Self-Sufficiency in Sunflower County
If you've been following my blog for any length of time, you know that I talk about the importance of growing your own food. I have always felt that having your own land, more than anything else, is true independence. If a man can feed himself he can face whatever this world may throw at him.
So let me introduce you to the woman in this photo. That's Fannie Lou Hamer. As a child, my father told me stories about her. She fought tirelessly for the Civil Rights of Blacks in Mississippi, and this is the fame by which most of us know her. But what some of us may not know is that she was a pioneer in the fight for food justice for poor people in Sunflower County, Mississippi.
I can't possibly condense it all into one blog post, but I will do my best to summarize.
Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of twenty children. Yes, you read that right. Her grandmother was a slave and gave birth to 23 children, only three of them NOT being the result of being raped by her master. Fannie Lou's mother was one of the three children not born as a result of rape.
Fannie Lou grew up poor. By the time she was six years old, she was working in the fields of the Marlowe Plantation in Ruleville, Mississippi. By the time she was 13, she left school to work in the fields full-time. She could pick 200 to 300 pounds of cotton every day, which was more than other workers that were twice her age. I hate to call this feat impressive because she shouldn't have had to do it at all. But for a young person, having survived polio, albeit with a limp, it is still most impressive.
But even more impressive than that is what she did beyond fighting for voter rights for Blacks. She believed that being a good steward of the soil was a man's highest calling. She saw all of the ailments that poverty caused. She also knew that most of those ailments were connected to malnutrition. In her words, "I know what the pain of hunger is about." Armed with that knowledge and the certainty that "anything white people gave to you, eventually they would eventually take back," Fannie Lou Hamer took food security for Sunflower County into her own hands.
And that was the birth of the Freedom Farms Cooperative.
It began in 1967, when Fannie Lou contacted Measure for Measure (a charitable organization based in Wisconsin) and told them of the deplorable conditions of the poor in Mississippi. That led to a donation of $10,000, which allowed Fannie Lou to purchase the first 40 acres of "prime Delta land." She bought this land because she wanted to free poor Black farmers and sharecroppers from the tyranny of local white landowners. She also saw that Mississippi was trying to starve its Black residents for having the audacity to demand voting rights. But she stared Jim Crow directly in its hateful eyes and said that "if we have...land...can't anybody starve us out."
The only criteria to become a member of this cooperative was that you had to be poor. Though the cooperative was run by Blacks, she did not exclude poor whites from joining. The cost of membership was a mere $1.00 per month, and many families couldn't afford that, but she didn't turn them away. The members of the co-op were "displaced, unemployed land/farmworkers, those dispossessed of access to land and displaced by mechanization."*
The co-op planted crops like soybean and cotton to make money to pay the taxes on the land as well as administrative expenses. The rest of the land not planted in cash crops, was used to grow cucumbers, peas, beans, squash, and collard greens. The latter were all given back to those who worked on the co-op.
Later, fundraising efforts by Hamer, as well as other charitable organizations, allowed the Freedom Farms Cooperative to purchase 640 more acres of land. In 1969, with the help of Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women), Hamer developed a pig bank. She began with 50 gilts (female pigs) and 5 boars (male pigs). The pigs would be breeded, and the young piglets would be raised for food. So now, not only did poor Blacks have vegetables, but they also had meat that they raised themselves.
The farm also went on to accomplish the following: a "...Head Start program, community gardens, a commercial kitchen, a garment factory, a sewing cooperative, a tool bank where farmers could borrow tools needed for projects, and low-income affordable housing."*
Unfortunately, by 1971, the combination of severe weather events and the United States falling into an economic downturn initiated the beginning of the demise of the Freedom Farms Cooperative. Donor funding began to dissipate, and since the co-op had not yet reached financial independence, the land eventually had to be sold to pay overdue state and county taxes in 1976.
Yes, that is a sad ending to what promised to be one of the greatest examples of self-sufficiency in the Black community. While I am disheartened to read of the short-lived success of the Freedom Farms Cooperative, it does give me hope. Fannie Lou Hamer proved that if you have the vision and the determination, the word "impossible" loses its power.
*You noticed that asterisk in two places within the post. I haven't quite figured out how to do footnotes in Blogger. Dr. Monica M. White wrote a very informative article titled "'A pig and a garden': Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative" which was my main source of information for this post. Though this article is not readily available via the Internet, she graciously agreed to email me a copy.
Two other articles that I read on the Freedom Farm Cooperative are:
The Hidden Radicalism of Southern Food and Fannie Lou Hamer Founds Freedom Farm Cooperative.
I hope that you enjoyed this important bit of food history. I certainly enjoyed researching this fascinating woman. Here's to you, Ms. Fannie Lou!
Until next time garden gals and guys.....