Georgia rushes to preserve historic black farming community | Georgia News


By ERIC DUSENBURY, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

MONTEZUMA, Ga. (AP) — When 74-year-old Cleveland Whitehead drives his black Chevy Silverado through the back roads of Macon County in central Georgia, he remembers the families who worked the land at Flint River Farms in the ‘era. He gazes at the cotton fields, pecan orchards, and stretches of land that dot the area.

“When I was going up, I was plowing with two mules,” he said. “We had a garden and a field of okra near the house. My father grew cucumbers, corn, cotton, sugar cane and peanuts. The 178-acre family farm also had a small orchard with just enough peaches and pears to feed the family once in a while.

As the youngest of 13, Whitehead admitted he didn’t do much farm work. While he occasionally helped with the harvest, a small creek near Whitehead’s farm provided enticing opportunities for catfish noodles – that Southern tradition of catching catfish with your bare hands.

And he vividly remembers the day he and his brother took a mule-drawn cart to the fields to bring his father some lunch.

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“When we arrived he had his head in his hands,” Whitehead recalled. “Full of desperation, he was trying to figure out how to make ends meet. He said, ‘There’s no seed, no rain – it’s a scary time.'”

Whitehead’s family was one of the first families to participate in the Flint River Farms resettlement project. Established in 1937 by the United States Department of Agriculture as part of a New Deal project, it gave African Americans the opportunity to purchase farmland and develop their skills in farm management at a time when the most black farmers were sharecroppers. It was a noble attempt to create some racial equity that had mixed results. And it was an important part of black history that Whitehead and his Flint River Farms Preservation Society co-founders are keen to keep alive.

The New Deal resettlement project involved more than 1.8 million acres across the United States, much of which was former plantation land purchased by the federal government. Thirteen designated communities for African American farmers were established in the South, including Flint River Farms.

The community was originally to be located in Fort Valley, but resistance from white families led to its relocation 22 miles near Montezuma. It comprised 10,879 acres divided into 107 farms of approximately 90 acres each. Each agricultural unit had a house, a barn, two mules, an outbuilding, a chicken coop and a smokehouse.

The heart of Flint River Farms was the school and community center which contained six classrooms, a kitchen, a dining hall, an auditorium, a vocational training store and a health center. In addition to local students, the school was used as a training center for African-American teachers at Fort Valley State College.

“The Flint River Farms Resettlement Project provided hope and opportunity to pursue a dream of land ownership for its participants,” Tasha M. Hargrove, associate professor at Tuskegee University, wrote in an exchange. of emails. She was part of a research team that conducted a grant-funded study of the community in 2003. “Benefits from the project were not limited to land ownership. This project can be described as a successful demonstration of community action and building for a group of people who were previously restricted to the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder of society.

“The project was not perfect,” she continued, “however, it achieved the goal of providing an opportunity for sharecroppers and landless tenants to own farmland. Many project participants were able to purchase the land, and some families still have the land today. »

The project received national attention and was recognized as one of the most successful resettlement communities. In modern terms, the project was a lease-purchase agreement. After five years, families could buy the land with a 40-year mortgage at 3% interest. Many of the original families acquired deeds for their farms. But in the mid-1940s, a developer bought 26 of the farms and relocated them. In 1965 the school closed and by the mid-1970s only 19 founding families still owned land. In 2003, when the Tuskegee researchers conducted their study, only 3,186 acres remained in the hands of 16 founding families or their descendants.

According to Hargrove and fellow Tuskegee scholar Robert Zabawa, writing for the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Flint River Farms fell victim to the events that surrounded it. In addition to objections from conservative politicians in the South, World War II took its toll as many participating farmers joined the armed forces or took jobs near Robins Airfield (now Robins Air Force Base) .

Whitehead’s childhood home no longer exists, but there is a marker there, identifying the old site of the house.

“The house wasn’t really that big,” Whitehead said. “It was about 40 by 24 feet.” He pointed to the foundation of the smokehouse, which was located near the house, with the barn and chicken coop nearby.

After college and a stint in the active duty Marines in Vietnam, Whitehead settled in Atlanta where he enjoyed a career with the Atlanta Police Department as a Commanding Officer and in Georgia State as a probation officer. But he often returns to Macon County, where he still owns some of the family land. He is passionate about preserving the history of the Flint River Farms project.

The same goes for Curtis McDonald, 66, co-founder of the Flint River Farms Preservation Society. Although his family was not part of farming families, McDonald attended school. He can still imagine it: the library, the professional shop, the basketball court, the softball court, the classrooms and the health building where the doctors went to provide care.

“Before this school was built, children went to school in churches,” he said. “Black people didn’t have schools. So when this school came it was like a college campus. It was the most beautiful thing they had seen. I believe there were about 300 students there, mostly girls.

“Those girls back then were tough,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “They worked as hard as us and played as hard as us. And, they would fight as hard as we did.

In 2004 McDonald and Whitehead, along with Bob Melvin and Ricky Waters, founded the Flint River Farms Preservation Society.

The following year, they secured a long-term lease from the local school board of 25 acres of the original school site. They cleared about 11 acres and created the Flint River Farms Community School Heritage Park where community events and fundraisers are held, such as the upcoming Heritage Day on February 5. Festivities begin at 9 a.m. and include a pig roast and agricultural demonstrations. Other upcoming events include a Community Cleanup Day, Easter Egg Hunt and Car Show. And whenever possible, the events provide an opportunity to teach younger generations what life was like at Flint River Farms.

At a Christmas celebration last year, paper bags stood upright on a picnic table, the contents hidden from eagerly waiting children. When each child was given a bag, inside was discovered an apple, an orange and a single piece of peppermint candy.

“That’s what I used to get for Christmas,” McDonald said. “I want the kids to know it wasn’t easy. Do not forget where you come from. »

Three years ago, the Flint River Farms Preservation Society moved an original Flint River Farms home to the site. A work in progress, it sits on cinder blocks and, above the front door, stretches a metal roof supported by temporary 2-by-4s. The goal is to restore the house to its original splendor and list it on the National Register of Historic Places.

McDonald relaxes in the doorway of the house, arms folded and taking in the view of the historic property and community park. He projects a seriousness that only slightly masks a casual manner as he gazes across the road at a field of unharvested cotton that belonged to one of Flint River’s original farms. Combines and trucks of all sizes interrupt his view as they pass on County Road 289.

He dreams of the day when the history of the Flint River Farms Project will be taught in schools. He doesn’t want people to forget this place and what the community meant to people.

“The foundation of the Flint River Farms project is its people and their passion for preserving their heritage,” Hargrove said. “The project participants exercised faith to pursue a dream of land ownership and were able to achieve their dreams. The descendants of the original participants…worked diligently to preserve the history of this community. This group is a great example of community involvement and empowerment at work.

For McDonald’s and Whitehead, it’s about remembering the past and preserving history.

“President Roosevelt thought about it enough to get it started and grow, and I think enough about it to keep it going,” McDonald said. “People should know this place exists, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. Our heart is in this thing.

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