From Neshoba to Nyeri: Global Decolonization and the Problem of Settler Agriculture, 1945–60

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 9:10 AM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York)
John Henry Cable, Florida State University
In rural Neshoba County, Mississippi, mechanization and farm consolidation led to the eclipse of traditional, labor-intensive farming in favor of large-scale, capital-intensive operations, while mostly eliminating the need for tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Since disproportionate numbers of black and Choctaw farmers fell in those land tenure categories, they were particularly vulnerable to displacement. Smallholders and farmworkers forced off the land faced grim prospects in the region and looming economic restructuring in the urban North. Such complex structural forces bounded human agency in the 1940s and 1950s and go a long way toward explaining the limited reach of the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Yet the fraught transition away from labor-intensive farming was not confined to the American South, nor were the limits it set on decolonial reform. Indeed, other settler societies in southern and eastern Africa similarly witnessed the displacement of farmworkers at the precise moment when decolonization was remaking their world. In Kenya, mechanization in the White Highlands profited the settler population at the expense of thousands of Kikuyu squatters. South African sharecroppers chased a disappearing sharecropping frontier to the outer reaches of the Kalahari as tractorization schemes rendered them superfluous.

This paper situates the experiences of black and Choctaw farmworkers in Mississippi within the broader narrative of decolonization in order to tell a transnational story with a complicated ending. While many dispossessed and displaced farmworkers from Neshoba to Nyeri eventually achieved political equality, it cost them their economic security (and no small amount of blood).

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