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News & Events Archive

Guest Lecture series. . .

“Black Farmers and Civil Rights in the Aftermath of Katrina: An Emmett Till Continuum”

Presented by Clenora Hudson-Weems
Professor of English, University of Missouri at Columbia
March 7, 2006

Fairly often, the media tell parts of the story of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, and occasionally the rest of the Gulf shoreline is mentioned. But the stories are usually about cities and towns and suburbs. Does anyone ever talk about the damage wreaked by the hurricane(s) on the farmers of the region? Seldom are the farmers discussed, and even less are the black farmers brought into the conversation. Katrina, and Rita, did plenty of damage to crops, land, and small farmers, but even the loss and neglect in the aftermath of natural catastrophe pales in comparison to the century of neglect and abuse that black farmers have had to contend with in the South.

In 1910, more than 900,000 African American farmers collectively owned at least 15 million acres of land in the South. In 1969, it was predicted that all black-owned farms would be gone by 2000. While that has not quite happened yet, land was being lost at the rate of 300,000 acres per year. Nowadays, nine thousand acres of land per week is being lost by black farmers to developers. Black ownership has dwindled to the extent that NPR has called its report on the subject "Twilight for Black Farms."

Professor Clenora Hudson-Weems, whose decades of scholarship on Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955, made her an ally of those who fight for the civil rights of farmers, spoke to an audience of IU students, faculty, and administrators and several concerned citizens from Evansville on March 7. Hudson-Weems and the group she works with have been trying to help Henry Young, an elderly farmer in Kentucky, whose land had been paid for, but, because the paperwork was not properly recorded by the bank, his land has been repossessed out from under him - for lack of payment.

The situation Henry Young is in is not so rare. This case is typical of what has happened to black farmers through the 20th century. Somehow payments get in arrears; offers to purchase are in amounts considerably lower than the true market value of the land; mineral rights are usurped; deeds are found to be improper; eminent domain is allowed for developers. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations and machinations of those who would victimize people whose ownership of valuable land is tenuous because of their vulnerable position outside the well-capitalized mainstream.

Hudson-Weems tied the murder of Emmett Till with the lynching of a young man in Texas, whose land had oil on it, and with Henry Young's loss of his paid-for land, which has coal on it, and with boxer Joe Frazier's loss of his land in a spurious title battle. The legacy of Till is one of oppression, exploitation, and violence: the formula too often used to oust African American farmers from the land.

Clenora Hudson-Weems is a professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia and the author of Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement (Bedford, 1994). A recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Ford fellowships, she was awarded the Toni Morrison Society Book Award. In 2000, she initiated and launched the nation's first Africana Concentration (Africana Literature, Literary Criticism, and Theory) for graduate degrees (MA and PhD) in English at the University of Missouri.