The project was centered on sustainable development activities for a set of Southern Black agricultural communities that were created during the Great Depression, initially under the direction of the Resettlement Administration and subsequently under the Farm Security Administration. These and related agencies provided an opportunity for landless sharecroppers and tenants to own land. This opportunity allowed the “settlers” to become small independent farmers (a Jeffersonian ideal) and form independent agricultural communities (a Booker T. Washington ideal). Thirteen such all-Black communities were established, about half of which remain as viable communities–although they are “at risk.” The others have faded, although both archival records and original residents remain to tell their story.
Using seven of these communities (Sabine Farms, TX; Prairie Farms, AL; Gee’s Bend, AL; Mileston, MS; Flint River Farms, GA; Allendale Farms, SC; and Aberdeen Gardens, VA) a sustainable economic development strategy and training meeting was convened. Community participation ensured that this training lead to site-specific community development plans and activities.
Results of the training were based on the activities initiated by the participating communities. Planned activities included submission of grant applications, community meetings, organizing and community-based activities. In addition, results will be presented at professional meetings and symposia and published in local media and professional journals, and further Resettlement Community meetings planned.
The principal cooperators were selected representatives of the participating communities and the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee University. The proposed project took approximately one year.
The purpose of this project is to provide community directed, participatory training and technical assistance to increase the potential for sustainable economic development in selected African American agricultural communities. This was accomplished through an intensive two-day workshop that focused on critical hands-on community development issues and strategies such as: grantsmanship, tourism (community/historical and agricultural), natural resource development and small business development.
Twice since Emancipation, the U.S. Government devised programs to strengthen the land-owning capacities of Black farming communities–once during Reconstruction, and again during the Depression. Although the efforts are viewed as deficient, there are significant remnants of these programs that influence these communities today.
Of particular research interest are a set of communities proposed and established during the Depression by the Resettlement Administration and its successor agencies. The USDA’s Resettlement Administration (RA) provided an opportunity for landless sharecroppers and tenants to own farm land. Thus, these landless sharecroppers and farm tenants could become independent farmers (a Jeffersonian ideal). Further, they could form independent agricultural communities, with a strong infrastructure (a Booker T. Washington ideal). Reaching beyond “40 acres and a mule,” the members of these communities would have not only land, but also schools, health centers, churches, cooperatives, gin and grist mills, and farm supervision and management training (Oubre 1978). In the end, the RA purchased approximately 1.9 million acres used for 140 to 150 agricultural resettlement projects (Holley, 1971; Salamon 1979 and also see Alexander 1936, Cannon 1992, 1996, Cobb and Namorato 1984, Conklin 1976).
These Resettlement communities were established throughout the United States. In the South, 13 rural resettlement projects were designated for Black farmers alone. These communities encompassed 1,150 families on 92,000 acres. An additional 1,117 Black families were resident in 19 scattered projects on 70,000 to 80,000 acres of land (Salamon 1979). The 13 all-Black communities were important because they were to provide an opportunity to own land and gain economic independence; individual action would be reinforced by community development. The fact that these communities exist or are remembered today, emphasizes the small but important effort of the Resettlement Administration and its successor agencies.
Initial reports concerning these projects were positive, both in terms of farm productivity and community development. Gradually, support and guidance from USDA agencies declined. Eventually, Congress called into question many New Deal programs and sponsoring agencies, including the RA. In 1937, the Resettlement Administration was reorganized into the more limited Farm Security Administration (FSA), itself then subsumed into the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) in 1946. As the nation’s attention turned increasingly toward war, prejudicial and discriminatory practices began to permeate the very agency that had been empowered to provide agricultural support to the new black communities and to newly established Black farm landowners (see Baldwin 1968).
Some communities established by the RA are today still visible–although they may be considered ‘at risk’. These extant communities provide a field setting within which to investigate seven decades of community cohesion maintained against a variety of institutional and economic threats. Other black community development projects undertaken by the USDA/RA have faded from view, having succumbed to land concentration, urbanization and suburbanization, economic failure, and a variety of other pressures.
Projects where communities share their successes and challenges are particularly timely. Communities surrounded by limited-resource and small-scale family farmers nationwide have rapidly vanished from the landscape ideal still deeply ingrained in American culture (see Berry, 1977; Vogeler, 1981). The South’s Black farm land owners and operators have disappeared at a rate significantly greater than their white counterparts (Wood and Gilbert, 1998; Zabawa, 1991).
Recently analyzed Census data, however, show that, contrary to expectations, certain southern states have experienced a slight rise in both Black farm land and black farm operators (USDA, 1997; Zabawa 1999). Such increases may result from USDA-funded collaborative programs directed toward Black farmers (such as the 2501 Small Farm Outreach Training and Technical Assistance programs based at the 1890 and 1994 institutions, and at community-based organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation). These projects have provided the technical assistance necessary for Black farmers to gain access to programs previously denied them. In this regard, they may be interpreted as a return to the proactive development programs of the original Resettlement Administration.
Because of the success of the 2501 and other technical assistance programs, we suggest that additional collaborative and TA programs can be designed to maintain the momentum of the last decade. It will augment, at community, university, and agency levels, our understanding of the factors or “ingredients” that ensure a rural agricultural community’s growth and maturation. The primary value of the proposed project is regional, in particular among the southern Black Belt states. Other regions experienced similar community development projects in the 1930s, and there is considerable overlap with ongoing and future research across the U.S.
Project Relevance to Sustainable Development
Communities at risk benefit enormously from establishing a coherent sense of their own history and planning and implementing their own development strategies using local resources. Thus the products of the proposed project benefit a wider community than simply using the resources of an agency or university. The communities involved, such as Tillery, NC, Aberdeen Gardens, Prairie Farms and Flint River Farms have already initiated research into their past; others have responded enthusiastically to preliminary investigations (Hargrove and Zabawa 2004, Warren and Zabawa 1998, Zabawa and Warren 1998, Zabawa 1999, pers. comm.). The opportunity for these communities to gather together and share their experiences and strategies towards a common goal of sustainable development is unique.
In December 2004, the 62nd Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at Tuskegee University hosted a meeting of Southern Resettlement communities. The theme of this meeting was “Pioneering Communities: Revisiting New Deal Resettlement.” The goal of this meeting was for leaders in these communities to share their common and unique experiences with each other.
The focus on this subsequent meeting was to address specific issues relevant to the sustainable development of the participating communities. Through on-going discussion with community leaders an initial set of workshop activities was developed to address community and agricultural development. Examples include:
•Grantsmanship—this topic is critical for local citizens to be able to access funding opportunities from the local to the national level that deal with individual home repairs to creating community parks and recreation facilities. Participants will be given a list of potential grant donors, and then they will receive skills training on how to write to submit applications for funding.
•Tourism—the creation of these specific communities through New Deal programs is a historical fact that is being lost to subsequent generations. Opportunities to highlight this history through tours, museum displays, webpages, and popular publications are critical to passing this knowledge on.
•Small Business Development—individual participants have opportunities to develop activities from small farm production and marketing to cottage industries such as quilting and bed and breakfast enterprises.
The objectives of this project were:
1.To provide sustainable economic and community
development skills to selected African American
communities created during the New Deal Era.
2.To provide these communities with strategies
so that they can best utilize the resources
(natural, social/cultural and economic) inherent
in their communities.
3.To provide these communities with strategies to
access resources (local, regional and national) to
address issues critical to sustainable
This project convened a meeting of leaders from the selected Resettlement Communities in the summer of 2006. The objects of this project outline the focus and purpose of this meeting. The objectives of the proposed project were as follows:
1.Objective One—each community participant will
attend a series of workshop sessions that target
specific sustainable community development
strategies, including: grantsmanship, tourism
(community/historical and agricultural), natural
resource development and small business
2.Objective Two—each community will engage in an
extensive assessment process to: (a) identify
local resources or endowments (social/cultural,
economic, natural); (b) identify resources
available at the local, regional and national
levels that support local agricultural and
community development. An inventory of these
resources will be developed.
3.Objective Three—upon identification of
resources, participants will work with experts
to develop a plan of action for accessing these
resources. The plan of action will be
individualized and catered to the needs of each
As part of the concluding section of the workshop, the community representatives were asked to envision some goals for their communities, what resources they had to apply to the goals and what actions would be needed to achieve the goals.
•To bring community together.
•To re-establish the community and its
organizations. With the recent realization of
the historical significance of the community, the
residents as well as the greater community should
be made aware of the resettlement communities.
•To identify ways and means of generating youth
•To restore the Resettlement School including
football, soccer and basketball fields and
courts. To provide a civic center for different
activities. To provide a library, museum, a
small business incubator, and a place for
•To restore the electric power and water supply to
the community site.
•To ake all the buildings and footpaths on-site
•To increase the physical capacity of providing
tours in community.
•To get local traditional row crop farmers in the
Resettlement Communities to diversify farming
•Obtain 501c3 exemption for community group.
•Physical assets: land and buildings.
•Human assets: community members, both young and
•The desire and commitment to move forward.
•Organize community through town meetings and
church cookouts, to make plans to do what will be
best for the community. Then meet again and
assign tasks to each person to keep busy and get
Example one: develop history of community.
Example two: create non-profit organization for
Example three: economic development.
•Determine what is needed and prioritize
activities, identify support groups and allocate
human resources based on expertise and
willingness to participate.
For example one, history: Search for
significant residents; search the archives in
state, regional and federal offices. Inventory
houses and other buildings that still exist,
and place a historical marker at the school
site (the center of the community). Locate
photographs from archives and residents that
reflect the past.
For example two, non-profit status: Complete
and submit application for 501c3 exemption.
For example three, economic development: Open
farmers market; show farmers potential profit.
•Schedule dates for start to community-wide
•To submit grant applications to (a) city
government, (b) the state and General Assembly,
(c) the Federal Government, and (d) corporations
“The least I will come away with is to be excited about getting moving again, to show off what legacy what we have, to be proud of what we have.”
“We need to get back to the way we used to be. We worked together. If one didn’t have, we all didn’t have. If one had, we all had. I’m proud to be amongst us to do this. We need to get back to ‘us’ in a bad way….the pride of being ‘us.’ You have to have pride in yourself to keep going.”
Educational & Outreach Activities
The Resettlement Communities have produced posters that is used to promote community activities and papers have been presented at professional organizations including the Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at Tuskegee University, the Rural Sociological Society, and the Southern Rural Sociological Association.
At the end of the workshop sessions participants were asked to fill out an evaluation. Summary results are as follows:
For the Workshops Sessions:
1. Agro/Cultural Tourism–80% ranked this very
good or excellent.
2. Natural Resource Development–70% ranked this
very good or excellent.
3. Small Business Development–70% ranked this
very good or excellent.
4. Grantsmanship–80% ranked this very good or
For the Facilities and Fieldtrips:
1. Meeting Facilities–80% ranked this very good
2. Fieldtrips–100% ranked this very good or
Overall Workshop Evaluation–100% ranked this very good or excellent.
1. 100% want to have another New Deal Resettlement
2. 75% stated that the workshop should be hosted
by another Resettlement Community
The potential contributions of this project included three main areas:
1. Community Development–with a focus on community
organization building and activities.
2. Economic Development–with a focus on the use of
natural and human resources to generate income.
3. Educational Development–with a focus on history
and future planning.
All of the Resettlement Community participants wanted to continue the workshop process. When asked to suggest topics for further discussion, 14 topic areas were listed:
•Forest and woodland opportunities
•Tax breaks (e.g., conservation easements,
non-agricultural programs for wetlands, wildlife,
•More grant writing
•More grant writing
•Establishment of collective website for the New Deal Projects
•Achievements of each community
•Financial assistance in rebuilding
•Use Resettlement Communities as examples of
possible projects, their problems and solutions
The community at Aberdeen Gardens, Newport News, VA, volunteered to be the host site. This community is an excellent site since it has experience in grant writing, it has a historical marker, and it has a local museum.
It was further suggested that funds be sought to support this meeting.