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Rebuilding the Homestead - The Margin

October 25, 2022

Rebuilding the Homestead

How Black Landowners in Eastern North Carolina Are Recovering Generational Wealth Lost to Industry Encroachment

William Barber III at the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina.   Justin Cook for The Margin

35.8038° N, 76.8283° W / Piney Woods, NC

By Cameron Oglesby

I.
17 min read

Piney Woods, North Carolina, is one of those small, quiet, rural communities you might pass on a drive up North. Blocks of lush grass, farmland, and forests are bisected by a single asphalt road; it’s not uncommon to find a tortoise or two lazing on the empty street, unafraid of potential traffic.

These untouched stretches of green are an underrealized beauty. At one point known as Free Union, Piney Woods was founded well before the Civil War by Black folk and Croatan and Tuscarora Indigenous peoples. The area is known for its 300-year-legacy as a historical triracial, economically independent, and free community. It is perhaps one of the oldest examples of uninterrupted land ownership by Black people in North Carolina and maybe the entire American South.

At least that’s what William J. Barber III believes. Piney Woods is Barber III’s ancestral homeland. He holds a connection to this place stretching back several generations into his Tuscarora ancestry. His grandfather, William J. Barber Sr., grew up in the area. He documented the family’s legacy as well as the regional history of Black land cultivation and faith in his book, “The Disciple Assemblies of Eastern North Carolina.” Barber III’s father, Bishop William J. Barber II, grew up tending to the tobacco fields alongside numerous cousins and extended family. Now Barber III has returned home to Piney Woods to ensure that this long-standing family legacy remains intact.

“[Piney Woods] always felt like a place of home, you know. It felt like a place of belonging, felt like my own personal piece of history, and a source of pride,” Barber III said.

Drone view of the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina in August.    Justin Cook for The Margin

It was an unseasonably hot and humid day in May. The air conditioner was on full blast as I made my way down to Jamesville, North Carolina, to visit Barber III’s family land.

Greenery straddled the wide stretch of asphalt that was Piney Woods Road and made for a peaceful drive. It was easy to get lost in the stretches of old tobacco fields and towering grandfather trees along the way. The town was quiet. Birds scuttled away from the road into denser stretches of forest. A stray farmer provided me directions as I got lost on the winding back roads. It was only when I pulled up to Vera Brown farmhouse that the jovial activities of this otherwise calm countryside came through.

Black people, including Barber III’s extended family, had come from far and wide to join him for a celebration of place. Some people walked a few paces from their own inherited property to witness Barber III’s event. Others traveled from as far as Baltimore. It was a mix of young and old, and kin addressed one another with a familiarity established by their common upbringings and a shared landscape rather than any previous introduction.

Tables and chairs were set up under a large white tent to shade the guests from the sun. Slowly, a line for food — pulled pork, mac and cheese, greens, sweet potatoes, and more — formed as people made their way from their vehicles. In the background stood the Vera Brown property with fields and houses that stretched as far as the eye could see. At the center of the property sat a broken barn and an imposing dilapidated farmhouse known by some as the Big House, by others as The Homestead. They were symbols of the Barber family’s prominence in the Piney Woods community. However, an ominous symbol was hidden behind the overgrowth, chipped wood panels, and the building’s dark interior. No one has lived in the Big House for a few decades. As the Piney Woods locals have aged, so has the property.

With my plate of soul food in hand, I listened to many of Barber III’s extended family reminisce on childhood memories formed in Piney Woods. One distant relative shared tales of playing in the yard, growing up in the Big House, climbing the pecan trees that still line the property, and shaking the branches until the nuts fell in bushels onto the ground. Others described the Vera Brown Big House as a community center back in the day. The broken wooden structure originally stood as a marvelous white home near the middle of town. People would pass it driving down the community’s only cement road and look upon the landscape in awe. Children from across town would climb the giant trees, play basketball, baseball, or football, and jump off the massive nearby barn with bedsheet parachutes — free from fear of injury. Those same children also served as employees and caretakers for the property alongside the adults; they helped pick and package the tobacco. Their efforts contributed to the highly profitable community business in its prime.

Every Permitted Animal Feeding Operation In North Carolina
This story needs to be told so people cannot say that these types of communities did not exist; so that people cannot say that there were never unadulterated Black homesteaders, landowners, and farmers who were not simply sharecroppers or not simply oppressed by the land. There were African American communities, multiracial communities that owned land outright,” Barber III said. “We have to move as quickly as possible and as urgently as possible to resist this encroachment, to preserve this community of Free Union, and to tell this story of a lost history: a history of Black, Indigenous, and white fusion existence, of deep commitment to stewardship and one another, and of self-determination south of the Mason Dixon Line.
William J. Barber III

Piney Woods serves as the counterfactual to modern Black land ownership in this country; it exemplifies what Black wealth and connection to land could have been in the United States had Black landowners been allowed to thrive. This type of multi-generational land retention is rare, and the pervasiveness of Black land loss in the United States is well documented. At the peak of Black land ownership in 1910, Black farmers made up approximately 14.5% of all U.S. farmers. According to a recent agricultural census, Black farmers account for a little over one percent of all American farmers. The subsequent decline can be attributed to many things: inequitable New Deal policies, corporate agricultural monopolization, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). One study of US Census of Agriculture data found a 98% decline in Black farm ownership from 1900 to 1997, a drop that was partly caused by a deliberate effort to deny loans to Black farmers.

The narrative surrounding Black-owned land loss often points to discriminatory lending practices and familial property disputes. Combined, these two influences led to Black people being stripped of their wealth. In North Carolina, however, both industry land grabbing and farm consolidation play equal parts in the land loss story.

Barber III attributes his community’s ability to retain its land to its relative seclusion and its inherent racial diversity. “The reality is that Piney Woods Free Union was a bastion of prosperous existence and resistance to some of the white supremacy that was pervasive throughout the region because it was out of the way. It was a hidden gem,” Barber III said.

In addition to its cultural and agricultural standing, the Piney Woods community has historically served as the “mother church” for a conclave of Black Christians spread across the tidewater region of the state. They sought religious freedom as much as they did bodily liberty, autonomy, and land ownership. The faith leadership of Piney Woods would go on to head grand battles for Civil Rights through the decades.

William Barber III holds up the book that his grandfather William Barber, wrote that documents Disciple Assemblies in Eastern North Carolina at the Uniontown Church of Christ in Jamesville, North Carolina.    Justin Cook for The Margin

Barber Sr. helped integrate the local school systems around Piney Woods to ensure that Black children in Martin and Washington Counties received a proper education. Bishop William Barber II is a faith and civil rights leader as co-chair of the National Poor People’s Campaign and pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Each new Barber generation has been called upon to incite change and serve a greater purpose as warriors at the helm of a battle for equity and human rights.

As chief consultant of environmental justice at the Coalition for Green Capital, Barber III has committed his life and career to uplifting communities most affected by environmental harms including industry pollution, the climate crisis, and systemic disenfranchisement and disinvestment. A graduate of North Carolina Central University and UNC Chapel Hill with degrees in environmental physics and energy and environmental law respectively, his passion for environmental justice and community building is inspired by the resilience he’s seen in Piney Woods and Black communities like it across the eastern part of the state:

Free Union Piney Woods is a place where you had free people of color, never enslaved, never sharecropping. They showcased the prosperity and the resilience that could be built even without the level of financial investment other areas have seen. The fact that Piney Woods has been so resilient without those investments, both challenges the notion of what is not possible in rural communities of color but also expands the imagination of what is possible if we have a movement to address systems of Black land loss.
William J. Barber III

Barber III created the Rural Beacon Initiative, a for-profit small business focused on climate investment, such as regenerative agriculture and renewable energy development, in underserved communities throughout the region and the U.S. South. He now follows in the footsteps of his forebearers and is bringing his passion for environmental justice back home to serve the Piney Woods community through this initiative. His hope is to keep the legacy of the place alive in the face of land loss and climate change.

The timing is critical. Piney Woods is beginning to show signs of succumbing to the same encroachment Black landowners across the state have faced over the past century. In recent years, more residents have received notices or inquiries from businesses (primarily CAFOs and logging companies) to purchase their land with the promise of a quick financial return. Barber III said that those targeted have been aging landowners of intergenerational land without proper heirs.

Douglas James and photos of his great grandparents (left to right): Lucretia James and Stuart James and grandparents (left to right): Joseph James and Odella Keyes James. His grandparents once owned the land that is now Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina.    Justin Cook for The Margin

Barber III believes the quiet existence of Piney Woods Free Union is a double-edged sword in this new age of industry encroachment. The story of Piney Woods is not widely known despite the prominence of the Barber family. Now, the forces that have harmed Black and Indigenous communities across the state — the same forces Piney Woods has historically evaded — have become a dangerous reality. Telling the region’s story has become a necessary part of keeping its history and culture alive:

Land ownership is about so much more than farming. Land is wealth in this country. But historical land grabbing combined with political and financial disenfranchisement have left Black people in this country either without land or with undesirable land.

There is a direct correlation between the racial wealth gap in this country and the pushing out of Black land owners. A 2022 study estimated that Black land loss has resulted in a loss of as much as $359 billion worth of land and wealth in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, farming and landownership across the country contributed to a prosperous Black middle class much like that of Piney Woods; it allowed people to keep their children in school longer and gave them independence in the form of food, water, and a consistent income. Starting with the New Deal in the 1930s and continuing in the post-war period through policies enacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state legislatures, white owned farms were provided with significant advantages that allowed the operations to grow while leaving small, primarily Black-owned farms without similar financial support. This investment contributed to farm consolidation over time. The consolidation process encouraged growth of industrial agriculture and pushed small farmers out of business.

Later, through the early 1970s, the U.S. agriculture sector began shifting from small family farms to the massive corporate farms that comprise modern-day agribusiness. The USDA secretary, Earl Butz, was among the most prominent voices pushing a “get big or get out” mentality, an attitude that led to farm consolidation. A study by the nonprofit science advocacy group The Union of Concerned Scientists found that states with higher rates of farm consolidation saw significant declines in the number of Black farmers between 1978 and 2017. North Carolina, a state with a historically high proportion of Black farmers, was cited as one of the states with the highest rates of farm consolidation. Decades of discrimination, farm consolidation, and government investments are working to increase white wealth at the expense of Black wealth.

Historically, government- and industry-perpetuated land encroachment has forced landowners to choose between two options: leave or stay. Fortunately, the people of Piney Woods have so rarely had to face this lose-lose dichotomy, but Barber III has noticed it has gotten harder to keep this issue away from the community.

II.

To Leave

I caught Barber III a few days before his family gathering. He was in his Durham office with the Rural Beacon Initiative sigil placed strategically behind him as we engaged in a deep discussion about Piney Woods. His hands were moving in wide looping gestures, mirroring the enthusiasm in his voice as he contrasted the quiet persistence of his family and Piney Woods to the history and racialization of generational wealth in the 20th century.

Like the Barber family, many Black American families have family stories of their ancestors’ land in the South. April Jones was a Black farmer and nonprofit consultant based out of South Carolina and a member of a Black women farmers collective. Jones shared her family’s story of land loss in Georgia during the Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, the mass migration of Black folks out of the American South is often touted as a movement for prosperity. It is reported as a movement of Black families striking out in search of new opportunities in the more tolerant and industrial North and West. This perspective often omits that many families took part in the Great Migration unwillingly to seek refuge from racial violence.

“My great grandfather had land that was quite valuable; it was very fertile, very lush, very giving land,” Jones said. “And the [white] people in his community wanted his land. They said, ‘You’re going to give us your land, or we’re going to take your life.’ And so, he packed up his family in the middle of the night and left his land to go up north and struggle and start over. It was devastating for him.”

This sort of land grabbing continues today in the form of eminent domain, preemption, condemnation, and industry land purchases spurred by deed of title confusion. These policies have allowed companies to run pipelines through predominantly Black and Indigenous communities. They have also allowed cities to build highways in the middle of Black neighborhoods and CAFOs to set up shop on or right next to Black- and Indigenous-owned homes. Previous physical violence has now been replaced by methods to cause indirect harm (i.e. industries setting up next door to communities of color, polluting the area, and making it difficult to live comfortably or autonomously).

A little over two hours from Piney Woods, Ellis Tatum, a former board member for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, has lived in Sampson County for most of his life. His father built a home and legacy for him and his six siblings in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Snow Hill. However, Tatum is having trouble convincing his own children of the importance of their property; they’re too caught up in the smell of nearby industry. Sampson is the second-largest pork-producing county in the country, the largest producer of turkey in the state, and home to the largest landfill in North Carolina. The county also hosts a pork processing plant, scores of hog and poultry farms, and a wood pellet plant. Where Tatum lives, hog farms have long sprayed pig feces into the air, and residents contend with a seemingly endless stream of garbage trucks headed to the Sampson County landfill every day.

There used to be an entire community that lived, played, picnicked, and worked together where the landfill and surrounding CAFOs now stand. “I was born here, and I was raised here,” Tatum said. “We used to run free on the weekends. We played basketball. We found a water hole in the woods, and it was safe there. We would fish; you could find plums, wild strawberries and dewberries and walnuts. Now the smell is so bad from the landfill and the hog farms. There are buzzards going in people’s houses. I’ve got trash all over my yard. It’s not right.”

Many landowners believe their best option is to leave and sell their land to the nearby industry at a price far below its true value. Meanwhile, young people have yet to see sustainable economic opportunities in their communities where industrial plants have set up shop. This is what Barber III refers to as the brain drain that causes the next generation to divest their interests and leave their communities. This can strip families of any chance to establish generational wealth.

While observing casual conversations at the Piney Woods gathering, I noticed a very heavy skew in age. There were three or four young children either clinging to their parents or sitting quietly at tables. The few young adults were either members of Barber III’s team or his immediate family. Everyone else was older, and most were residents who had lived in the area for decades. At one point during a call-and-response with the group, Barber III asked, “Just how many of you have been concerned about your property, or dealt with heirs’ property or encroachment or harassment from prospectors trying to buy your land in recent years?” Almost every hand went up.

William Barber III at the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina.    Justin Cook for The Margin
III.

To Stay

Just beyond the white event tents and folding tables where everyone mingled at Barber III’s family gathering was the Vera Brown Big House. During a lull in the conversation, I toured the house, guided by a few of Barber III’s distant cousins. They bantered casually with one another or laughed at the silly and dangerous things they did growing up in what was once the pristine centerpiece of the community.

For many in eastern North Carolina, choosing to stay can mean more than bad smells or a lost connection to place. It can result in a physical burden on one’s health and loss of agency over one’s land. “Oftentimes, what we see are families who have had land passed down generation to generation, but who have been shut out of the process of accessing the profitability that is produced through the land,” explained Barber III.

In the floodplains of eastern North Carolina, a little under two hours from Piney Woods, sits the land that James McGowan has been unable to profit from for decades. Around the time farm consolidation rocked the country, he purchased a 20-acre plot of farmland in Kenansville, North Carolina to raise free-range pigs. When industrial-scale animal operations took center stage in North Carolina, he was pushed out of the hog business. His father farmed this land before him. Now at the age of 87, McGowan was unable to turn a profit on the land his family has farmed for more than 60 years. That was the case until his son-in-law, Ron Simmons, purchased the property in 2010.

This trend of pushing small farmers out of business has taken place primarily in the consolidation of hog farms to CAFOs. The swine industry remains one of the most powerful industries in the state with ties to the North Carolina legislature. Hog producers like former State Senator Wendell Murphy, founder of Murphy Family Farmers, the country’s second largest hog producing company until it was sold to Smithfield Foods in the late 90s, took positions within the legislature and passed legislation that protected the swine empires that had taken hold within the state’s most flood-prone, primarily Black and Indigenous areas. Communities across the southeastern part of the state are forced into a difficult position where they must rely on the industry for income but are harmed by the industry’s “smell of money.”

A different trend making it difficult for landowners to utilize their properties because of pollution can be seen about 30 minutes from Kenansville on Elsie Herring’s property. Herring’s land is in the largest hog-producing county in the country, Duplin County. As one of the primary plaintiffs in a set of lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the country, Herring is a staunch advocate for better waste management practices on swine farms. The subsequent victories in court, and eventual settlement, were vindication to Herring who alleged that Smithfield was negligent in addressing the waste pollution they had caused, negatively impacting resident’s physical health and leading to a deterioration of property values in predominantly Black and brown communities.

Cover crops at the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina.    Justin Cook for The Margin

Herring’s grandfather purchased a 15-acre tract of land in 1891 along what is now Beulah Herring Lane. He was enslaved on this land. Despite gaining his freedom, he elected to stay in Duplin County out of a deep connection to the place. In the years following, the Herring family expanded and built lives for themselves on their land. Herring’s mother was born on this property. She lived off and worked the land with her husband while raising 15 children including Elsie. Her mother lived a long life, passing at the age of 99.

In her 2019 testimony before the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Herring described the power that came with landownership for a Black family in the mid-20th century. Her family grew strawberries, cucumbers, and tobacco. They raised chickens and free-range pigs and canned and cured fresh vegetables and meats for winter. The Herrings lived off the land, truly independent.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first CAFO moved onto a plot of land that the Herrings believed belonged to their family. Herring and her family started paying for county water out of fear that their well water was contaminated with hog waste. Her family used to hunt and fish on land they owned near Rockfish Creek, but the hog farm blocked access to the creek and hunting grounds. The Herring family could no longer make full use of their property.

In May 2021, Herring passed away. Prior to her passing, she shared her personal land ownership history and why the hog industry’s blatant disregard for her land, life, and well-being was such “a slap in the face.” “We’re forced to live with these animals and their waste, whether they’re located on someone’s personal property or not,” she said.

Drone image of the Roanoke River in Jamesville, North Carolina in July.    Justin Cook for The Margin
IV.

To Resist and Reclaim

Although many Black families have been caught between the decision to stay or leave, the work and legacy of Elsie Herring and countless other Black landowners show us there’s hope in a third option: to resist and reclaim.

Roughly three years ago, April Jones founded the Pinehurst Farmers Market and Pinehurst Consulting to help communities in North Carolina and across the country develop sovereign food systems while instituting sustainable agricultural practices. She also uses her voice — writing about community farming in her blog and for national outlets — to support Black farmers, especially Black women in eastern North Carolina, as they look to make sustainable, organic, and regenerative transitions.

“I really love being part of this movement, this work, because I feel as if I’m really continuing my own family history,” Jones said.

In the past 12 years, Ron Simmons has transformed his father-in-law’s land into a source of intergenerational wealth through Master Blend Family Farms, a sustainably raised, free-range pork business. Master Blend Family Farms raises 2,800 to 3,200 hogs per year on an open pasture parcel of land and a laissez-faire style of hog management. For comparison, a traditional swine CAFO contains at least 2,500 hogs being raised for a few months before they are ready for slaughter. CAFO-raised hogs are lined up in large hog houses with little room to move or sit. The hogs at Master Blend spend their days walking around and playing in the mud. Although this farming method may be slower than industrial facilities, it is healthier for the pigs and the planet. The pigs are run on a land rotation, moved from one plot to the next to allow the pasture time to replenish. The hogs’ waste aids in that process by naturally tilling into the soil as fertilizer. This is much less invasive than spraying their feces on fields or dumping it into waste lagoons like the industrial facilities do.

In 2020, Simmons purchased an additional 54 acres from his father-in-law, a parcel that had been in McGowan’s family for generations. He plans to renovate the new parcel not only scaling up the business but also creating an office space, studio, and culture center for community education. “We’ll be able to bring in students from all cultures and show them a business model of a heritage farm that hopefully benefits them in their career paths,” Simmons said. He considers his work a tribute to his father-in-law and his ancestors, the people whose sacrifices and losses paved the way for Master Blend’s mission and vision.

The Free Union Farms Hub aligns with this tradition of resistance and reclamation as it hopes to build wealth, pay homage, and work sustainably. William Barber III’s project seeks to employ 52 acres of the original Vera Brown family land to combat the gradual loss of access to economic opportunities in the community. Through the creation of a low-carbon, self-sustaining, regenerative food system, the project will work to address food access in the region while marking a historical site for the legacy of Piney Woods.

In the same way that Piney Woods has historically flourished as an interracial coalition, the Free Union Farms Hub plans to work with local Indigenous landowners and at least one Indigenous seed saver organization to build a more inclusive system for wealth generation. If successful, the Free Union Farms Hub can serve as a model for the cultural and environmental preservation of Black rural communities across eastern North Carolina and the American South.

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    Drone footage of the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, North Carolina in August.    Justin Cook for The Margin

    “We’ve had millions, literally millions of acres of land lost [or stolen] from our Black community… We are in urgent and desperate need of solutions of scale and historically communities like Free Union have been some of the greatest and most effective stewards of the land. We must have models like this that have the people connected to these communities in the decision-making seats. It’s about self-determination,” Barber III says.

     

    The Vera Brown Farm celebratory gathering took place on a humid summer afternoon and was intended to be the Hub’s formal groundbreaking event. From the outside looking in, however, one could more accurately characterize this as a family reunion.

    Some met their extended family for the first time at this event. It was common for guests to inquire about other’s connections to each other or to the land. Everyone was keenly aware of their family tree because their personal genealogy traces back to one of the most prosperous and well-known families in Piney Woods. Each person responded to inquiry with an infectious sense of pride. Many of the folks in attendance were happy to see the family land being used for Barber III’s cause. There was a universal sigh of relief that the land would remain in the family.

    The event reached a head when the Rural Beacon Initiative team set up a mic and a TV screen to present their vision for the family land in front of the multiple generations of landowners and landholders seated before them. “Each of you has contributed to the foundation and we have the chance to use that foundation to build something for the future,” said Barber III to the group. “This project is so much bigger than us.”

    Tatum and Herring’s legacies, Pinehurst Farmers Market, Master Blend Family Farms, and The Free Union Farms Hub are just some of the many initiatives that are attempting to bridge the racial wealth gap through the cultivation of land and just agricultural systems.

    The conclusion to the Vera Brown Farm groundbreaking event felt more like a beginning than an ending. The crowd sat attentively with some whispering and some exclaiming “amen” as Bishop William Barber II provided some parting words. “You were meant to reign over the oppression of environmental injustice,” he said to Barber III and the Rural Beacon Initiative team. “Go forth and fulfill what God has assigned you before you were even born.”

    ***

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    Credits to:
    • Written by Cameron Oglesby
    • Produced and Edited by Bryce Cracknell
    • Photography by Justin Cook
    • Data Storytelling by EJ Fox
    • Art Direction by Stephen Downs
    • Fact-checking by Matthew Giles

    Additional contributions by Megan Ahearn, Ed Boyda, Maria Edwards, Kacper Faligowski, Martyna Gołębiewska, Mason Grimshaw, Magdalena Kęsik, Łukasz Knasiecki, Ada Makowska, Scott Quill, Arek Romański, Mikołaj Szczepkowski, Jose Valenzuela, Michał Zagojski

    Data + Resources

    Data and methodology for this story can be found on GitHub. Data and methodology for all Margin stories can be found here.

    CAFO locations were provided by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and are current as of 04/01/2020.

    Trends of farm size were sourced through the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS).

    See also

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