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By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven
On an overcast December afternoon, the air thick with an unseasonably warm humidity, people meander into the Spring Lake Community Center. Situated just beyond the reaches of Fort Bragg in Cumberland County, the town is small at about 11,000 residents. As folks walk in, many greet each other with familiar smiles and hellos.
The community center smells savory — of onions, garlic and ham — but before visitors can follow their noses, they must first stop at a table overlaid with a yellow cloth to have their temperatures taken and to fill out a contact tracing form.
“Keep the pen,” instructs Doris Lucas, one of the volunteers in charge of COVID protocols at the event, the 20th anniversary party for the Sandhills Family Heritage Association. Officially founded in 2001, SFHA is an organization dedicated to celebrating and strengthening the relationship between rural Black residents in the Sandhills region of North Carolina and the land they call home.
While the agency offers services to all members of the rural Black community, they have a particular focus on preserving the history of Black farmers in the area, and connecting and training younger Black residents in the same vein.
“The first thing you think about when you think of land, you think about food, because that was our food source,” said SFHA’s 80-year-old founder Ammie Jenkins. “Not only was it our food source, it was also our income.”
The organization’s twin goals are cultural preservation and economic self-sufficiency.
Since its inception, the organization has confronted significant health disparities in the counties it serves. In 2015, for example, nearly 30 percent of Cumberland County residents had low access to grocery stores, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer were high.
In their 20 year existence, organizers have conducted workshops on how to shop for and cook healthy food, taught exercise classes, and even began a canning and quilting club. In 2007, the organization started the first farmers market approved by the city, the Sandhills Farmers Market of Spring Lake, where many of the vendors are SFHA members.
“We try to invite people in for their mental health, to help people just relax and do something that they enjoy doing, and at the same time it helps us with our food program,” Lucas explained. In addition to leading the COVID team, she’s also in charge of the HealthWise program.
A 2017 study by the Cumberland County Health Department declared the group’s work successful. It cited SFHA, in collaboration with other community agencies, as responsible for helping to lower the rates of diabetes, cancer and heart disease in the county. Even before those results came in, a researcher at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia conducted a case study of SFHA, aiming to deduce how it became an “effective agent of social change.”
“Perhaps the key contribution of SFHA to social innovation is that it offers a vision of development in which economic well-being is attained through preserving and drawing on the local cultural heritage, rather than at the cost of disregarding or even destroying it,” wrote the study’s author, Yogesh Ghore.
“It illustrates not only a reclaiming of African American heritage and a resolution to the past wrongs that drove people off the land, but also a demonstration of how a local economy can be built on deeply grounded cultural connections, in a region which is otherwise dominated by industry, military and history of economic dependence.”
Many Black residents here can trace their roots. Some have relatives who were enslaved. Even more know of freed ancestors who gained land in the period following emancipation.
By 1920, there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the U.S. who collectively owned between 15 and 20 million acres of land, larger than the entire state of West Virginia. But this massive rise in land ownership was followed by a steep decline over the next 100 years.
SFHA’s origins lay in the 1980s, when Jenkins began exploring her own family history of land ownership, and loss. She spent the first 13 years of her life out in the country, “two miles away from the nearest house.” Her family had a house on 18-acres in a place called McRae Town, a 600+ acre plot of land in rural Harnett County. The neighborhood was started by her great grandfather, who had been enslaved.
In 1954, her father died. With no one around to work the land, her mother decided to move the family to Spring Lake, where their extended family lived. They eventually lost their land.
Untold numbers of Black land owners throughout the South lost land in similar situations. Some were chased off by racist mobs, while others lost their land through something called “heirs’ property,” a legal process whereby a landowner who dies without a will has all their land passed on to surviving family members.
“If the original heirs then die without a will, and their descendants inherit the original heirs’ interests in the land, each additional heir now has an ownership interest in the entire property,” explains the Farmland Access Legal Toolkit, a project of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School.
“After a couple generations, there could be 25 heirs, each having an ownership interest in the land. After another generation, there could be 50 owners. Yet, the deed to the land will still show the original ancestor, now perhaps the current heirs’ great grandfather, as the owner.”
As the generations go on, with official ownership diffused between so many people, land becomes easy to lose. If someone — or many someones — don’t pay taxes on the property, the land can fall into default and be repossessed. If one person decides to sell their stake to a speculator, that person can then petition a court to auction off the entire parcel.
Through these processes and others, Black landowners lost a massive share of their land, an estimated 90 percent. SFHA is dedicated to teaching people what was lost, and helping them regain it.
A return to the farm
Steve Moore grew up in Beaufort County on a tobacco farm.
“My dad was a farmer,” Moore said. “He also had corn, livestock. He also did the vegetables, the farmers market. He probably did that for 60 years at least.” After school, Moore and his five siblings would all come home and work on the farm.
“When I left school — high school — and went off to college, I said, ‘I’m done with farming,’” Moore remembered. He studied at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, got a degree in electrical engineering, and moved to Virginia where he worked on nuclear test equipment at Newport News Shipbuilding.
After 40 years, Moore and his wife Delilah decided to retire. He realized he missed working on the land. He felt the region calling him back.
Moore now farms on a large plot of land off Brooks Magnum Road in Harnett County. The land belongs to his nephew, who raised goats on it until 2019, when a pair of dogs got into the farm and killed the flock.
“(My nephew) has a construction business, which keeps him pretty busy, and he said, ‘Hey unc, if you want to farm this land, you’re welcome to,’” Moore said.
Fertilized by years of goat droppings, Moore now uses the soil to grow veggies — collard greens, kale, turnips, broccoli. He’s also building a greenhouse.
“It’s therapy,” he said. “It keeps us active, me and the wife.”
Moore and his wife aren’t official members of SFHA, but last summer, they sold produce at the Spring Lake Farmers Market — cantaloupe, watermelon, peas. They’re also well versed in the ways heirs’ properties can lead to land loss.
The land Moore’s father farmed — the land he grew up on — was heir land.
“Which meant everybody in the family had a right to it, there was no wills. But my dad was the only one paying taxes on it for years and years and years because he farmed it,” Moore said. His father died four years ago. Since then, Moore and his brothers have continued paying the taxes, but that doesn’t mean the land is securely theirs: Moore’s father had 13 brothers and sisters.
“Even though we’re paying taxes for years and years, family members that have not paid taxes on it still have their share as far as their rights to that land. And if we don’t pay taxes, the state takes it, or the county, and they auction it off,” Moore said. “I believe it’s set up to take land from people.”
Home, memories, and inheritance
Ms. Jenkins, as she’s affectionately known, was very deliberate as she designed the program for SFHA’s 20th anniversary. It started with songs.
“You notice our logo was the Sankofa bird, and that Sankofa bird is representative of an African philosophy of learning from your past to understand your present, so you can build a better future,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know if anyone else noticed the sequence, but we felt it would flow if we started with Africa, slavery, and then negro spirituals, and then a Gospel tune.”
Following the musical introduction, the mayor and mayor-elect of Spring Lake spoke, as did volunteers, workers and other community partners. All thanked SFHA for its work.
After dinner, 11-term Democratic state representative Marvin Lucas took to the microphone and announced SFHA had been awarded $250,000 in the state budget to complete a renovation of the Spring Lake Civic Center, which was donated to the group in 2002. The building served as a critical location of organizing during the civil rights movement, but has since fallen into disrepair. The funding will allow SFHA to bring the building up to code, and use it for programming.
Then, Brian Armstrong, a white developer from Fayetteville, stood up. Through a series of events, he’d come to own property under which sat a cemetery. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in construction, he said. Often, the cemetery is a family plot, and the builders will work with living relatives either to put a small fence around the area, or to relocate the bodies.
In 2019, a local business approached Armstrong, interested in building on the land. They submitted their preliminary plan for the land to the town of Spring Lake. That’s when Armstrong got a call from a city official, who wanted to put him in touch with Jenkins.
The two sat down for a meeting in the mayor’s office.
“(Jenkins) said, ‘Mr. Armstrong, do you know there’s a cemetery on the property?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am I do.’ She said, ‘Do you know the details?’ I said, ‘I do not.’”
The area, called the Deerfield Cemetery, was a place where the bodies of people formerly enslaved at the McDiarmid turpentine plantation and their ancestors were buried.
Jenkins, through researching her own familial history, learned that her ancestors worked on the plantation. She’s been told that some were buried in the cemetery, though there aren’t any headstones.
Jenkins, Armstrong and others went out to the land. He made it clear that he did not want to build anything on it. He wanted to know if SFHA would accept the cemetery as a gift.
“Of course we said yes,” Jenkins said.
She kept the announcement quiet, and invited Armstrong to the event. When he announced he was giving SFHA the deed to the land, guests audibly gasped. They stood up and gave a standing ovation as Jenkins accepted the document.
“It all feels real good,” Jenkins said after the ceremony. “We feel so pleased, and so blessed to have received these two pieces of property that have been gifted to the organization that will help us tell the story about rural African American heritage in this area.”
“Our existence depends on the land,” she said. “It’s your home. It’s your memories. It’s your inheritance.”
Clarification: This story initially called the farmer’s market the Spring Lake Farmers Market, and stated it was the first farmers market in the county. It is the Sandhills Farmers Market of Spring Lake, and it was the first farmers market approved by the town of Spring Lake.