The Black Belt Justice Center uses legal advocacy, public education, and community organizing to address structural barriers that hinder African American farmers, landowners, and communities in the Black Belt region of the US from achieving economic prosperity and holistic wellness.
A project of the Black Belt Justice Center, the Acres of Ancestry / Black Agrarian Fund uses education, curation and sale of eco-cultural art, and community organizing to raise awareness about African American land loss, support retention and return of land, and ultimately preserve an ancestral value paradigm anchored in spirit-culture, collective land stewardship, and ecological harmony.
Black Farmers Have Been Robbed of Land. A New Bill Would Give Them a “Quantum Leap” Toward Justice.
Where do ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in your work?
“The Black Imagination is regenerative when boundless and interdependent.”
—Acres of Ancestry Initiative / Black Agrarian Fund
Ecology, culture, and spirituality are the embodiment of our work. The Acres of Ancestry Initiative re-centers ecocultural traditions in collaboration with rural communities throughout the Black Belt region through digital storytelling, cooperative e-commerce, ecocultural heritage and textile arts production, and traditional knowledge apprenticeship programs to support cultural regeneration and establish a sustainable funding stream to seed the Black Agrarian Fund (BAF). BAF, a community-controlled land and financial cooperative, supports the communal aspirations of securing land for landless returning generation farmers and ecopreneurs; provides non-extractive capital and legal support to legacy farmers and heir property land stewards who desire to protect their family lands from partition sales, tax sales, foreclosures, and USDA public auctions; and creates a sustainable financial stream to revivify community wealth-building efforts throughout the Black Belt region. Our work preserves our ancestors’ value paradigm anchored in collective land tenure, spirit-culture reclamation, and ecological harmony.
What brought you to this work?
As granddaughters of Black agrarian women lightbearers who repurposed sufferings into protective coverings, we carry solutions to restore ecological harmony in our imaginations, hearts, and hands. Collective leadership, spirituality, and ecology are the patchwork pieces left by our grandmothers to create abundant shared destinies. This spiritual connection to our Earth and African Diasporic cosmologies and traditions expands our abilities to access timelines, lineages, and dimensions to create new, life-affirming realities and ecosystems.
What’s one thing you want people to know about your work?
We see ourselves, in the truest sense, as a mutual aid ecosystem. In co-visioning and developing our web of cooperative economy, we are intentionally non-hierarchical and multigenerational, and value communal and personal sovereignty.
What is the biggest accomplishment and challenge in your work last year?
Deeply inspired by the Freedom Quilting Bee paradigm—cooperative, collective, community-centered, and rooted in self-determination—our Return of the Bees Multimedia Project launched along a red clay dirt road in Alberta, Alabama, with interviews with three legacy members of the Freedom Quilting Bee (a textilecraft cooperative founded by Black women agrarian-artisans in Alberta, Alabama, in 1966). The Return of the Bees Multimedia Project traverses the history, evolution, and futurism of southern Black agrarian material culture, including fiber arts and heritage quiltmaking, while revering the culture bearers who carry these traditions through documentation and cooperative economy. We were truly fortunate to meet and build with these community resources and culture keepers. Our work continues to deepen with the legacy members of the Freedom Quilting Bee. The Acres of Ancestry Initiative / Black Agrarian Fund e-commerce site will include Lazy Gal Queen Kivvers, a signature line of heritage quilts from Freedom Quilting Bee heritage quilter Fannie Etheridge. In an effort to decolonize art museums and galleries, we are creating our own permanent fiber art and agrarian material culture collection. Our budding collection includes heritage quilts and fiber art from the Freedom Quilting Bee Heritage Quilters (Alberta, AL); Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective (Gee’s Bend, AL); Torreah “Cookie” Washington (Goose Creek, SC); Cecelia “Cely” Tapplette-Pedescleaux (New Orleans, LA); Jess Hill (Atlanta, GA); Aisha Lumumba (Atlanta, GA); Carolyn Beard Whitlow (Alexandria, VA); Virginia Watson (Yonges Island, SC); and Eunimak Fashion (Accra, Ghana).
Our greatest challenge last year was not being able to support all of the work in our ecosystem. Our cultural work raises awareness and lays the groundwork for our legal advocacy, cooperative economy, and land preservation work(s). As we continue to raise awareness and create sustainable funding streams, our ecosystem will be strengthened to do more restorative work at the crossroads of ecological, spiritual, and cultural reclamation.
What do you see happening in your field or beyond in the world that you are really excited about?
Right now, we are energized by this transformational moment of rebuilding a decolonized society governed by the values of racial equity, indigenous traditional knowledge(s), spiritual journey, and solidarity economy. The natural world is purging itself of colonial capitalism and plunder. We should mimic nature, accessing timelines, lineages, and dimensions to create interdependent, life-affirming ways of being, realities, and ecosystems.
Similar to the vast mycelial networks that support the natural world, our ecosystem explores nourishing collaborations that deepen linkages of ecological harmony, collective land tenure, ecocultural traditions, music, and cooperative economy to preserve Black landownerhsip and stewardship, while raising community awareness, activism, and action. Our collaborative release of the single “The Land” and the “Restoration” concert film with the South Carolina Lowcountry hip-hop group, Native Son, exemplifies our ecosystem approach to restorative justice. “The Land” is our generation’s love offering to protect the remaining 1.5 million acres of Black stewarded farmlands from dispossession by the federal government. The “Restoration” concert film explores southern Black agrarian stories of self-determination, land stewardship, and folkwit; amplies ongoing struggles for land justice on Turtle Island; and weaves together live musical performances from Native Son backed by other independent musicians from the SC Lowcountry. Our ecosystem also supports the cooperative economy works of fiber artists, heritage quilters, and keepers of material culture.
What matters most to you right now?
Creating shared abundance through creativity—helping manifest ubuntu and kujichagulia by harnessing Black brilliance, imagination, and work, and having it sustain us. Remaining authentic to our purpose and design, and not allowing our brilliance and capacity to be sharecropped for gaze—truly standing in what and who we are and using it for our collective rise. Also, more concretely, a victorious outcome for our elder Black farmers through our collective efforts with the Black Farmers Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign.
“A landless people … got a problem.”
—Lucious Abrams, Legacy Farmer from Waynesboro, GA
“I think the USDA just got a problem with Black folk with land. It is evident. Everywhere Black people own land, ninety percent of them have a problem in trying to hold on to it.”
—Carl Parker, Legacy Farmer from Ashburn, GA
“When you look at these eighty- and ninety-year-old Black men and women having to fight these kinds of fights, it is unimaginable.”
—Eddie Slaughter, Legacy Farmer from Buena Vista, GA
The Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign is a grassroots organizing, popular education, and legal advocacy campaign to rectify the injustice(s) of the Pigford v. Glickman class action discrimination lawsuit. Black farmers tirelessly organized to file a class action lawsuit seeking restorative land justice from the US Department of Agriculture for decades of government-sanctioned racial discrimination in the delivery of loans and farm subsidies to Black farmers. The goal of the lawsuit was to restore Black farmers and their agricultural land base through full debt cancellation, federal and state tax relief, monetary damages for economic harm, priority of services, and access to land. After the lawsuit, the vast majority of Black farmers were left with crushing debts to USDA, looming foreclosures, and no legal recourse to save their land. The USDA continues to foreclose on Black farmers suffering under unconscionable farm ownership loan debts—debts that were to be cancelled. Of the more than $1 billion in damages paid by USDA, only 4.8% went to debt relief. The sticker shock of a $1-billion settlement buried the truth that the $50,000 cash payments meant little for Black farmers who owed multiple times that value.
Over the years, aging Black farmers have delayed USDA foreclosures by filing complaints in federal court pro se—by themselves, without attorney representation. In December 2017, six Black farmers filed a pro se complaint in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in order to enforce the Consent Decree, the settlement in the Pigford case, and to stop USDA foreclosures on their family farms. In 2019, the judge ruled in favor of USDA and dismissed the farmers’ complaint. The farmers appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Black Belt Justice Center is providing pro bono legal representation to the farmers in their federal appeal.
The Black Farmers’ Appeal: Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign is comprised of a non-hierarchical, multigenerational tribe of farmers, attorneys, writers, researchers, heritage quilters, fiber artists, musicians, and creatives using our diverse magic to bring restorative land justice to our Black legacy farmers.
What does service mean to you?
Using our knowledges, skills, resources, agency, and capacity to build for tomorrow and to repair today.
What keeps you going?
The downloads and memories of our loved ones who recently transitioned to the ancestral realm, including Tracy’s beloved mother, Dekera’s beloved grandfather and cousin, and our web designer, Janisha Gabriel, inspire us to move with greater intentionality, purpose, and action daily. We honor them and our ancestral pantheon through our collective works. The Kongolese Cosmogram is a river of time that is continually flowing through multiple realms and dimensions. Our Ancestors are the stars guiding us, and we are the living lanterns guiding the Returning Generation(s).
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
DGR: When I’m not working, I love spending time with my family and loving on my children.
TLM: Since the pandemic and Mama’s Ascension, I have been desiring more solitude, silence, and study. Death has revealed to me that I am both a starseed in this vast omiverse and warrior spirit in an African indigenous matrilineal bloodline. This moment of planetary transformation is requiring me to fearlessly embrace my own metamorphosis, shedding remnants of colonial mentality and hierarchy, to greet and shape the new world coming.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
DGR: Looking back, I wanted to be a doctor, then a journalist, then a writer, then a lawyer.
TLM: Fiber artist Cookie Washington of Goose Creek, SC, defined Wayshower and gave me a mirror to see myself:
“I believe my purpose as an artist is to be a Wayshower. The Wayshower is someone, who challenges the status quo, who bravely and boldly paves a new perspective, who enlightens and uplifts, and encourages action. I want to make art that challenges people to feel, to learn, to make art that makes one soar and annoys, art that challenges the viewing public to learn more about the subject and their own feelings about it. I have a fire in the belly, a passionate urge to create art that is griot in nature. I want the viewer to come away changed after having experienced my work. I am not at all interested in creating art that matches your furniture.”
Do you have a favorite place in nature?
DGR: My favorite place in nature is my 86-year-old grandma’s house, on her land, standing and remembering—seeing the garden of peppers, tomato plants, mustard greens she tends to, looking at where my grandparents used to keep the hogs on their farm, remembering that my great-grandparents, Willis and Susie / Mama and Papa, who lived more than 100 years ago, sacrificed mightily to provide that beginning for my family. Knowing that it is my duty to continue to work to preserve the Black family land commons.
TLM: My favorite place in nature is walking barefoot on the soil of stewarded Black family land, listening to Black family land stories of triumph, enjoying honeysuckle nectar (childhood pleasure) or other foraged wild edibles, and having nowhere to be. I also enjoy mind traveling near rivers and oceans.
One thing you would like your grandparents—or grandchildren—to know about you that they probably wouldn’t if you didn’t tell them?
Indigenous African cultural worker and guerilla theorist Neema Githere, in describing “Afropresentism,” posits, “We are the African diasporic people living in our ancestors’ future, now. What are we doing with that? How are we alchemizing our displacement? How are we activating the past, to put the present in motion, towards the future?” Grounded in the African cosmovision of collective land tenure, southern Black agrarians challenged European constructs of private property rights (enclosure), collateralized debt, and land monopolization through the creation of the Black family land commons. Similar to the cosmovisions of Native Americans, Africans prior to colonial contact had no concept of the commodification of land and natural resources. Our work carries the land legacies of our kin and spirit lineages. We tap into our vast, non-linear, collective imagination—studying the teachings of our Ancestors, while providing a compass for Returning Generation(s). Our compass is our Ori, a concept in Yoruba cosmology that speaks to the divine purpose and destiny of our earthwalks; the literal translation of Ori is “head.” Our Oris are committed to creating collective land tenure models rooted in the abundance our Ancestors created for us and sturdy enough to withstand mutations of colonial capitalism and scarcity.