Adrian Lipscombe, chef-owner of Uptowne Café and Bakery in La Crosse, Wisconsin, noticed something unusual happening after the death of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. She began receiving anonymous donations and Venmo payments from acquaintances and strangers (mostly white women, she said) including messages such as, “for your emotional labor” and sometimes without a message at all.
She was unsure what to do with the money, until she had a moment of clarity the next morning: “If I’m going to accept this money, I have to do something with it,” she said. “I’m going to buy land and have it be Black-owned land.”
The goal of Lipscombe’s project is to preserve and share Black agricultural traditions and foodways by purchasing land, operating a working farm and creating a “sanctuary” that serves as a space to document and preserve Black agricultural practices. She’s looking to connect with Black farmers, figure out who’s still out there, collect their traditional ways of planting and copy that on the land.
By the end of that day on June 7, the 40 Acres & a Mule GoFundMe campaign was online, and in the first 10 days had received more than half of her goal of $100,000, including an early donation by Organic Valley. Today, the goal has been bumped up to $250,000 and has raised more than $100,000. The contributions made to the fundraiser will cover funds to purchase land, pay taxes and buy farm tools. Anything beyond that will be made available to Black organizations concentrating on preserving Black foodways and supporting Black farmers.
“In the farming industry and agriculture industry, Blacks account for less than 1% of ownership, but less than 1% of farmers in it,” Lipscombe told HuffPost. “During COVID and the stress that we are having now in our agricultural field, the numbers are dwindling even further.”
The phrase “40 acres and a mule” is based on a promise made after the Civil War by Union general William T. Sherman that every freed enslaved person’s family would receive 40 acres of land (later on in the deal, a mule was tossed in for good measure). But three months later, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the order was repealed by his successor Andrew Johnson and the land was taken back.
“We’re filling a very large gap within agriculture on Black foodways,” Lipscombe said, “be it connecting farmers to grants, trusts or loans that they may not have known about.” That education is also about documenting the history that Lipscombe says “has not been collected on a larger span, especially in the present time.”
“What am I leaving our future generations to see? What stories are we leaving them to learn from, adapt and to understand? That they have rights, and they have freedoms, and they have space to be able to take up?”
According to Lipscombe, “This land will be a space to teach others how to farm and stress the importance of Black farms. The land will tell the story of how Blacks grew food through our ancestral ways into today.”
When Lipscombe thinks about the power of Black land ownership, she thinks back to her great-grandfather, who was known for buying land, and purchased property for his kids. “It was instilled in me that land equals security, freedom and ownership and part of the nation.”
Lipscombe, who has a background in architecture, does not have her eye on a specific piece of land yet, but she’s building the foundation of the program to ensure its long-term success. To her, this is not just about where the property is located but who owns it, soil quality and additional factors. “What indigenous nation was on this piece of property? That plays a significant part too, and part of our mission is always to respect the land,” Lipscombe said.
Documenting the importance of Black foodways is now more critical than ever. According to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, which is a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them, the U.S. had over 48,000 Black farmers, which accounts for 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million food producers. The findings show that the proportion of Black-operated farms, however, decreased from the prior survey in 2012, when 35,000 of the 2 million farms in the U.S. were Black-operated. Those Black-owned farms account for 4.7 million acres of land, which is 0.5% of total farmland in the U.S. The majority of these farms are sitting on fewer than 180 acres of land.
Black farmers have historically met resistance, struggling to get government assistance from the USDA and being denied loans. It’s estimated that from 1910 to 1997, 90% of land owned by African Americans was lost due to a legal term called “heirs property,” which describes land that was owned by an ancestor who died without leaving a will ― it’s the leading cause of involuntary land loss among African Americans. While a rule to amend this has been passed in eight states, factors such as these have been amplified during this time of COVID-19. The agriculture industry has taken significant hits since the downturn, with Black farmers struggling to get access to receiving COVID-19 aid.
Lipscombe wonders what farms might look like today if the “40 acres and a mule” order wasn’t taken back, if all that land was still owned by Black landowners. What would Black foodways look like, and what would their legacy be?
“What am I leaving our future generations to see? What stories are we leaving them to learn from, adapt and to understand? That they have rights, and they have freedoms, and they have space to be able to take up?” Lipscombe asked. “We have to hunt down that legacy and look for it, as we have to hunt down and find out who we are through taking a DNA test to find out where we’re exactly from, to find our identity.”
Lipscombe hopes that 40 Acres & a Mule can help to preserve the storytelling of these legacies, and that these answers will become more known to all.