation of Spring Lake Civic Center. The center was donated to the group in February 2002. The building served as a critical location of organizing during the civil rights movement, but has since fallen into disrepair. The funding will enable SFHA to bring it up to code and use it for programming.
Brian Armstrong, Fayetteville’s white developer, was the first to speak up. Through a series of events, he’d come to own property under which sat a cemetery. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in construction, he said. The cemetery is often a family plot. Builders will work with living relatives to either put a small fence around it or relocate the bodies.
Armstrong was approached in 2019 by a local business interested in the land. The town of Spring Lake received their preliminary plan. That’s when Armstrong got a call from a city official, who wanted to put him in touch with Jenkins.
The two sat down for a meeting in the mayor’s office.
“(Jenkins) said, ‘Mr. Armstrong, do you know there’s a cemetery on the property?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am I do.’ She said, ‘Do you know the details?’ I said, ‘I do not.’”
The area, called the Deerfield Cemetery, was a place where the bodies of people formerly enslaved at the McDiarmid turpentine plantation and their ancestors were buried.
Jenkins discovered that her ancestors were involved in the plantation through research of her family history. She’s been told that some were buried in the cemetery, though there aren’t any headstones.
Armstrong, Jenkins and others went on the land. He said that he would not build anything on the land. He wanted to find out if SFHA would consider the cemetery as a gift.
“Of course we said yes,” Jenkins said.
Armstrong was invited to the event, but she kept the announcement under wraps. Guests gasped as he announced that he was giving SFHA a deed of the land. Jenkins accepted the document and guests stood up to give a standing ovation.
“It all feels real good,” Jenkins said after the ceremony. “We feel so pleased, and so blessed to have received these two pieces of property that have been gifted to the organization that will help us tell the story about rural African American heritage in this area.”
“Our existence depends on the land,” she said. “It’s your home. It’s your memories. It’s your inheritance.”
The Daily Yonder is a news and commentary site that provides analysis, commentary, and news about rural America. You can see daily coverage at dailyyonder.com.
Source: Successful Farming