This article is part of Black Food Sovereignty: Stories from the Field, a series co-produced by Frontline Solutions and NPQ. This series features stories from Black food sovereignty leaders who are working to transform the food system at the local level and explores how these leaders are addressing critical issues at the intersection of food sovereignty, racial and economic justice, and community.
How does a community come together to build community wealth and advance Black food sovereignty? It is not easy. But it helps to build on the legacy of those who came before.
In one sense, the organization that I support is new. A little over two years ago, Black food advocates came together in Raleigh to form the Black Farmers’ Hub. Our mission was to make fresh food affordable to the community and support local farmers in the process. We provide food for pick up or delivery, and all our produce and products are sourced from local Black farmers and businesses. In Southeast Raleigh, where we operate a small grocery store, the US Department of Agriculture has estimated that 30 percent of residents live more than a mile from their closest supermarket.
A Story from Our Ancestors
A century ago, Black land ownership in the US was at an all-time high. Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans owned 15 million acres of land. But the gains of the half century after emancipation were reversed in the following 50 years, as Black people lost land due to fraudulent tactics by government entities, banks, and individuals.
Here’s one of many stories of Black land loss. In fact, it is my own story—or, rather, the story of my great, great grandparents. It begins in the small town of Wilson Mills, NC.
In the 1880s, Ambert (Armitto Turner Sanders) and Hardy Sanders, both formerly enslaved, were able to save up enough money to buy a parcel of the very land where they had spent decades sharecropping. The farmland had been used as an orchard and vineyard. The family worked it diligently, earning a living by cultivating produce and making fresh molasses from sugarcane, with a mule being one of their greatest farming assets.
For decades, the 39-acre tract was a sacred space for the Sanders family to come together after a long day’s work and celebrate special occasions. The farming business came easy to them as their enslaved ancestors had passed down to them techniques and business practices. In time, with growing expertise and drive, the family expanded their farming business, selling tobacco, raising hogs, and developing other farm goods. The family business did well and was a force in the community.
The Struggle to Avoid Land Theft
That is, until tragedy struck. Just before the Great Depression, Hardy Sanders passed away from natural causes, leaving Ambert to take on farming responsibilities along with her adult children. It wasn’t long before Ambert felt the impact of her husband’s passing. Finances started dwindling, and it became more difficult to keep up with the farm’s demands.
During the Great Depression, Ambert’s great grandsons, Zelb and Raymond Hunter, took on the challenge of solving a community’s need for food. The brothers innovatively cut out the back of an old vehicle and attached it to a mule, increasing crop yield. As people began to migrate from rural to urban areas in droves, the pair traveled to Raleigh, NC, to ensure that seniors and those in need received healthy produce.
At the time, North Carolina was primarily an agricultural state, and the banking community knew well the value of its rich soil. The state government, local banks, and more than a few white residents were on a mission to fraudulently—and sometimes forcibly—remove Black families from their property.
The Sanders family were hardly exempt from these pressures, as our family archives document. Among these files are court documents from Johnston County and article clippings from the Smithfield Herald, which indicate that Ambert Sanders had a dispute, and her land would be repossessed after her death. The matriarch of the family, “Aunt” Ambert had lived 60 years of her life on that 39-acre tract, working, raising nine children, and rearing numerous grand and great grandchildren. She spoke about the loss of her land in an article in the Smithfield Herald, in which she was touted as one of the oldest Smithfield residents.
Another Herald article (“Aunt Amber files Civil Suit at age 103 to Regain Land,” January 26, 1940) stated that when Ambert walked into the courtroom to file suit against SH Massey, a local merchant, she was confident and steadfast. The article also noted that Massey provided a financial document signed by Ambert, but as Ambert was unable to read, she did not know what she was signing. Ambert passed in 1946 as a supercentenarian (“‘Aunt’ Amber Sanders Dies at the Age 110,” January 11, 1946),1 believing that her mediation efforts had returned a portion of her land to her family, but most of the 39 acres was lost, and what remained was repossessed after her death.
Black farmer coalitions are playing an essential role in developing a new Black community food system.
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The stress of land loss led to family disputes and disrupted family dynamics. Ambert’s great-grandson, Zelb Hunter, entered the military and fought in World War II. He was one of many men in the family who left the farm to fight for the country. His return from the war was a tough one. His family went their separate ways, and as he could not find work locally, he migrated to the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury. Years later, however, he moved back to Raleigh and began to grow food on a small plot of land that he purchased in 1953. Zelb Hunter continued to bring his produce and that of fellow farmers to Southeast Raleigh, providing fresh food options for 90 years.
What happened to my ancestors is just one example of the historical injustices Black farmers have faced.
A New Black Community Food System Emerges
Today, Black farmer coalitions are playing an essential role in developing a new Black community food system. There is a growing movement of Black farmers’ hubs and organizations in urban and rural North Carolina, a few of which are listed in Black Dollar North Carolina’s online directory. To help promote Black farmers and connect them to each other, the Black Farmer’s Hub is creating a green book.
How do Black farmers benefit from these farm hubs? Selling directly to consumers can be difficult for a small farmer, which is why most of the produce on grocery store shelves is either from a corporate farmer or a farmer marketing cooperative, such as Land O’Lakes, Sunkist, or Organic Valley.
Our goal is to continue to lend a space to the community in which land ownership and retention is the central focus.
Food hubs can help farmers make such direct sales by providing them with a place to store, pack, and wash their produce. food. If their produce cannot be sold on the wholesale market to a grocer, restaurant, or third-party buyer, they need a place to sell it; a food hub can provide guidance to Black farmers’ on how they can get their produce into grocery outlets, and it can assist farmers with meeting the federal and local government requirements and certifications they need to sell their produce commercially.
The Black Farmers’ Hub operates according to these community self-help principles and aims to provide space for Black farmers to sell their products. Our goal is to continue to lend a space to the community in which land ownership and retention is the central focus. We continue forming alliances, and a second hub about an hour north, in Warren County, is in development. A rural, Black-majority county of nearly 19,000 people, Warren has one grocery story in a 45-mile radius and, according to the US census, has a poverty rate of 22.8 percent.
Our mission, in short, is to build a platform for Black (and Brown) farmers to sell their products. This is the work not only of the Black Farmers’ Hub, but also of our many allies in the Black food justice movement.
It is long past time for Black food justice to be at the center of community economic development in the United States, especially in the South. By building a new food system, Black farmers can continue the legacy of “Aunt” Ambert Turner Sanders and so many of our ancestors.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the editorial assistance of LaTonya Andrews Hunter.
- The Smithfield Herald refers to Ambert as “Amber.” She was variously known by both names during her life. It is also worth noting that six years passed between 1940 and 1946, yet according to the Herald, she was seven years older in 1946 than 1940. Ambert’s true date of birth is not certain. Like many born during slavery, birth records are not available.