African-American history of agriculture in the United States

Black cotton farming family (c. 1890s).
Black cotton working convicts (1911).
African American farmer in corn field, Alachua County, Florida (1913)
Black female sharecropper picking cotton (1939).

The role of African Americans in the agricultural history of the United States was extremely important, and given that the majority of blacks were employed in agriculture in the United States particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, represents a major part of their history and the economic progress of the nation.


Eighteenth century

Plantation owners brought mass supplies of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean and Mexico to farm the fields during cotton harvests.[1] Black women and children were also enslaved in the industry.[2]

Nineteenth century

Cotton farming became a major area of racial conflict in the history of the United States, particularly during the nineteenth century. Southern black cotton farmers faced discrimination from the north, and many white Democrats were concerned about how many of them were being employed in the US cotton industry and the dramatic growth of black landowners.[3][4] They urged white farmers in the south to take control of the industry, which from time to time resulted in strikes by black cotton pickers; for instance blacks led by the Colored Farmer's Association (CFA) strikers from Memphis organized a strike in Lee County in 1891, which resulted in much violence.[2] Black cotton farmers were very important to entrepreneurs which emerged during industrialization in the United States, particularly Henry Ford.[5] The United States Emancipation Proclamation came into power on January 1, 1863, allowing a "new journey for people of African ancestry to participate in the U.S. Agriculture Industry in a new way."[6]

Twentieth century

The conditions for black cotton farmers gradually improved during the twentieth century. Ralph J. Bunche, an expert in Negro suffrage in the United States, observed in 1940 that "many thousands of black cotton farmers each year now go to the polls, stand in line with their white neighbors, and mark their ballots independently without protest or intimidation, in order to determine government policy toward cotton production control."[7] However, discrimination towards blacks continued as it did in the rest of society, and isolated incidents often broke out. On 25 September 1961 Herbert Lee, a black cotton farmer and voter-registration organizer, was shot on the head by a white State legislator in Liberty, Missouri.[8] Yet the cotton industry continued to be very important for blacks in the southern United States, much more so than for whites. By the late 1920s around two-thirds of all African-American tenants and almost three-fourths of the croppers worked on cotton farms.[9] 3 out of every 4 black farm operators earned at least 40% of their income from cotton farming during this period.[9] Studies conducted during the same period indicated that 2 in 3 black women from black landowning families were involved in cotton farming.[10]

The cotton industry in the United States hit a crisis in the early 1920s. Cotton and tobacco prices collapsed in 1920 following overproduction and the boll weevil pest wiped out the sea island cotton crop in 1921. Annual production slumped from 1,365,000 bales in the 1910s to 801,000 in the 1920s.[11] In South Carolina, Williamsburg County production fell from 37,000 bales in 1920 to 2,700 bales in 1922 and one farmer in McCormick County produced 65 bales in 1921 and just 6 in 1922.[11] As a result of the devastating harvest of 1922, some 50,000 black cotton workers left South Carolina, and by the 1930s the state population had declined some 15%, largely due to cotton stagnation.[11] However, it wasn't the collapse of prices or pests which resulted in the mass decline of African American employment in agriculture in the American south. The mechanization of agriculture is undoubtedly the most important reason why many blacks moved to northern American cities in the 1940s and 1950s during the "Great Migration" as mechanization of agriculture was introduced, leaving many unemployed.[12] The Hopson Planting Company produced the first crop of cotton to be entirely planted, harvested and baled by machinery in 1944.[12]

Twenty-first century

In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture vowed to pay some forty thousand black farmers $1.2 billion in total, as a compensation for years of undue discrimination. Though funds were intended to be distributed by the end of 2012, the black farmers had yet to receive the designated remuneration by March 2013.[13] In all, farmers in Pigford I who filed timely claims had received over $1 billion in payments. More than 60,000 farmers submitted late claim petitions in Pigford I. Late claimants in Pigford I were able to receive $1.1 billion in payments in the Pigford II claims process. 33,000 Black farmers in Pigford II received decision letters dated August 30, 2013, resulting from the late claims process that closed on May 11, 2012. About 18,000 Pigford II claims were eventually decided in favor of the farmers and 15,000 claims were denied.[14]

In popular culture

James Hopkinsons Plantation slaves planting sweet potatoes (c. 1862)

"Cotton picking" was often a subject which was mentioned in songs by African-American blues and jazz musicians in the 1920s–1940s, reflecting their grievances. In 1940, jazz pianist Duke Ellington composed "Cotton Tail" and blues musician Lead Belly wrote "Cotton Fields". In 1951, Big Mama Thornton wrote "Cotton Picking Blues." A number of blues and jazz musicians had worked on cotton plantations. Blues pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins for instance had once been a tractor driver on a Mississippi plantation before enjoying a successful career with Muddy Waters.[12] Lord Buckley once sang a song titled "Black Cross", pertaining to an educated black farmer murdered by a mob comprising white men.[15]


  1. Foley, Neil (1997). The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in the Cotton Culture of Central Texas. University of California Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-520-91852-8. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  2. 1 2 Walker, Melissa; Dunn, Jeanette R.; Dunn, Joe P. (1 January 2003). Southern Women at the Millennium: A Historical Perspective. University of Missouri Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8262-6456-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  3. Mccartney, John (20 July 1993). Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African American Political Thought. Temple University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-56639-145-0. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  4. Barnes, Donna A. (18 May 2011). The Louisiana Populist Movement, 1881-1900. LSU Press. p. 1851. ISBN 978-0-8071-3935-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  5. Skrabec, Quentin R. (11 March 2013). The Green Vision of Henry Ford and George Washington Carver: Two Collaborators in the Cause of Clean Industry. McFarland. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-7864-6982-6. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  6. "Freedom's Eve". Black Agriculture. Retrieved June 5, 2013.
  7. Lawson, Steven F. (1 January 1999). Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944 - 1969. Lexington Books. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7391-0087-5. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  8. Green, Ruthie (August 2012). A Chain of Events: A Black Woman's Perspective on Our Rise to Prominence from Slavery to the White House. iUniverse. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-4697-7390-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. 1 2 Myrdal, Gunnar (1995). Black and African-American Studies: American Dilemma, the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Transaction Publishers. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-4128-1510-9. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  10. Sharpless, Rebecca (1999). Fertile ground, narrow choices: women on Texas cotton farms, 1900-1940. UNC Press Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8078-4760-2. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  11. 1 2 3 Edgar, Walter (1998). South Carolina: a history. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 485. ISBN 978-1-57003-255-4. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  12. 1 2 3 "Cotton Pickin' Blues". Mississippi Blues Commission. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  13. Whaley, Natelege (March 18, 2013). "Black Farmers Still Waiting for Money From $1.2 Billion Settlement". BET.
  14. Black Farmers Lawsuits are closed Black Farmers Lawsuit Update – Part II Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine., Greene County Democrat, October 30, 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  15. Swiss, Thomas (2009). Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World. U of Minnesota. pp. 46–. ISBN 9780816660995.

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