The Biden administration's efforts to give much-needed aid to Black farmers through the American Rescue Plan have highlighted the tremendous challenges these producers face while working the earth to raise their crops and families. Black and minority farmers are losing their land at a rapid pace, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withheld equal access to debt relief and as recently as 2017, the average full-time White farmer's agricultural income was more than seven times that of full-time Black farmers. Moreover, Black rural communities still struggle for access to adequate health care and education.
These inequalities are deeply rooted. Their sharecropper forebears were locked out of the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Act and Black farmers have had limited access to credit and markets for most of the 20th century. Yet the roots are deeper still since the first and largest group of Black farmers in the nation's history were the enslaved people who built America's wealth without ever seeing recompense for their suffering.
What is less known but just as relevant is that beside those enslaved people, antebellum America was also home to free Black men and women who worked their own farms and supported their families despite deep inequalities. Like minority farmers today, these antebellum Black farmers were locked in a fight for survival amid a legal system that often promoted their failure. Their story is an often overlooked chapter within a long history of injustice for Black farmers that the American Rescue Plan begins to acknowledge.
Since the colonial period, free Black people have lived in America. Some formerly enslaved people of African descent gained freedom through good conduct; some enslaved craftsmen could sometimes work toward self-purchase and a number were freed during the Revolutionary era when a few enslavers honored the ideals of liberty for all. Many free Black people could trace their freedom to a White enslaver-ancestor who fathered children with an enslaved partner — or victim — and chose to give his children freedom and sometimes land.
By the years just before the Civil War, there were roughly 262,000 free people of African descent living amid 4 million enslaved people in the slave states. Most free Blacks found security and work in cities like Charleston and New Orleans, where they carved out important positions in their cities' economies as artisans, craftspeople and laborers. But others lived outside cities and sought economic security as farmers.
James Cleveland was a free Black farmer living just outside Charleston. In 1850, he and his family worked 25 acres of their 250-acre tract to raise livestock, corn, potatoes and other foodstuffs primarily for their own consumption. In another district, Laviny Gowins, a free woman of mixed Indigenous, African and European descent, combined her efforts with five relatives who lived nearby. Working together, Gowins and her neighbors grew two bales of cotton and nearly 1,700 pounds of rice in 1860.
Although a few free Black farmers achieved planter-class status and used enslaved labor to grow wagon loads of rice or cotton to sell on the market, most did not. The majority were small farmers who, like Cleveland and Gowins, grew what they needed to survive and supplemented their household income as laborers or sold some of their farm surplus to nearby plantations.
Pursuing cash crops was a risky gamble that required precious resources. Like many nonelite White farmers, they often had little choice but to work land that was less desirable, and they labored with their own hands alongside spouses, children and neighbors to grow crops for their own tables. But unlike their poor White neighbors, free Black farmers lacked equal citizenship under the law and the protections that citizenship could give the fruits of their labor.
Still, the similarities between free Black and common-class White farmers were not lost on the antebellum body politic. In 1840, White men from upstate South Carolina spelled out their fears about the resemblance in a petition to the state legislature. Their complaint centered on enslaved people being freed and given enough property to begin supporting themselves: "Give the slave money or property which is its equivalent and you place it in his power at once to place himself beyond the reach of servitude — Money is Power, and none need live in servitude who can command it." If the practice continued, they argued, it would "in all but the name recognize the equality of the slave with the freeman."
Free Blacks' very presence and their ability to carve out economic security disturbed the slave regime. Enslavement's defenders argued that slavery was a "positive good" because Black people actually needed enslavement and Whites to care for them. Free Blacks — particularly those with economic positions that mirrored some Whites — were living contradictions to those ideas and Southern legislatures responded by tightening the legal restrictions on African Americans.
Slave states started aggressively limiting manumission, the legal process that freed enslaved people, in the early 19th century. Legislatures determined that only a jury, or in some cases only the state's legislature itself, could approve manumissions on an individual basis and only after testimony that the person was of good character and would support themselves.
Even when Black people could attain freedom, their rights were few. Virginia and South Carolina barred free Blacks from voting in the early colonial era, but some Southern colonies allowed free Black men to vote and kept the custom after the Revolution. That suffrage, like manumission, evaporated in the 19th century and the last holdout, North Carolina, closed the franchise to free Blacks in 1835.
Free Blacks were also unable to serve on juries or testify against a White person in court. Several slave states levied a "capitation" tax on them. The small annual tax was charged simply for being a free Black person and was said to encourage them to work. In truth, the capitation tax was designed as a hardship that might compel free Blacks to leave the state and failure to pay could result in enslavement.
By the 1850s, several slave states were debating expelling all free Black people. The historian Emily West has shown that this threat actually drove a small number of free Blacks to seek voluntary enslavement rather than be separated from family members who were still enslaved.
Such laws achieved their intended effects. The Southern free Black population's growth slowed through the mid-19th century and their security suffered, too. James Cleveland's family, for example, was set to inherit more land from a wealthier free Black relative but the courts failed Cleveland when White planters also made claims on the estate.
Even where authorities left free Black farmers alone, these farmers contended with racism that compounded their challenges. Because African Americans were cast by the white supremacist society as untrustworthy people who would not work without White oversight, free Blacks had less access to credit and those who did not own land had trouble finding ground to rent.
They faced incredible odds. Yet not only did free Black farmers often persevere despite laws designed to defeat them, their ability to support themselves and their families was a direct challenge to the slave regime's notions that Black inequality was simply reflected by the natural order.
Antebellum Black farmers outlived the slave regime itself and saw a moment of African American political power in Reconstruction. But that moment was all but extinguished by White supremacy's violent restoration in Jim Crow. In the Great Depression, Black farmers could do little when the New Deal bowed to White Southern segregationists' demands and excluded them from agricultural relief. Inequalities in the law have continued well into the 21st century as their access to USDA loans are still often delayed or denied. It is yet unclear just how much the American Rescue Plan will lift today's Black farmers, but at the least it is drawing attention to historic and lingering inequalities and our country's responsibility to fully redress them.
David W. Dangerfield is an assistant professor of history, at the University of South Carolina — Salkehatchie. This piece was written for The Washington Post.