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The popularization of urban gardening has exploded in the last five years. A simple google search for “urban gardening” returns images of polished plastic container gardens, and beautifully arrayed vegetation whose smooth edges juxtapose the jagged cityscapes behind them. When these photos contain people, they  typically convey white people teaching Black youth in the garden. These photos can be beautiful and inspirational, but they can also be deceitful. They are based on a new growing aesthetic of white urban gardening betrays the movements history.  Black entrepreneurs like Will Allen of Growing Power have not only spread awareness of the unexpected fertility of cityscapes, but have also politely reminded white America that the urban gardening movement has undeniably black roots.

Detroit, a city with an 84% African American population, is often referenced as a poster child for the urban farming movement, and with good reason. Take a walk through the Brightmoor community and you will see the most beautiful mosaic of human resistance, from the inspirational murals etched on the wood panels of abandoned buildings, to vacant lots that have become home to chicken coops and community gardens (images 1-2). There’s also  D-Town farms (also called the Detroit Black Food Security Network), a growing menagerie of Black owned farms that work to educate the community on farming and African heritage. (images 3-5). To walk through the communities in Detroit is humbling and inspirational, but as exciting as modern strides in urban farming have been, it must not blindsight our nation’s rich history of Black farming.

Image 1: Mural in the Brightmoor Community. (Photo from Urban Food Systems Trip Spring 2013)
Image 2: Inside a Chicken Coop in the Brightmoor Community. It’s easy to forget you are in a city. (Photo from Urban Food Systems Trip Spring 2013)
Image 3: Compost Manager Kadiri Showing the D-Town Farm Mural of West African Adrinka Symbols. (Photo from Urban Food Systems Trip Spring 2013)
Image 4: D-Town Farm’s Colorful Compost Bins.
Image 5: Malik Yakini, Chair of D-Town Farms, In a field of blooming collards.
In some ways, the recent excitement around local food has obscured the long and rich history of Black farming in America’s history. From the first Black populists of the late 1800’s to modern day guerilla gardeners like Ron Finley, our nation’s history contains the struggle and resilience of millions of proud Black farmers. We cannot forget the community and pride that was associated with farming for millions of Black americans, but we also cannot forget the legacy of slavery in America that preceded it.

It is impossible to address Black farming without addressing slavery, a topic which at times is (rightfully) downright uncomfortable for people who have benefited from white privilege like myself. There is an undeniable tension that exists between the present excitement around urban farming and our nation’s past. Guthman (2008:435) speaks in reproach about “oft-said rhetoric of ‘putting your hands in the soil’ or ‘getting your hands dirty.” Phrases she sees as shamefully insensitive to the “racialized history of agrarian land and labor relationships in the US”. Still other scholars like Monica White (2011:23) point out how ‘putting one’s hands in the soil’ need not be a painful reminder of the past, but instead a soul reviving ceremony in the present with mother nature. She quotes one of the Black female farmers at D-Town farm. It was shortly after the farmer’s father passed: “the [other women at D-Town farm] told me you need to get in the dirt. [They told me] I needed to literally get my hands connected with the mother [earth], the original mother.” No matter how we interpret these phrases, it is important to understand that the legacy of slavery has undeniably altered the ways in which we think about and interpret Black farming today.  This has caused many scholars to examine the unique relationship of Black farmers to the land. Some scholars like Guthman have discussed how the legacy of slavery has affected current Black farmers (Guthman 2008), but others have tried to understand the connection between black farmers and the land during slavery.

Black relationships to the land during slavery can be understood quite differently depending on which lens is used. Some scholars highlight nature and land as a place of ancestry and home to enslaved African Americans (Glave 2010:20), but most scholars agree that slavery inhibited a caring relationship between enslaved peoples and the land which they cultivated.  During the Tennessee Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in 1873 Frederick Douglass emphasized “The fields could not be lovingly planted nor faithfully cultivated in [the presence of slavery]” as “The very soil of [the] state was cursed with a burning sense of injustice”.  Du Bois reiterates these sentiments when speaking of tenant farming. This time he highlights how the economic burden of tenant farming disallowed careful cultivation. He writes “the shadow-hand of the master's grand-nephew or cousin or creditor stretches out of the gray distance to collect the rack-rent remorselessly, and so the land is uncared- for and poor.”(1903:53). Du Bois begins to hint at the unsustainability of the profit driven nature of european market farming, especially in a system where labor oppression is openly allowed. Academics like William Cronon, have delineated the ideals of european market farming, highlighting their destructiveness to land and labor systems.

In “Changes in the Land”, William Cronon confronts the paradigm that european market farming is normative. Instead, he emphasizes how the ideals of european colonists became reified in the land of the new world. Even in the earliest voyages to the new world, many European colonists were only interested in ‘merchantable commodities’ (Which is why archival plat maps from the first surveyors read as tree inventory lists). Many colonists came with a fierce protestant work ethic (Weber 2002), a convoluted ideal of salvation that rested on the notion that one’s only chance into heaven was  through a dedicated life of perpetual, tireless work. Typically the work of protestants and calvinists focused on the transformation of the ‘savage wild’ into the ‘civilized’. The ideas of european colonists became reified onto the landscape itself. Cronon defines how colonists changed the landscape to “A world of fields and fences”: an orderly and rational set of ecosystems imposed on the land (2002). It was through this these values of tireless work and perpetual ‘improvement’ that the colonists justified taking land in the new world.

The argument was simple, Cronon explains, to the calvinist and protestant settlers looking to disappropriate native Indians “A people who moved so much and worked so little did not deserve to lay claim to the land they inhabited”. He quotes Robert Cushman’s argument against indian land ownership: “[Indians are] not industrious, neither have art, science, skill nor faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it” (2002:84). Minister John Cotton continued the justification “hee that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth husbandry and culture upon it, his right it is.” (2002:86). Interestingly, it was this very agrarian argument that was used by slaves for emancipation.

To white Americans, Jeffersonian Agrarianism was a cautionary step back from industrialization, stemmed from a fear of a deteriorating republican utopia. For Black americans however, Jeffersonian Agrarianism didn’t represent a cautious step away from the future, but a catalyst into it. Black americans used Jeffersonian Agrarianism as a key argument for emancipation in the nineteenth century.  This argument was held up on two points. 1. American farmers (i.e. African-American enslaved peoples) encapsulated the core values of America, and 2. Jefferson represents the contradiction of america--writing of equality for all while being a slaveholder himself. Smith succinctly explains the argument: “After all, if it were agricultural labor that earned one the right to the land, surely the slaves who did the bulk of the agricultural labor in the south had the best claim to it (2004)”. The use of Jeffersonian Agrarianism in the everyday rhetoric of African Americans during the nineteenth century gives a telling, albeit obvious, understanding that some european notions of farming had permeated into Black culture

Kimberely Smith observes “Agrarian Ideals permeate the slave narrative” (2004:274). She uses the story of Henry Bibbs to show how the sting of slavery bolstered the yearning for the idyllic countryside. After his attempted escape, Henry Bibbs describes his experience looking upon the countryside as he was brought back into slavery in the south  “On free soil, as I passed down the river, things looked to me uncommonly pleasant: The green trees and the wildflowers of the forest; the ripening harvest fields waving with the gentle breezes of heaven”. But his fantasy ends as he remembers his fate “to be sold like an ox, into hopeless bondage, and to be worked under the flesh devouring lash during life, without wages”(2004:275).  Not only did slaves have to live in purgatory between the views of the idyllic countryside and the brutal realities of slavery, but they also had to fend off white based stereotypes that justified slavery. Challenging the view that slaves were “lazy” and “dispirited”, many slave narratives include self assertions of “industriousness”, “robustness”, and “vigor”(2004:277). Many written slave narratives confront white stereotypes that slaves did not live up to the american virtues of vigor and industriousness. However, the content of written slave narratives must be tempered with an understanding that the self professed virtues and ideals of African-Americans during the nineteenth century, are going to be overwhelmingly biased toward  European values that would justify their emancipation.

While many African-Americans in the nineteenth century did firmly believe in the ideals of Jeffersonian Agrarianism, there are other, softer, more communal understandings of relationships to the land that also prospered in African American communities but were less addressed publicly. In her book “Rooted in Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage” Glave asserts “African Americans actively sought healing, kinship, resources, escape, refuge and salvation in the land”(2010:21).  She explains that the whites, as a ruling class in a racially defined society, described land entitlement through their european origins. This sense of entitlement or “ownership” of the land is contrasted with the African American experience, whom were rarely able to lay consistent claim to any property. Instead, she argues, African Americans learned to experience their relationship to the land through ancestral ties: “If their ancestors were buried on property that was owned by whites, that land remained a link to their ancestors, making the soil sacred”(21). She goes on to explain that “such forms of identification and connectedness with the environment have largely been ignored by whites because they do not fit the white paradigm of land ownership” (20) While part of this communal tie to land can be explained by the lack of property rights for African Americans, another curious explanation for such ties to the land may lay in traditional African land ethics preserved over generations.

The same communal and ancestral land ethics used to describe enslaved peoples relationships to the land in nineteenth century America, are similar to ethics described in customary law across Africa. Kwame Akuffo’s article “The Conception of Land Ownership in African Customary Law and its Implications for Development” describes the transition from community, ancestral based property rights, to more individualistic rights in Africa. Akuffo asserts “The nature of African societies before colonialism precluded any conception of the private or individual ownership of land” (2009: 69). Agbosu furthers the notion of traditional communal land rights in Africa by identifying land rights as follows: The “notion of land as a community asset and resource, an ancestral heritage which ought to be preserved for posterity and which no individual should be permitted to lay an absolute proprietary claim.(1984:18)”. Akuffo uses Elias’s essays on Nigerian Land Law to back up his assertion that “ownership of land under customary law is community or group-based”. Elia’s supports this by when he says “ownership of land in the accepted english sense is unknown. land is held under community ownership, and not, as a rule, by the individual as such” (1971:7).

Now, I make no grand assertions that all enslaved peoples in the United States ubiquitously held, and carried forward, these African land values, nor am I making claims of the origins of all African American peoples. These sets of land ethics serve as lenses which we can use to understand the possible ways in which enslaved African American peoples may have understood their relationship to the land. This paper toys with two land ethics. The first is a european market -oriented land ethic based on relentless industry. This land ethic praises the conversion of land into marketable commodities. The highest value of the land is the riches reaped from it, and the farmer who can reap the most riches from his or her land, is most worthy of praise. The second land ethic is what I will reference as an African land ethic (although you could call it anything, and it can be seen in many other cultures besides Africa). Under this land ethic, farmers also use the land for sustenance but there is less focus on maximum gains from the use of land. Instead the greatest value of the land comes from community that can be fostered there. Under this ethic, the land’s greatest value lay not in its ability to create riches, but as place of home, family and community.

These land ethics would have coalesced for hundreds of years during slavery in the United States. The African land ethics defined by Akuffo and Agbosu would have resonated most strongly with the first African peoples that made it through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. However, the assumption is that these land ethics were preserved, in some form, over many generations of slavery. It isn’t too far fetched an assumption though; from music, to saving seeds from Africa Citation, African resistance during slavery often took the form of holding onto African culture despite threats of violence, and even death, for doing so. It is not unlikely that African slave communities held onto some form of this African Land ethic. A competing explanation for the ancestral and cultural ties to the land during slavery is the lack of legal right to own land. However, contrary to the mainstream historical narrative during reconstruction, not all slave communities were willing to be uprooted in order to own land. While many freed slaves were excited about the opportunities of the the Preemption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862, Savile notes that for some ex-slave communities preemption was not “an opportunity to buy land, but an obligation to leave home”(1996:42). The ex slave community that lived on St. Helena’s Big House Plantation in 1964 reflected that being forced off their land was “as bad as to be sold” Saville 1996: 42). Not only were they afraid to lose their home, but they were afraid to lose the vast ecologies of the plantation, notably marsh and woodland which they used for “fuel, fertilizer, pasturage, herbs and game” (1996:42). The objection to leave home was particularly prevalent on the east coast where slave communities had lived on the land for several generations (as opposed to being sold to work the huge plantations of the southern midwest). And while these communities give compelling evidence to a shared African Land ethic, not all newly freed peoples adhered to these land ethics.

There were other freed slaves who relied much more heavily on a European land ethic after emancipation. Benjamin Montgomery was an ex-slave who ran his owners plantation, and ended up buying it from him in 1866. Benjamin Montgomery grew up as a slave on Joseph Davis’ plantation. He ran a supply store for slaves on his plantation, and eventually accumulated enough wealth from his store to buy his freedom. After he was freed, Benjamin Montgomery stayed under the protection of Joseph Davis, and eventually was entrusted to manage the entire plantation. Benjamin Montgomery eventually purchased the plantation from Joseph in 1866 for 300,000 dollars. Benjamin Montgomery was a businessman, and it informed the way he understood how to make a living after slavery. The way in which newly freed slaves chose which land ethics to lean on is not simple nor linear. It was a result of converging factors like geography, personal life, skills, family values and many others. This paper seeks, in part, to address how these factors may have influenced how slaves viewed their relationship to the land after their emancipation.

This essay describes a case study of two farm families, the Shepard and the Greene family, directly after their emancipation. Both families both moved to Pleasant Ridge Wisconsin to farm after their emancipation. First I look for evidence that defines each family’s land ethic (leaning towards a European land ethic or an African land ethic). Then, I seek explanatory factors for why these particular families adhered to one land ethic or the other. In the discussion I address nuances to my argument, and acknowledge the complications that occur from simplifying complex historical phenomena into these digestible lenses.


This paper is based on archival research of Pleasant Ridge Wisconsin between the dates 1840 and present day. In particular I focused attention on the ways in which white and Black residents of Pleasant Ridge viewed the Shepherd and Greene families’ relationship to the land. I focus on dates between 1840 and 1880 as they are closest to the emancipation of the Greene and Shepard Families. Archival data for this project was obtained from the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, WI.

Data for this project include interview data, newspaper clippings, secondary histories and essays, and photos.  The majority of data for this project comes from the Platteville Negro Community Documents, a menagerie of essays, photos, and newspaper clippings about the residents of Pleasant Ridge the second largest source of data for this project came from personal interviews with pleasant ridge residents between 1980 and 1981 by Zachary Cooper and Emilie Tari through the grant for the National Endowment for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin Department of Curriculum and Instruction. These interviews were accessed through the Wisconsin Historical Society. Finally, some data came from in person interviews with residents of Pleasant Ridge, a tour of pleasant ridge, and the Pleasant Ridge Historical Society not the right name, find real name.

One important note is that the Greene Family is sometimes interchanged with Green. Both names reference the same family.

This paper focuses on two families, the Shepard family and the Green family whom both farmed in Pleasant Ridge Wisconsin directly after their emancipation between 1848 and 1890. The Shepard Family moved to Pleasant Ridge form Haymarket Virginia in 1948. They came with their master, William Horner. There are some suspicions that uprisings in Virginia might have been a catalyst for the Horner family to make the move to Wisconsin. The Horner family allowed the Shepards to buy their freedom once in Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin. The Greene Family took a different route to freedom. They used the underground railroad to find Pleasant Ridge, and their journey was more convoluted than that of the Shepards. The Greene family ran from a plantation in St. Charles County Missouri. They journeyed for a few years, but it seems the family settled in Pleasant Ridge between 1863 and 1870, living for a year or so in a tent outside of the town. For both families, it was their first experience owning land as freedmen.

What was particularly interesting about these families was the ways they used their farms. Even when historian Shawn Godwin attempted to be objective in his description of the Pleasant Ridge families, he often praised the Shepard family for their industry. After a paragraph dedicated to an elaborate description of Issac Shepard's farm and its immense productivity, Godwin follows "Clearly...Issac Shepard was the example for his fellow farmers to follow" p. 88. Godwin also describes the Shepards propensity for lumbering, boasting "One Significant difference between Shepard and virtually all of his neighbors was how heavily he cut timber on his land. Virtually no one in the township produced anything close to the amount of firewood he did." but he later admits "the trees and woodlots on his farm were probably severely stressed, and there were probably a lot of stumps on his farm" p.88. While the Shepard family was known for their farm's productivity and their family's industrious character, the Greene family was known for the community events they hosted on their farm and their dedication to preserving the community’s African-American heritage.

The Greene family was most known for hosting host huge bowery dances on their farm in a community shed they built. Charlie Greene, a resident at Pleasant Ridge recalls kindly, “There were often as many as 300 people at these get-togethers. those were the good times.." . Image 6 shows a flyer used in 1917 for one of these bowery dances. The Muscoda Progressive paper fondly recalls the annual event in 1936:

"The annual barbecue given at the Thomas Green home west of lancaster by the colored colony was the usual success. Colored friends and relatives from far and near make it a point to attend these annual affairs. A bowery dance is in progress from morning until early the next morning and is the main entertainment for all visitors. The attendances is great and is composed of white as well as black. Good eats with pork and chicken are always consumed in quantities. Money realized from these celebrations is used for church and social purposes of these people"

The event was often hosted by the Autumn Leaf Club, a club dedicated to preserving the African Heritage of Pleasant Ridge. The Autumn Leaf Club’s president Ollie Lewis Greene was known for her passion of preserving the town’s history.


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