African American Studies Agriculture and Agricultural Labor
R. Douglas Hurt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0068


The agricultural and farm labor history of African Americans extends across more than four centuries, from slavery beginning in the early 17th century to freedom resulting from the Civil War to a small number of independent farm owners by the early 21st century. Prior to the Civil War, slavery primarily served as an agricultural labor system. During the colonial period, only a few free African Americans owned land and farmed independently, but most worked in some fashion as slaves, producing tobacco and rice, tending livestock, and processing food. In 1794, Eli Whitney patented the first efficient cotton gin for processing short-staple cotton. With this invention, much of the South became a major cotton-producing region with a great need for cheap labor, which African Americans unwillingly provided. The Civil War ended slavery as an agricultural labor force, but the landless African Americans remained tied to large-scale farmers and planters as sharecroppers. In this agricultural system, sharecroppers essentially rented the land and paid the landlord with a portion of the crop, usually 50 percent, and the landlord told them how to conduct their farm work. They lived in a netherworld bound by degradation, poverty, and hopelessness. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 707,000 African American farmers remained impoverished by the crop lien and furnishing merchant system and usually farmed no more than fifty acres. They were free but their lives remained constrained by racism, which limited their access to capital for the purchase of land, machinery, livestock, seed, and fertilizer. Beginning with World War I, many African American farmers left the land for better opportunities elsewhere. By the mid-20th century, African American farmers remained impoverished because the agricultural lending programs of the federal government, particularly those of the Department of Agriculture, discriminated against them. African American farmers frequently met rejection when they applied for loans and other government assistance that would enable them to improve their agricultural activities. Most African American farmers, in the North and the South, owned too-little land to produce sufficient crops and livestock to earn a satisfactory living. The 21st century brought little change. Those who remained often held off-the-farm employment to keep their farms viable. Racism continued to color social and economic relationships with whites, credit institutions, and the federal government. Moreover, African American farmers often produced for local and specialty markets, and they chose agriculture as a lifestyle rather than as a commercial, moneymaking endeavor.

General Works

There are no modern general studies of African American agriculture that range from the colonial period to the early 21st century. In the absence of comprehensive surveys, several regional studies provide a general context for African American agriculture and labor. Breen and Innes 1980 studies free black farmers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore during the mid-17th century. These farmers raised cattle and tobacco and participated in the market economy, which improved their economic and social status among whites. Cooper 1977 finds that black farmers sought cheap lands in Wisconsin during the late 19th century, first to gain economic independence with subsistence agriculture, and later to achieve participation in the market economy. Vincent 1999 similarly emphasizes the entrepreneurial efforts of African American farmers in the Midwest to gain economic independence. Hawkins 1999 extends this interpretation to Kansas, arguing that freed African Americans believed that the acquisition of land and subsistence farming would gain them economic independence that could later expand into commercial production. The authors Wheeler and Brunn 1969 also found that small-scale black farmers could become self-sufficient during the 19th century, but that the increasing requirements for capital and credit during the 20th century drove many black farmers from the land. Wadley and Lee 1974 expands on this theme and contends that commercial agriculture had become too expensive for black farmers, who did not have the same access to capital and credit to finance their operations as white farmers. The low income and standard of living of African American farmers drive their children from agriculture. Reid 2014 agrees, noting that racism as well as increasing costs made African American farmers uncompetitive and profitable during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The author contends that the few African American farmers who remain in the Midwest measure success by their rural lifestyle compared to urban living. Tolnay 1999 surveys the life of African American sharecroppers in a social and family context during the early 20th century. Brown 1976 provides a brief survey of the role of African American women in American agriculture, from slavery to freedom to independent farmers.

  • Breen, T. H., and Stephen Innes. “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    Provides a brief but important discussion of a free black family who raised tobacco on Virginia’s Eastern Shore during a time of shifting race relations that moved blacks into slavery. Places these African American farmers in the context of the tobacco economy.

  • Brown, Minnie Miller. “Black Women in American Agriculture.” In Special Issue: Bicentennial Symposium: Two Centuries of American Agriculture. Edited by Vivian Wiser. Agricultural History 50.1 (1976): 202–212.

    A brief overview from the American Revolution to the early 1970s, including plantation agriculture, sharecropping, landownership, migration, and employment in food-processing industries.

  • Cooper, Zachary. Black Settlers in Rural Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1977.

    Discusses the African American farming communities of Pleasant Ridge (Grant County) and Cheyenne Valley (Vernon County) in southeastern Wisconsin during the 19th century. The opportunity for blacks to acquire cheap lands came with the opening of the Wisconsin Territory and the survey and sale of the public lands.

  • Dangerfield, David W. “Turning the Earth: Free Black Yeomanry in the Antebellum South Carolina Lowcountry.” Agricultural History 89.2 (2015): 200–224.

    DOI: 10.3098/ah.2015.089.2.200

    Argues that the farming strategies and lives of free black farmers near Charleston, South Carolina, during the antebellum period were similar to small-scale white farmers. These self-sufficient farmers gained marginal access to the commercial economy and earned the respect of whites, which permitted them to make small challenges to racial boundaries.

  • Hawkins, Anne P. W. “Hoeing Their Own Row: Black Agriculture and the Agrarian Ideal in Kansas, 1880–1920.” Kansas History 22.3 (1999): 200–213.

    After the Civil War, many African Americans moved to Kansas and followed Booker T. Washington’s advice that farming was the best way to achieve economic independence. Emphasizes eastern Kansas, where African American farmers championed the Jeffersonian ideal that agriculture enabled a prosperous, independent, and moral life.

  • Reid, Debra. “‘The Whitest of Occupations’: African Americans in the Rural Midwest, 1940–2010.” In The Rural Midwest since World War II. Edited by J. L. Anderson, 204–254. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014.

    Discusses the manner in which racism affected social and economic relationships between African Americans and whites in the rural Midwest after World War II, where black farm families ultimately measured success by their lifestyle and community rather than agricultural profits.

  • Tolnay, Stewart E. The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

    Emphasizes the life of African American sharecroppers from 1910 to 1940, including marriage, economic survival, family making, stability, and geographic mobility.

  • Vincent, Stephen A. Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765–1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    Traces the migration of African Americans from the South to the Midwest from 1820 to 1900. Emphasis on migration, pioneer life, and farming.

  • Wadley, Janet K., and Everett S. Lee. “The Disappearance of the Black Farmer.” Phylon 35.3 (1974): 276–283.

    DOI: 10.2307/274553

    Argues that agricultural life for black farmers essentially has ended. The few black farmers who remain in the South cultivate tobacco and cotton, but their children leave the farms for a better life.

  • Wheeler, James O., and Stanley D. Brunn. “An Agricultural Ghetto: Negroes in Cass County, Michigan, 1845–1968.” Geographical Review 59.3 (1969): 317–329.

    DOI: 10.2307/213479

    Traces land acquisition by small-scale black farmers who established a concentrated, low-income agricultural area of African Americans. Contends that the black farmers who remain can be competitive with white farmers if they have adequate financing, but economic change after World War II led to retirement, departure of their children, and land sales to whites.

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