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Rebels and survivors 

Blue mold and Klan threats, tomato virus and denied loans are just some of the obstacles local black farmers have faced in their long history on the land

Overcast mornings have been common throughout North Carolina this year. The extremes of storms and river-raising downpours contrasts with the last few years of drought. Out here in Wendell, just east of Raleigh in Johnston County, consider it another in a long list of challenges to the farmer. If you are a black farmer here, consider it the least of your worries.

Ask Andre Richardson, a black farmer for more than 30 years in this county, out this morning checking his tobacco crops for tobacco hornworms. He's a rebel and a survivor with much to tell.

"You got challenges imposed by nature. You got challenges imposed by what used to be racism and it's still out there. You really at the mercy of the Lord when you farming," he says.

In the long history of blacks engaging in agriculture for their own purposes, the statistics have been against them. What should have been a fruitful experience in the standard system the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up to support farming has contributed to decreased productivity and land loss for the black farmer. A now 5-year-old, $600 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by black farmers against the federal agriculture department bears this out. The settlement resulted primarily in individual payments of $50,000--a payment Richardson turned down because it didn't come close to compensating him or others for past years of discrimination and loss.

"I thought the settlement was a slap in the face after 20 to 30 years of discrimination," says the 56-year-old farmer. "When I started farming back in the 1970s we had 25 to 30 full-time black farmers in this county. Now there is only one full-timer and that's me."

Others in this struggle have lost their land, financial livelihood and possibly spirit, but Richardson fights on against nature and an agricultural governance system that changes slowly--if at all. But on this day, the green and always hungry hornworms are his immediate concern, as he checks the rows under cloudy skies.

Tobacco hornworms are actually the caterpillar stage of the Carolina Sphinx moth or tobacco fly. Use of the terms worm and fly reflect how distinctly nefarious this pest is. A fat, light-green slug with a single, orange horn at its back end, they turn dark green and shrink once the pesticide, Orphene, kicks in. They fall off into the rows between the orderly stretches of tobacco plants--the one sure sign that the spraying of the previous day was effective. Row after row strewn with dead hornworms leaves Richardson confident to move on to the next field. Hopefully, the rains will hold off long enough today to get more spraying done,

"Never see a worm on top of the leaf. Gets up under the leaf so they can eat while it's raining or sun shining."

These hornworms are an ever-present nemesis lurking in the shadows just like the racism and discrimination so many black farmers have experienced. Only difference is, they are viewed as being of the Lord's design, while the discriminatory actions of man are not. Both, nevertheless, are roadblocks that Richardson and other surviving farmers have faced in their continued love affair with the land.

This love affair has had to put up with blue mold and Klan threats, tomato virus and denied loans, land swindles and unfair grading of tobacco for starts. But there is a resonating strength in his voice, a glowing aura of determination, and a significant family pride that persists.

A 15-mile slow procession on his decades' old John Deere tractor carries Richardson to land that he leases in Raleigh Hills, Wake County. This area has its own rich legacy of black land ownership, farming and loss. It is where a self-sufficient community of black agriculturalists sprung up after slavery.

Alvester Perry, 76, grew up farming with Richardson's father. He and Richardson talk shop over the availability of non-Roundup soybeans, preferring the cheaper non-genetically engineered brand this year. While Richardson moves on to spray Orphene in an attempt to head off another hornworm feeding frenzy on his tobacco field, Perry talks about how farming is in his blood.

His family's landownership has always been one of independence, not sharecropping. "This land here has been in the family since nineteen-five," he says. "My great-grandfather came out of slavery. After the Civil War they gave black people land and he got his share."

During and following the Civil War there was a redistribution of land. This corrective to slavery was addressed as the war proceeded state by state, city by city, and plantation by plantation by many Union officers--most notably, General William Tecumseh Sherman. Government mandate was implemented through later legislation that established the Freedmen's Bureau in the Department of the Interior.

W.E.B. Dubois expounds on this most challenging era of American history in his classic, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. He documents that, "the bill which finally passed the House, February 6 (after passing in the Senate January of 1866), extended the power of the Freedmen's Bureau to freedmen throughout the whole United States and provided for food and clothing for the destitute, a distribution of public lands among freedmen and white refugees in parcels not exceeding 40 acres each at a nominal rent and with an eventual chance of purchasing. The land assigned by Sherman was to be held for three years and then, if restored, other lands secured by rent or purchase."

This justifiable repair of the American social infrastructure met a massive backlash in the form of the establishment of Jim Crow laws, the removal of black legislators and the right to vote, the snatching of land and lynchings. This response, in part, came out of a resentment of black agricultural land ownership that manifests itself even today.

"We encountered that years ago here in Johnston County," Richardson says. "There was a sign in Smithfield, 'Welcome to KKK Country,' a huge sign just 20 years ago. We've had a cross burned in our yard. I've had insults thrown at me, especially during this lawsuit. It's still there. They more sneaky with it now.

"They don't want you to make it," he adds looking out over row after verdant row.

Griffin Todd Sr., Richardson's father-in-law, sits regally on a sofa in a small building at the crossroads of a rural black community, looking dapper in his white, Mandarin-collared shirt. He relates the tribulations he faced during tobacco sales, when white graders would often cheat him and other black farmers out of their due.

The sales came after the curing process and "pressing it out real pretty," he says and continues with his story:

"Hey, Mr. Grader," he called out to one of the men who set the value of the brown leaf, "How about coming over here a minute, please. This is my tobacco here and I got three piles they didn't grade properly, can you help me out on them? He said, 'Is this your tobacco?' I said, 'Yessir.' Do you know what he did? He reached down there to where the others were graded up to where I wanted them and cut the grade on those. It hurt me so bad."

Todd's son, Gilbert, heard these stories over and over again--so often that he became determined to do something about it. Now he works as one of the few black district managers of tobacco grading for the USDA in the region.

The conditions under which black farmers were subjected and the continuous loss of more and more farmers also drove Richardson to act. He says, "I didn't use to be this way, but I saw what was being done and had to do something."

It was as if that Mississippi Fred McDowell song took over:

You gotta move.

You gotta move.

You gotta move, chile.

You gotta move.

When the Lord gets ready you gotta move.

Richardson is now the president of the North Carolina chapter of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, which continues on in pursuit of equity for the many unremunerated for past discrimination and loss. He also sits on the board of the Durham Land Loss Prevention Project, which intercedes with grants and vital legal support to protect minority farmers.

What continues to drive his success as an independent farmer is represented in the blood--his 82-year-old father, David Richardson Sr. "I watched him work, how he act, how he carry himself, how he save money, how he farm," the younger farmer says.

The elder Richardson, after a shortened day on the tractor due to the weather, calls it as he's lived it: "Hard work on the farm causes you to meet up with nothing no harder than that work."

He would gather up 8- to 12-year-old kids to pick cucumbers. Let them keep half. One day, one of those kids returned to him as an adult and thanked him for the experience. That kid at the time was a major in the military.

David Richardson has eight kids of his own and purchased 280 acres back in the 1940s, establishing a farm life that eventually saw many of his kids through college. At the time, his purchase also made him one of the largest black farmers around. And it provided a gathering place for family celebrations--cookouts and reunions that now take place at his son Andre's.

Just last year, David Richardson became the first black to serve on the board of the Farm Services Agency, a body that determines the payouts for crop loss due to disasters such as the past years' droughts and payouts from the federal government. Vastly important to a man who has seen black farmers lose their farms over wagon wheels and mules.

Had blacks received their equitable share of those payments, they--along with loans--could have saved not just a farm, but also a strong institution of family values and a nurturing community full of potential. They could have forestalled the loss of human spirit.

What's really different between farming in David Richardson's day and his son's is not much, they'll both tell you. Although back then, the elder Richardson walked the fields with a metal dispenser dusting tobacco against hornworms. EndBlock

Darrell Stover, poet and writer, lives and works in Cary. His poetry was recently published in Beyond the Frontier: African-American Poetry for the 21st Century. He serves on the boards of the N.C. Writers Network and Raleigh Ensemble Players.

More by Darrell Stover

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