Relationships to the land can be seen throughout African American history and culture. However, Black Californians haven’t just long been connected to the natural world in the past.
Photo: Will Scott Jr. at work on his farm, 2015. Credit: Alice Daniel/KQED.
Music Credit for Episode 6: “Strange Persons” by Kicksta; “Summer Breeze” and “Inward” by HansTroost; Woke Up this Morning-Jazz Organ (ID 1293) by Lobo Loco. Tribe of Noise licensing information can be found here: prosearch.tribeofnoise.com/pages/terms
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 6
“Still Here: Black Farmers & Agricultural Stewardship in the Modern Age”
Caroline Collins (Narrator): When people imagine Black Californians in the modern age they often think of them living in urban spaces disconnected from nature. And while the majority of African Americans in the state do reside in cities, their relationships with worked land has survived and thrived in urbanity.
In fact, successive generations of Black migrants adapted to city life by establishing ways of living that often preserved their relationships to the land. So much so that–
Susan Anderson: This idea that Black people are somehow separated from nature and wilderness is really peculiar. When you think about how often the opposite is really true.
Caroline Collins: Because what is true is that African Americans across the state brought agricultural traditions to the cities where they settled, maintaining practices that many of today’s urban farms continue.
And this Black agricultural stewardship isn’t just happening in urban environments. Today, at farms and ranches across rural California, African American farmers are working to carry out the legacy of generations of Black agriculturalists who worked the land for centuries.
Will Scott: The original farmers in this country was African American. We got away from it but we are coming back to it.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: So, as we’ll soon discover, not only have Black Californians long been connected to the natural world, their connection continues to this day.
In urban and rural spaces across the state.
Caroline Collins: I’m Caroline Collins and this is the Cal Ag Roots podcast. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming to shed light on current issues in agriculture. This is the sixth and final episode in our We Are Not Strangers Here series. This series, which draws its name from writer Ravi Howard, highlights hidden histories of African Americans who have shaped California’s food and farming culture from early statehood to the present.
This six-part series is also connected to a travelling exhibit with the same name. The exhibit was originally designed to travel throughout California–we printed big, beautiful banners full of all kinds of photos from the archives that accompany the stories we’re telling. But then, the pandemic happened. And so, now we’re digitally reconceiving the We Are Not Strangers Here exhibit so that people can still enjoy it even during the pandemic. It’s not up yet, but we’re working on it. Please check out www.agroots.org for updates.
PART ONE: CITY GARDENING
Caroline Collins: Throughout this series, we’ve discussed the many ways that Black people have impacted the landscape and culture of rural California. From gold miners to homesteaders to agricultural laborers, African American settlers have made their mark on the Golden State even before its inception. They farmed and they ranched. They developed agricultural innovations like new irrigation methods. And they established communities, towns, and settlements across rural California from the Central Valley to the Oregon border to the southern reaches of the state.
But Black people in California generally aren’t associated with nature, despite this legacy. As we stated in our opening, part of this misunderstanding has to do with the fact that today, many African Americans reside in urban areas. But as we just mentioned, plenty of Black migrants incorporated agricultural practices into city living. So why is it that urban Black folks are so often seen as completely disconnected from the natural world?
To understand this misconception, we need to start with an important American myth. It’s a myth that shapes our understandings of wilderness and civilization and it’s one that’s changed over time.
(Pensive orchestral music)
Caroline Collins: In the early stages of American colonization European settlers often saw themselves as bringing productiveness, order, and civilization to a wild environment. In fact, in their view, this process was key to the birth of the nation. These ideas about what civilization did and did not include have had lasting impact. And as scholars like Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo point out, over time those who weren’t considered part of Wwhite civilization got quote “coded as nature.” John Muir, for example, who’s known as the Father of the National Parks system, operated from a perspective where, in his view, Indians were a part of nature and not human agents that transformed it.
However, this national desire to transform nature into civilization didn’t last forever. With the expansion of industrialism, wilderness spaces increasingly became viewed as places that needed protection. This shift in perception also impacted racial understandings of nature.
For example, by the beginning of the 20th century there was what environmental history scholar Carolyn Merchant called a decided “whitening of the wilderness” by Wwhite conservationists. This meant that they viewed the natural world as no longer a place to be settled or even lived within. Instead, in their view, nature was meant for conservation, recreation, and tourist consumption–primarily by Wwhite Americans. It was an imagining that in many ways took Native Americans–who’d once been viewed as nature–out of perceptions of wilderness.
And as African Americans increasingly moved to urban environments, portrayals of Black people’s relationship to nature also changed. In fact, according to Merchant, by the late 19th century it was the city that many Wwhite Americans viewed as a quote “dark, negatively charged wilderness filled with Blacks and southern European immigrants, while mountains, forests, waterfalls, and canyons were viewed as sublime places of white light.”
Caroline Collins: This re-imagining of place and race meant that dominant cultural stories associated Black people solely with urban places–urban spaces that were seen as completely disconnected from nature. Or as writer Ravi Howard puts it in his essay “We Are Not Strangers Here,” quote: “At some point the terms urban and black became interchangeable.”
So given this misconception, we talked to historian Susan Anderson, our podcast’s Primary History Advisor and the History Curator and Program Manager of the California African American Museum to get a fuller picture about how Black folks actually lived in urban and suburban spaces and the ways they stayed connected with nature. And she reminded us of a long and significant history regarding Black people and gardening–one that dates back centuries.
Susan Anderson: The land can be seen throughout African American history and culture. It goes all the way back to the remnants of cultures in Africa that were brought here by an enslaved people bringing practices from cultures where the cycles of planting and reaping were part of the rhythm of life.
Caroline Collins: These practices which were maintained by enslaved people, even under duress, often centered around the cultivation of small patches of land. So–
Susan Anderson: Gardens even in slavery were very vital to Black people for their own subsistence and survival.
Caroline Collins: Sometimes these gardens were located next to cabins of the enslaved or they were tucked away in nearby hillsides, swamps, and forests. But regardless of their location, they were central parts of the lives of enslaved individuals throughout the Americas. Because it was in these spaces that enslaved Africans and their descendants quote “‘stole’ back their own time and labor in snatches of the night, on Sundays or ‘holidays.’” That’s according to Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which actually reconstructed a slave garden on its campus.
So these gardens were essential. And they provided many things, including–
Susan Anderson: Self-sufficiency…we ate everything out of our garden except the, the flowers and other plants that meant a kind of beauty…
Caroline Collins: And that beauty was just as important. Beyond sustenance, these gardens–even during slavery–were also spaces of physical and spirtual refuge.
Susan Anderson: Even under those circumstances, they were places for leisure and enjoyment
Caroline Collins: Where they offered–
Susan Anderson: A kind of contemplative approach to life and solitude.
Caroline Collins: These practices of carving out and nurturing whatever small space of land was available for cultivation, contemplation, and rest survived even after enslavement.
Susan Anderson: You can see that carried on through freedom and through modern times and through the 20th century and vernacular gardens in the kind of ornamentation that city gardeners would express.
Caroline Collins: In fact, these city gardens would continue to play an important role in the lives of Black Americans–even in California.
Caroline Collins: By the mid-twentieth century, many African American residents in California followed national trends, moving from the country to the city.
Not only did some Black Californians relocate to cities from rural areas within the state during this time. Part of this urban concentration was also due to what’s known as The Great Migration–a migration we talked about in our second episode.
It’s an important part of state history, so here’s a quick recap. Even though Black people have been settling in California since Spanish colonization and though Black folks took part in the gold rush and homesteaded in the 19th century–It’s the Great Migration that is most often mentioned in historical accounts of Black settlement in the Golden State.
During the Great Migration, between 1915 and 1960, five million Black Americans left the South. Historical narratives that discuss this migration often explain how many of these migrants settled in Northern and Midwestern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New York. But many of these new settlers also headed West. They started new lives in Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Phoenix. And in California they came to cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Urban Politics Scholar Dr. Lorn Foster examines Black migration to Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century. He explains how by the mid-twentieth century Black Californians weren’t just living in urban spaces, they were increasingly leaving previously steady work in personal service and small business for more lucrative opportunities in industry.
Lorn Foster: It’s only with the outbreak of the second world war that you see this movement toward industrial jobs in African Americans in Los Angeles and in Oakland, in San Francisco.
Caroline Collins: But even with growing concentrations of African Americans in urban environments and increasing industrial employment, Black Californians continued to value agricultural practices. So they brought practices to cities through–
Lorn Foster: Lots of truck gardens, people raising chickens and eggs.
Caroline Collins: These home gardens and sometimes the raising of livestock and poultry were an integral part of many urban dwellers’ lives in the city.
Lorn Foster: For African American arrivals was an opportunity to be somewhat self-sustained.
Caroline Collins: It’s an independence that retired educator and business owner Eugenia King Bickerstaff recalls with fondness.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: We had that freedom where we could roam around and go and see our friends and get on our bikes and go ride where we wanted to, play out in the street.
Caroline Collins: Eugenia grew up in mid twentieth century Southern California. But she spoke to me via Zoom from her home in Washington, DC.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff : I was born in San Diego and spent my entire life there up until 1972 when I married. And then, moved back East. I was educated at the University of San Diego. I received a undergraduate and master’s degree there in education and began my teaching career there in San Diego.
Caroline Collins: Like many Black residents in her urban community, Eugenia’s parents Alonzo and Verna Lee King were originally from the South before they–
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: moved to California from Louisiana as part of the Ggreat Mmigration.
Caroline Collins: Alonzo arrived in San Diego in 1941 and Verna Lee, just a few years later. Alonzo King was a college educated man who back home in Louisiana had been a principal of a Black school.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: But when they got to California before the Ssecond Wworld Wwar those opportunities were not there for Black folks.
Caroline Collins: So her father picked up work where he could.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: He had several jobs, none of which had anything to do with his educational background, but he did what he had to do in order to provide for us.
Caroline Collins: And in doing so, he provided Eugenia and her siblings with a 1950s childhood that she recalls as downright idyllic.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff : Looking back at the childhood that we had, the sense of innocence. We basically walked everywhere. The Black community in San Diego looked out for one another.
Caroline Collins: So much so that not much escaped their parents.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: We would always laugh as we got older, say in high school, you know, that if we were seen walking down the street and holding hands with somebody, we couldn’t even get home before the word was there.
Caroline Collins: Even with the community’s sharp eyes upon her, it was a childhood Eugenia loved and one filled with memories of the outdoors.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: I think about all the opportunities that we had, everything was free, you know, just being able to go to the zoo and we did it we took advantage of all of that. And we spent a lot of time on the water.
(50’s upbeat organ music)
Caroline Collins: A lot of that outdoor time was a family affair.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: My dad, especially, he loved taking us out to the beach and having those all day cookouts.
Caroline Collins: Her father took his outdoor cooking very seriously.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: Daddy always kept that spray bottle because you kind of had to control those flames. He was a real, uh, artist when it came to being outside.
Caroline Collins: And it wasn’t just the beach. In California, Alonzo King continued a relationship with the natural world that he’d established in his native Louisiana through a variety of activities like hunting and fishing.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: One thing about Ddaddy, he saw comfort from simple things. He loved to fish. He enjoyed being
Caroline Collins: Looking back, Eugenia realizes there was another element to all of these family adventures. Something much more practical.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: The things that we just thought were like outings and just fun, really the greater purpose was to have a meal that night.
Caroline Collins: Central to these practical traditions that Black Californians like the Kings brought to urban centers was the keeping of home gardens.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: That’s what Bblack folk did. They had some kind of garden going on and just about everybody had a lemon tree or some kind of citrus tree. And if it wasn’t a produce garden it was flowers. And they maintained beautiful yards and took a lot of pride in that.
Caroline Collins: Pride that was often rooted in complex understandings of the natural world.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: My aunt she lived in that area too. Alice Whaley. She had every kind of fruit tree you could imagine. She could identify anything. We look at something and think it was a weed and she would give us the correct name for it and tell you what it was used for.
Caroline Collins: Eugenia’s father also kept a flourishing garden.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: When it came to, to the garden and the yard that was his thing. He had a real feeling for the land.
Caroline Collins: It was a relationship with the land that provided a bounty for his family. In his vegetable garden Alonzo King grew corn, peppers, beans–produce that regularly made its way to the Kings’ dinner table.
(Orchestral folk music)
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: One thing he always had was great collard greens, and you could count on him having a pot of those going on every weekend. We always said, mama was the gourmet cook. And so her, her style of cooking was totally different. Daddy just cooked that good old soul food. That everyday is stuff that you like to have. And lots of Mexican food too, because, you know, we thoroughly were raised on that.
Caroline Collins: Like other Black urban families, the Kings’ home garden wasn’t just a source of sustenance, it was also a site where their private and public lives mixed.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: They would entertain out there. And that was just common with the people that we knew and that California climate, you couldn’t help it be outside.
Caroline Collins: These outdoor forms of entertainment often represented more than simple leisure. For example, in the 20th century, some women participated in garden clubs that were offshoots of African American women’s clubs, and part of a Progressive Era-inspired city beautification movement. And sometimes home gardens even provided the backdrop for key political gatherings. Eugenia remembers one such occasion organized by her mother, Verna Lee, who was heavily involved in local politics.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: I was in kindergarten, then it was only a half day. And I came home and there were all these people in the backyard. You know, these women, everybody was dressed up mama including, you know with hats and the gloves and she was serving and they had the China and the coffee cups and all of that.
Caroline Collins: And it turns out it wasn’t just any run of the mill gathering.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: It was actually a fundraiser for the person who actually became a governor, California, Pat Brown.
Caroline Collins: Reflecting on the role of their family garden, Eugenia acknowledges the agricultural stewardship practices that her parents passed along to her.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: I knew that no matter where I was, I was going to have to have a little piece of dirt somewhere that I could just put my hands in and get them dirty. And I might not have had been growing vegetables and things like that, but I definitely had flowers going on,
Caroline Collins: An appreciation she now understands must have also been a comfort to previous Black city gardeners like her father Alonzo King, who packed up and moved to California in 1941. Who was initially denied opportunities to use his education to provide for his family. But who, despite these circumstances, found a sense of serenity in his backyard urban garden.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: I think that for him, it was relaxing, that’s where he was able to kind of deal with things that were going on around him and just find some peace and some comfort.
(Orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: A practice and a space that offered him comfort…into his old age.
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: That spot was a place where he would go, he’d take his radio out there. He listened to a baseball game or smoke a cigar, but he loved that area so much. And just always spent so much time out there. And he actually died in that space. So I take comfort in that, knowing when he died, he was someplace where that he loved, you know, and that’s how important it was to him.
PART TWO: STILL HERE, RURAL FARMING TODAY
Caroline Collins: The legacy of these Black city gardeners continues today. Across the state, urban farms like Sacramento’s Yisrael Family Urban Farm, Oakland’s Acta Non Verba, and The Ron Finley Project in Los Angeles all continue this legacy by connecting city residents with the earth. They provide fresh, nutritious produce; cultivate green spaces; and promote community cooperation.
However, it’s important to note that African Americans also continue to farm in rural communities across California. Supporting these ranchers and farmers are organizations like the Fresno-based African American Farmers of California, or the AAFC, which is led by Will Scott, Jr. of Scott Family Farms.
He was born into a farming family that migrated from South Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma to California where they worked in grape cutting. Mr. Scott, however, didn’t originally set out to also become a farmer.
Will Scott: Most African Americans was told to get away from farming because of the slavery connotation. So I got an education.
Caroline Collins: But the land never stopped calling him.
Will Scott: I think when you develop a love for the land, you know it’s there. So when I retired from the telephone company, I jumped out of the skillet into the fire. I became a farmer and farming, as you know, is hard work, you have to love it to do it. But Afro-American has to play a part in this agricultural system.
Caroline Collins: For Mr. Scott, playing a part meant organizing. He began the AAFC which runs a demonstration farm for new farmers–helping them get hands-on experience growing a variety of produce, including Southern specialty crops.
He’s also invested in this work because, for him, understanding and appreciating the cultivation of food is in many ways to understand humanity. Or as he puts it–
(Orchestral folk music)
Will Scott: In the beginning when man, all he did every waking hour was looking daylight hours, looking for food at night. He spent time hiding from the man who or the animal was looking for him for food, you know? So when Man found that, that there are places he could go and there was food, he was able to sit there and stay for awhile. When you eat and stuff like that, you sit around in a group of people love, things come up, you start discussing business, you start talking politics and all that other stuff.
Caroline Collins:: So, he considers supporting the work of small farmers and the food they produce as a moral imperative.
Will Scott: The moral values that exist in this country, whether you own a farm or you and you’re in a big corporate office, those more values originated from the farm. So we have to work out a way to sustain that we have to work together. To sustain the small farmer because that’s a way of life.
Caroline Collins: Sustaining small farmers, however, isn’t always easy.
Gail Meyers: It was like you’re doing rescue work, right. That’s what it felt like. Just always coming to the rescue.
Caroline Collins: That’s Dr. Gail Meyers. Her non-profit Farms to Grow Inc. works with African-American farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers in keeping, growing, and maintaining a sustainable farming enterprise. She explains the stakes of such work.
Gail Meyers: This farmer losing this land, we were putting out fires, we were getting all kinds of
Caroline Collins: Dr. Meyers wasn’t always directly involved in agricultural advocacy. As a cultural anthropologist and Air Force veteran, her earliest interests in farm work began with her dissertation work at The Ohio State University where she researched the history of African American communities in Ohio, interviewing over 100 farmers in the state. Her project initially led her into academia.
But while teaching Public Health courses in race and race ethnicity disease at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, she hit a wall.
Gail Meyers: When I got to Atlanta, I was using terms like agroecology. This was in 2002… and people were responding with faces. Like, what are you talking about? I thought, Oh my God, I can’t do this work here.
Caroline Collins: So when an opportunity in San Francisco presented itself, she moved and shifted her journey, leaving academia for activism in an epicenter of the sustainable farming movement. And once she arrived–
Gail Meyers: Inevitably someone responded with, oh, well there are five organizations that I need you to know about. And there’s two say I can give you their numbers right now, the 10 conferences that are coming up.
Caroline Collins: While she found a community of like minded agriculturalists in Northern California, she also realized there was still a great need for work standing in what she calls the gap between underrepresented farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Gail Meyers: Like we have a farmer in Bakersfield and he’s a veteran. But he doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer. So what we do is we pull up the application and I sit with him on the phone and we complete the application, we send it to the farmer veteran coalition.
Caroline Collins: It’s often challenging and complicated work.
Gail Meyers: That’s the purpose, to organize, to make sure that we can make an impact on changing the farm bill and different policies that affect the appropriations of money and who gets what. That requires a lot of energy. You can get blown out.
Caroline Collins: However, it’s work that she sees as critical. Because organizations like hers aren’t just providing assistance with an often overwhelming bureaucratic infrastructure. In many ways, they’re also working to restore faith in an agrarian promise of the Golden State. So it’s about–
Gail Meyers: Creating hope. Someone that they can see that, you know, has a little bit of understanding of a system that can work on their behalf.
Caroline Collins: And that’s a worthy cause because she believes that when you take the time to examine Black folks and their relationship to the land–
Gail Meyers: You see who these people are.
Caroline Collins: And in seeing so many Black farmers up close and personal, the work that they do, and the history they represent–Dr. Meyers has found herself at a new point in life.
Gail Meyers: I want to put my hands into the soil and continue to involve my soul.
Caroline Collins: Because in her nearly twenty years of agricultural advocacy, she and others like her have helped establish a growing pipeline of new farming advocates.
Gail Meyers: Now they’re like 20 different Black farming groups and now we’ve got b=Black farming coalitions and several cooperatives. And now they’re many more folks that are doing education with kids and communities.
Caroline Collins: And so she’s done her part in activism and is now ready to continue the legacy of Black farming in her own very tangible way.
Gail Meyers: It feels like I can go farm now…So the next evolution in how I see my work on the planet is I want to farm…I’m ready to be a farmer now.
Caroline Collins: So, as we draw this six part We Are Not Strangers Here series to its close, what have we learned by highlighting hidden histories of African Americans who’ve shaped California’s food and farming culture?
For Eugenia King Bickerstaff these hidden histories shine a light on an important fact.
(Pensive orchestral music)
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: We’re at home here we’re at home in our gardens and our yards and,
Caroline Collins: And this connection to the land, even for city dwellers means–
Eugenia King Bickerstaff: We are not strangers here. This is part of who we are.
Caroline Collins: It’s part of who Black people are because, as our Historical Advisor Susan Anderson reminds us, African Americans’ relationship to the land has links to a set of long held ancestral practices. Practices in which the most significant parts of life often revolved around communing with the natural world.
Susan Anderson: The first churches for African-Americans the ring shout ceremonies were held in the woods in the forest at night.
Caroline Collins: In fact, nature can even be seen as a symbol of Black people’s resistance.
Susan Anderson: When you think about the runaways people who ran away to the swamps, the Maroons, or the people who ran away to Indian lands, and that turning point in 1850 with the second fugitive slave law, which created the first refugee crisis in U.S. history enslaved Bblack people who were escaping were negotiating with nature, as they fled slavery, they were making bargains.
Caroline Collins: They were making bargains. And they were planting seeds. They were plowing and investing. They were pouring hopes into the land based on the promise of homesteading, of utopian visions of Black settlements and towns, and the city gardens and rural farms where African Americans continue to till the earth in the hopes that future generations will reap a California harvest greater than what they ever could have envisioned for themselves.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: Thanks for listening to the Cal Ag Roots podcast. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one at www.agroots.org, or on Apple Podcasts. And by the way, if you subscribe and rate this show on Apple Podcasts, it will help other people discover it.
Now some important acknowledgements: We Are Not Strangers Here is a collaboration between Susan Anderson of the California African American Museum, the California Historical Society, Exhibit Envoy and Amy Cohen, myself–Dr. Caroline Collins from UC San Diego, and the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Our traveling exhibit banners were written by Susan Anderson, our project’s Primary History Advisor. And this podcast was written and produced by me with production help from Lucas Brady Woods.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Visit calhum.org to learn more), and the 11th Hour Project at the Schmidt Family Foundation.
And finally, special thanks to TED-x which brought us the voice of Will Scott in this episode.
–End of Episode–
Cal Ag Roots Supporters
Huge THANKS to the following generous supporters of Cal Ag Roots. This project was made possible with support from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation and California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.