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Blacks In Agriculture: Big Subject – Individual Stories

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By Laura L. Klure, Special to BVN –

If someone mentions the topic “African-Americans in Agriculture,” the first things that come to mind might have something to do with cotton, peanuts, or George Washington Carver. But the role of Black people in the history of agriculture in the United States is a huge subject, and there have been many important contributions to agricultural techniques that were developed by African- Americans.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Library (NAL) lists numerous agriculture related patents held by African-American inventors, including Carver. These inventions range from tools and methods pertinent to everything from coconut and corn to eggs, lemons, potatoes, wheat, and vitamins.

One Black man, Lloyd Augustus Hall, obtained more than 100 patents related to food chemistry. See: www.nal.usda.gov. Under “History, Art and Biography” the NAL website gives many references to the importance of Blacks in the development of farming.

Another interesting source is the digital library at the New York Public library, which shows many images of Black farm workers, at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org.

A PBS documentary, “HOMECOMING: Black Farming & History,” filmed in 1999, chronicled many facets of the long road Blacks have hoed. This program told how the agricultural acres owned by Black farmers in 1910 totaled about 15 MILLION acres; then by 1969 Blacks owned only about 6 million acres of farms. The movement of African- Americans from the farms to the cities is charted on the PBS website, www.pbs.org.

A DVD of that program can be purchased at www.newsreel.org.

Within the huge field of agricultural history, one can find countless individual stories worthy of note, and PBS took that route in their documentary.

Let’s look briefly at a local Riverside story, which was spotlighted in the California Citrograph in 1936. The Citrograph was a monthly magazine that served the citrus industry from 1915 through 2002. The October 1936 issue had a photo of a Black “Faithful Citrus Worker,” Milford J. Thomas, on the cover. Inside, a short article states that Thomas had worked for the Rumsey and Bonnett families for 52 years, planting and caring for citrus and ornamentals.

Thomas’s parents had been slaves, before his birth in 1870 in Virginia (some sources say 1865-66).

Thomas started working for C. E. Rumsey in 1884 in Pennsylvania, and he continued that employment when he came to Riverside in 1903.

After living on Central Avenue for some years, Thomas lived with his wife Cornelia on E. 10th Street in Riverside. From there he drove a horse-drawn buggy back and forth to work in the citrus groves. For the Citrograph article, photos were taken of Thomas by the well known local photographer Avery E. Field. Many issues of the Citrograph as well as an archive full of photos by Field are preserved in the UCR Library, Special Collections. Several descendants of the Bonnett family still live in Riverside, but the name Thomas is too common to easily trace.

About Thomas, the Citrograph stated: “This friendly, conscientious man is a credit to his race, or to any race for that matter. He helped Mr. Rumsey plant his orange grove, and the shade trees and ornamental plantings nearby on Victoria Heights along Victoria Avenue, now one of the most beautiful districts of Riverside.”

Milford Thomas died in 1943. He and Cornelia had no children listed living with them in the 1910, 1920, or 1930 Census (on Ancestry.com).

An editorial in that same 1936 issue of the Citrograph quoted a southern agricultural leader and editor C. A. “Cully” Cobb as stating: “The problems of the white farmer and the colored farmer are the same problems. A policy which helps one helps the other. There is no place for race prejudice in any national program for the welfare of agriculture.”

To that declaration, the Citrograph’s editors added their own view: “Perhaps this doesn’t have anything specifically to do with the citrus grower, but it does have something to do with humanity and we believe that the citrus grower is interested in any gain by any American farmer, be he black or be he white.”

It is interesting to find such comparatively enlightened views being stated so clearly in 1936. Some recent news items might suggest that today’s agricultural questions are more concerned about the differences between small family farms and large agricultural businesses, than they are about race. However, the controversies surrounding the case of former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod indicate that we still need to pay attention to possible racial discrimination.

Sherrod was forced to resign, when some of her remarks were quoted out of context. She was eventually offered a new position, but she declined.

In 1999 the USDA settled a class action law suit and made payments to Black farmers who contended that the Agriculture Department discriminated against them in loans and other policies.

Today organizations such as the Land Loss Prevention Project, in North Carolina (www.landloss.org), continue to fight against various types of agricultural and environmental inequities.

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