Land, Labor, and Civil Rights in the Postwar South

AHA Session 170
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Adrienne Monteith Petty, College of William and Mary
Adrienne Monteith Petty, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

American agriculture underwent a profound transformation in the second third of the twentieth century. In the South, mechanization, fertilizers, and farm consolidation intersected with Jim Crow to thin the ranks of farmers and farmworkers. Farmers of color, in particular, struggled to remain on the land as individuals and structural forces undermined their viability. That these processes unfolded at the precise moment when the United States was experiencing a rights revolution meant that many people of color realized a political equality bereft of economic security.

This panel explores the ways in which issues of rural dispossession informed and set limits on struggles for civil rights and self-determination in the postwar South. Camille Goldmon examines the systematic exclusion of black farmers and farmworkers from agricultural aid programs and extension work in rural Alabama. She demonstrates that Tuskegee’s leaders fought back by advocating for black farmers through agricultural research and outreach, participation in civic organizations, and cultivation of important political connections. The relationship between the USDA and Tuskegee, Goldmon argues, afforded the institute’s leaders a hand in shaping federal extension work and policies affecting black farmers.

Yet Tuskegee’s reach and influence were limited, and black farmers often had to go it alone. One particularly poorly historicized result was the theft of black property. Justin Randolph reconsiders real property theft in light of a growing body of work on the carceral state. Black activists and thinkers centered property theft as an intended consequence of the Jim Crow criminal justice system, Randolph suggests, focusing on three categories of land thieves: county sheriffs, creditors, and landlords. Such theft was a central concern of rural activists and remains so to this day.

The problem of dispossession was not confined to the American South. As John Cable suggests, white landowners from Mississippi to the settler colonies of southern and eastern Africa mechanized their operations in anticipation of a decolonial “wind of change.” Situating the transformation of southern agriculture within the broader narrative of global decolonization, Cable demonstrates that mechanization and farm consolidation similarly displaced black and Choctaw farmworkers in Mississippi, Kikuyu squatters in the White Highlands of Kenya, and the last remaining sharecroppers along South Africa’s disappearing sharecropping frontier.

Considered together, these papers take land and labor as animating forces in regional (and global) struggles for freedom.

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