Chef looks to rectify broken promise of '40 acres and a mule' by raising money to buy land to help Black farmers

·National Reporter & Producer
·8 min read

Chef Adrian Lipscombe was startled last spring when the unsolicited donations began arriving at her Wisconsin cafe and bakery.

Just days had passed since the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and checks and envelopes containing cash started showing up.

“People were sending me money, and it wasn't for anything,” Lipscombe told Yahoo News.

Accompanying nationwide calls for an end to police brutality against African Americans, a trend was underway to support Black-owned businesses, including Lipscombe’s restaurant, the Uptowne Café & Bakery. The donations started with a mysterious $100 check in the mail and then more donations through Venmo began pouring in. But instead of frivolously spending the steadily accumulating funds on herself, the Texas native decided to put the money toward what she sees as a decades-old debt to the nation’s Black farmers.

“I needed to put it towards something … and one thing that I noticed working in [Wisconsin] is that we didn't have a lot of Black farmers,” she said, noting that less than 2 percent of farmers nationwide are Black. “So I said, ‘I am going to start an initiative that's going to look at buying Black land, but also preserving the legacy of Black farmers and the legacy of Black food ways.’”

Chef Adrian Lipscombe (40 Acres & a Mule Instagram)
Chef Adrian Lipscombe (40 Acres & a Mule Instagram)

So in June of last year, Lipscombe launched the “40 Acres & a Mule Project,” a reference to the broken promise of reparations for American slaves following the Civil War. The project’s goal was to buy 40 acres of land to develop “a safe haven to secure the legacy” of Black agricultural heritage, according to its website.

Shortly after launching the initiative, Lipscombe set up a GoFundMe page, and in less than five months, she was able to purchase 38 acres of land in St. Helena, S.C., in partnership with Muloma Heritage, with the proceeds. Buoyed by that success, she plans to partner with other groups and buy more land in places like upstate New York, rural Texas and some Western states, with the goal of eventually developing it into expansive farms that will benefit Black farmers.

In its first year, her project has raised more than $150,000, which she plans to use to pay property taxes, surveying costs and as a downpayment in St. Helena for the construction of a visitors center where Black farmers can learn about the history of the industry.

“This initiative of ‘40 Acres’ is just a start for me,” Lipscombe said. The average cost of an acre of land in the U.S. starts at just over $3,000, and can go for as much as $10,000-$15,000, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, depending on several factors, including the soil and topography.

Rice field in South Carolina (Getty Images)
Rice field in South Carolina (Getty Images)

The idea of attempting to rectify the injustice of slavery through the apportionment of land is not new. Just a few months before the Civil War in January of 1865, Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which set aside land along the Southeast coast for Black Americans who had served in the war so “each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” This plan later became known as the promise of “40 acres and a mule,” a commitment to reparations that never came to fruition.

“The order explicitly called for the settlement of Black families on confiscated land, encouraged freedmen to join the Union army to help sustain their newly won liberty, and designated a general officer to act as inspector of settlements,” Barton Myers, a history professor at Texas Tech University, wrote in New Georgia Encyclopedia.

As a result of Sherman’s order, roughly 40,000 Black Americans were settled. But it proved short-lived after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, as his successor, President Andrew Johnson, overturned Sherman’s directive in the fall of 1865, and returned most of the land to the planters who had owned it.

With that bitter legacy in mind, the “40 Acres and a Mule Project” seeks to foster Black equity by reclaiming land that was promised, then denied. Lipscombe, of course, is not the only person to have concluded that purchasing farmland can be a means for finding refuge and redemption.

Last summer, two Black women from Georgia purchased 96 acres of land in order to create a “safe haven” from oppression, naming the fledgling community Freedom.

“It’s now time for us to get our friends and family together and build for ourselves,” Ashley Scott, a realtor from Stonecrest, Ga., who serves as the president of the new area, said in a September interview with Yahoo News. “That’s the only way we’ll be safe. And that’s the only way that this will work. We have to start bringing each other together.”

Migrant farmers prepare a truck for travel to Onley, Va., in July 1940, in a photo from the New York Public Library.
Migrant farmers prepare a truck for travel to Onley, Va., in July 1940, in a photo from the New York Public Library. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

By 1910, Black Americans owned more than 14 million acres of land 一 more than any other time in the history of the United States. Due in part to the Great Migration and discriminatory policies, Black land ownership declined by 90 percent by the start of the 21st century.

“The leading cause of Black involuntary land loss” recognized by the USDA was “heirs’ property,” ProPublica reported — land that has been inherited without a will that made owners “vulnerable to laws and loopholes that allow speculators and developers to acquire their property.” All told, heirs’ property made up “more than a third of Southern black-owned land — 3.5 million acres, worth more than $28 billion.”

While Lipscombe’s interest in Black farming stems from her business, she says the interest in building it up has been steadily growing.

“It's a daily thing, where people are asking, ‘How do I get land to do agriculture and farming?’” she said. “There's no easy answer out there. There’s no handing of a handbook. So we’re hoping to be that conduit and connection, to be able to help people understand not just how to farm, but our history in farming.”

The hard truth, however, is that without specific initiatives to preserve Black agricultural entrepreneurship, that culture is on the verge of going extinct. Just 1.3 percent of 3.4 million farmers in the U.S., or 45,508, are Black, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ninety-five percent, by comparison, are white.

But owning a farm alone does not equate to riches for most Black farmers. On average, they make less than $40,000 annually, compared to the $190,000 earned by white farmers.

Fresh produce from greenhouse farm (Getty Images)
Fresh produce from greenhouse farm (Getty Images)

Yet Black people owning land equates to owning a “part of that history,” something no one can take away, Kimberly Eison Simmons, co-director for the Institute for African American Studies and Research and assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, told Yahoo News.

“It's about place and the significance of place,” she said. “You’re owning all of that story and the connection to that place and the things that happen there — the good, the bad, all of that.”

A provision of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was passed by Congress without any Republican votes, was a $4 billion debt-relief program for Black farmers. It was seen by experts as the “most significant legislation for Black farmers since [the] Civil Rights Act,” but a federal judge temporarily blocked the payments from going forward. The program, also known as Section 1005, was ultimately held up because a white farmer from Florida claimed it violated his right to equal protection under the law.

“Section 1005’s rigid, categorical, race-based qualification for relief is the antithesis of flexibility,” Judge Marcia Morales Howard wrote in her opinion. “The debt relief provision applies strictly on racial grounds, irrespective of any other factor. Every person who identifies him or herself as falling within a socially disadvantaged group who has a qualifying farm loan with an outstanding balance as of January 1, 2021, receives up to 120 percent debt relief — and no one else receives any debt relief.”

For many Black Americans, that decision was an echo of past wrongs.

“The thousands of acres of land that were given to (and the thousands taken back from) the descendants of enslaved African Americans is an enduring legacy here in South Carolina,” Todd Shaw, an associate professor of political science and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina said. “So, any effort to return land to Black farmers represents a very important effort at restorative justice.”

Enslaved Black Americans working on a plantation in the 19th century. (Getty Images)
Enslaved Black Americans working on a plantation in the 19th century. (Getty Images)

Reparations have long been a controversial topic for most Americans. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from June 2020 found that only 1 in 5 Americans supported reparations in the form of “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” Of that number, nearly 80 percent of Republicans said they did not support reparations, while one-third of Democrats did.

Evanston, Ill. made history this year, becoming the first U.S. city to approve a reparations plan for its Black residents. The Evanston City Council approved the first phase of a 10-year, $10 million commitment toward restitution for Black residents who suffered from discriminatory housing practices in the city between 1919 and 1969.

Several other cities and states across the country — including Providence, R.I., Asheville, N.C., Burlington, Vt., and California — have taken steps to introduce reparations to combat systemic racism in their communities.

For Lipscombe, land ownership represents the resiliency of the Black diaspora and needs to be protected, cultivated and preserved.

“In Black agriculture, we’ve got to look at the beginning and the harsh reality of how and why we got here,” she said.

Cover thumbnail photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images, VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Mondadori via Getty Images

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