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The following is a personal history told to me by a new friend named William Butler.  William and I were connected a few months ago through Gary Grant, head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association – of which William is a member and former board member. We have been trading thoughts, information and ideals over email and I was moved by his vision, both for the future and in looking back at his family’s agricultural history.

Words from William Butler:

I am someone whose grandfather, great grandfather and generations before were farmers. My father was a farmer before going off to war. We grew up in New York City because my father couldn’t go back to farming in his home town after the war. 

My parents were childhood sweethearts who grew up in the same coastal farming community in North Carolina, located half way between Wilmington, NC and Myrtle Beach, SC.  I and my siblings grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  Back then, most of the families in our neighborhood came from the rural south.  In fact, there were blocks after blocks where just about everyone came from the same southern farming community. It is a different Brooklyn today.

Growing up, I spent many summers working on the farms of relatives in rural North Carolina and developed a love for farm life. For me, farm life was about endless summer days running through fields, woods and swamps, and long nights on a screened in porch after sun down. Everyone you met was family. One uncle had tractors and mules on his farm. When work was over, I got to ride the mules bare back. Another uncle had a juke joint on the side of a dirt rode by my great grandmother’s farm and everyone gathered there at the end of the day to dance, drink beer and eat pickled pig feet.

The rural south I grew up knowing is no more.  There everyone knew where everyone lived and gave directions to the rise of a hill or a fork in the road. There were no street signs, no numbered addresses, no street lights, children didn’t wear shoes in the summer and segregation was law.

As I got older, I learned more of my family history. For all of us, the only thing worse than not knowing our history is believing we have no history. My parents were from a small farming town in the Wilmington area called Lake Waccamaw, located on the shore of the largest natural lake in the eastern United States by the same name. Some historians claim Osceola, the great war chief of the Seminole Nation (of mixed Native American and African ancestry) was born on Lake Waccamaw. The lake feeds south and into the great Okefenokee Swamp which stretches through Florida.  

During slavery, many Africans and Native Americans escaped into these swamps. Their descendants cultivated farm land around the lake and throughout the Wilmington area. There is also a town in that area called Freeman, NC, founded by my grandmother’s great-grandfather, Alexander Freeman.

{the following is an excerpt from a historical article on Freeman Beach heritage that William sent me}

In 1855, Alexander and Charity Freeman, who were freed slaves, bought 99 acres of land near Myrtle Grove Sound. They were of mixed African and American Indian heritage. In an 1860 census, of 72 households, the Freemans were one of only 8 “colored” or “mulatto” households on the Federal Point peninsula.  By the time of Alexander Freeman’s death, the couple had acquired 180 acres at the head of Myrtle Grove Sound.

Following Alexander Freeman’s death, his son, Robert Bruce Freeman (b. 1830) inherited the land, and parlayed the investment to become one of the largest landowners in the county. In the 1920’s, [Robert’s heirs] began to develop a recreational community known as Seabreeze. During the Jim Crow years, Seabreeze was the only beach community in the state that black families could visit. When black people were forbidden from even travelling through Carolina Beach to get to Seabreeze, the Freeman family bought a boat to ferry people back and forth to the resort.

Today many members of the Freeman family, [my father’s side of the family], still live in the Wilmington area, and some still own the small community stores that have been in the family for generations.

[In addition to knowing personal history, it’s important to know what was going on around us]. All my life I was told different narrative accounts of the trickery, violence and abuse aimed at separating Black and Native American farmers from their land in rural North Carolina. Every farm holding family of color in the region lost land from the Reconstruction period down to today. Land was stolen using naked violence, institutional racism by the courts, banks and government agencies and there was no protection under the law.  It is important to understand this is what drove people to the cities. 

There are other people like me, a generation of urban dwellers, who can remember what it felt like to be connected to the land in a real sense.  We can be the bridges over what divides city/country or older/younger generations. The challenge is to bring both our urban and rural farmers together by creating understanding and support of their very different needs.

We all share a common heritage: the land. [We need to] create a new common reality to bring the heritage of the farmers to empower people in the city to feed themselves, and channel the good will of the city people to empower the cause of farmers. 

William’s words inspired me to think of this : All that we can leave on this land is our legacy. To know our legacy, we must learn our identity. To know our identity, we have to look to our history. In short, nothing can grow without its roots.

Thanks William.

**This post is part of a new series on my blog where I’ll be sharing firsthand stories from other brown farmers. If you’d like to share your story as a farmer or descendant of farmers of color, click here for more info!

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