How Black landowners in eastern North Carolina are recovering generational wealth lost to industry encroachment.
This article was originally written by Cameron Oglesby, and published by The Nation.
Piney Woods, N.C., 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 historically 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 footage of the Vera Brown Farm in Jamesville, N.C., in August. (Justin Cook for The Margin)
Piney Woods serves as a 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 multigenerational 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 percent of all US farmers. According to a recent agricultural census, Black farmers account for a little over 1 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 the US Census of Agriculture data found a 98 percent 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.