How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland – And Why 1890 HBCUs Are Partially To Blame

Every good citizen makes his country’s honor his own, and cherishes it not only as precious but as sacred. He is willing to risk his life in its defense and is conscious that he gains protection while he gives it. – Andrew Jackson

Ukraine has been preparing for years for the eventual invasion that would come from Russia. It has been so even prior to Russia’s invasion and capture of Crimea in 2014. Why? Ukraine’s intelligence for one, President Vladamir Putin’s writings that expressed sentiment that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy of the 20th century, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, and because well that is WHO Russia is and has shown itself to be. It would have been more of a shock were Ukraine to act shocked at Russia invading more than Russia invading. Put another way, if Ike Turner slapped someone and they were surprised, who is crazier – them or Ike Turner?

This seems to be African America always when it comes to European America though. Constantly surprised by consistent behavior. Harlem, Houston’s Third Ward, New Orleans, Compton, Roxbury, so on and so forth. What do all of these have in common? They were once thriving African American strongholds until gentrification. Each time the gentrification wave came, African Americans in those communities were caught off guard, unable and unprepared to launch a counterattack (or offensive).

In a recent article by The New Republic titled, “How the Government Helped White Americans Steal Black Farmland”, in detailed fashion we learned about one of the most vital departments of any country, agriculture, which impacts land, development, life expectancy, water and mineral rights, and so much more was used by the U.S. government through the USDA to spearhead the wealth transfer of African American farmland into European America’s hands. “Black farmers not only lost out on these massive subsidies—they have been effectively disenfranchised within the modern agricultural system. Under conditions of savage oppression, Black families emerged in the early 1900s with almost 20 million acres of farmland and “the largest amount of property they would ever own within the United States,” according to the historian Manning Marable. Since then, they have lost roughly 90 percent of that acreage” says New Republic. According to New Republic, there will be a study put out soon by the American Economic Association’s Papers and Proceedings journal that will value the land lost between 1920 and 1997 at approximately $326 billion. An amount that is equal to over 20 percent of African America’s $1.6 trillion buying power. The $326 billion valuation excludes the 160 million acres that Africa Americans who were enslaved were owed post Civil War from Special Order No. 15 that guaranteed the former enslaved population of around 4 million 40 acres apiece, but was reneged upon by the U.S. government ultimately making the loss arguably worth trillions today. Yes, trillions. The economic loss has had catastrophic social, economic, and political echoing impacts for generations. “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality”, Malcolm X said. This alluded to the belief that every revolution was and is about land given that it impacts everything that lays to bear on any group, community, country, and diaspora. African American institutions, especially those focused on agriculture, should have made the protection of African American land a strategic priority.

Enter the 1890 HBCUs, which were created with the Second Morrill Act of 1890. There were 19 HBCUs created under this act (and two HBCUs which were created under the First Morrill Act of 1862, which primarily created HWCU agriculturally focused colleges and universities). For all intents and purpose, 1862 and 1890 colleges and universities were created with an emphasis on agriculture. Tuskegee, through the political clout of Booker T. Washington, is the only private HBCU that has land-grant status. The other two private universities that are land-grant institutions are Cornell and MIT. Among the 1890 HBCUs, they have three of the six HBCU law schools housed at Florida A&M University, Southern University System, and University of the District of the Columbia. Despite this, based on their websites none of three have any focus/concentration on agricultural law. This means that more than likely African American farmers and landowners are in the hands of lawyers who are both non-African American and trained at an HWCU/PWI institution. Given historical behavior, it is not hard to assume that those lawyers do not work in the best interest of our community. It also once again poses the question of the lack of strategy among African America at using its institutions to protect its social, economic, and political interest. Stemming the tide requires a change in HBCU strategy and realizing the purpose of our institutions is to serve and protect the other parts of the African American ecosystem.

There are a few pointed pivots that 1890 HBCUs can do to serve and protect the agricultural interest of African America. First, the three 1890 law schools (FAMU, SUS, and UDC) can create an African American agriculture concentration in their law schools. Again, to be clear, an African American agriculture concentration is not the same as general agriculture, which tends to be from a Eurocentric perspective. Focusing on agricultural law from the African American agricultural perspective and interest is paramount. Secondly, the three 1890 law schools can create a joint organization for African American Agriculture Defense Fund that will serve as a means to fund law defense for African American farmers, lobbying efforts towards African American agriculture, and regional African American agriculture legal research. Thirdly, all of the 1890 HBCUs needs to create master’s programs in agricultural law and policy focused on their respective local, state, and regional geographies. They can then push for alumni to create scholarships that will allow for a pipeline of agriculture majors to pursue law degrees at the three 1890 HBCU law schools. Lastly (but not all), a concerted emphasis on offering courses, lectures, and seminars on the purchase and maintenance of African American land ownership emphasized to students and alumni and available to our entire community.

If HBCUs are not going to be part of the institutional ecosystem built to serve and protect African American interest, then what is their purpose? Without protecting African American land, what little is left of it, then what is to come of African America? Protecting African American land takes more than just HBCUs, it also requires African American owned financial institutions, real estate organizations, families, communities, and more. However, 1890 HBCUs must take the vanguard and protect what we have so that we can start to stem the tide and move the trend upward again. The notion that land theft and assaults have been happening to African America for 100 years and we still have yet to respond with a counterattack or an offensive of our own is telling. HBCUs also are becoming more and more vulnerable to their land and the communities they are in, which are typically African American, being gentrified and the use of predatory land theft and assaults heightened. Howard University, Prairie View A&M University, and Texas Southern University all are witnessing land theft and assaults on the land surrounding their institutions. Unfortunately, there was and continues to be no unified strategic planning to protect them. In Howard University’s case, white residents have even been so gall as to suggest that the school be moved. This is just one example of over a century of attitudes that have helped lead to others justifying land assaults on African American landownership. We know who are our enemies are, we have the intelligence and tools, now is the time to start urgently preparing our troops to defend our lands.

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