By Doug Graves
XENIA, Ohio – According to the USDA Census of Agriculture released in 2017, there were 77,805 farms in Ohio’s 88 counties. Of that total, there were just 193 Black-owned farms in the state.
In southwest Ohio, Greene County had no Black-owned farms out of a total of 617. Neither did Clark County, with 742 total farms. Montgomery County listed nine Black-owned farming ventures out of 782 overall.
As it turns out, there are a couple of Black farmers in Greene County. Paul Clemens, Jr., 73, and his son, Paul Clemens III, 43, of the eastern part of the county, said they’re the only Black farmers in the area.
“This whole road, from Cedarville to Wilberforce (roughly 100 square miles), used to be Black-owned farms,” said Paul III, a fourth-generation farmer.
The Clemens’ farm has been in the family since the early 1900s. The Clemens’ great-grandfather boasted holdings that included 160 acres and 100 head of cattle, until the early 2000s.
Black farmers have declined in number from a high of 17 percent across the country to just more than 1.5 percent nationwide, according to a report published last year by the Center for American Progress.
The Clemens trace their Ohio heritage further back to James and Sophia Clemens, a formerly enslaved couple who came to Ohio from Virginia in the early 1800s. The pair helped establish the Longtown settlement near the Ohio-Indiana border. Longtown became a documented stop on the Underground Railroad.
The history of Black farmers like the Clemens was the topic of a two-day conference entitled “Black Farming: Beyond 40 Acres and a Mule” which was held last fall at the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The event included small group tours of several agricultural programs at Central State University, a public, historically Black land-grant university located in Wilberforce, Ohio.
The conference discussed the influential history of Black farmers in Ohio with emphasis on the strength of community, preparing the next generation of under-represented farmers for the future and cultivating the cooperative business model to promote healthy farming and sustainable businesses.
Keynote speaker at the event was Anna-Lisa Cox, a historian affiliated with Harvard University and author of “The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality.”
The book documents the migration of Black settlers into the Northwest Territory (now Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin) from the end of the Revolutionary War until the mid-1800s. Her research found a large Black rural population, most of them farmers, who were establishing successful homesteads.
Cox told attendees about the deep roots of African Americans in the Midwest and how many of them farmed in this part of the country well before the Civil War.
“During that time period a lot of historians assumed there were very few African Americans in the Midwest and very few African American farmers,” Cox said. “To many this would seem an impossibility. Didn’t African Americans arrive in the Midwest in the 20th century as part of the Great Migration? Weren’t they urban?”
Cox said those things did happen, but there was an earlier Great Migration, occurring when tens of thousands of African Americans, many of them born free, moved into the Midwest in the earliest days of settlement of Ohio and the Midwest.
“Over 63,000 African Americans lived in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin before the Civil War,” Cox said. “They were living primarily in rural regions, farming land they owned in over 330 African American farming communities scattered across those five states. There were 95 settlements in Ohio alone.”
According to Cox, from 1787-1838, more than four million settlers moved into this region.
“African Americans did farm the land well,” Cox said. “They came early, they picked out excellent land and they succeeded. African Americans were living and farming in the Midwest before many white people arrived. African American farmers had to face incredible violence and racism from white neighbors and from some of the most powerful elite whites in their state because of that success.”
Prior to the Civil War, owning land, regardless of skin color, meant citizenship and the right to vote. Ohio, however, was one of the first states to take that voting right away as the statehood process began in the early 1800s.
“The whites, who created the first Ohio Constitution, put the word ‘white’ in when it came to who could vote and who was considered a citizen, stealing those rights from some of the earliest Black citizens of the state,” Cox said. “Those Black farmers stayed and used their land and wealth to fight that injustice. These African American pioneers are an integral part of our American past, but their history has been buried for far too long.”
The younger Clemens can only imagine what trials and tribulations his ancestors went through all those years. He hopes more young people find the joys he’s experienced in farming. But as an only child with no siblings, he worries about the future of his family’s land. He said he tries to encourage young people to try farming, but he’s been met with resistance from Black youth who tell him ‘it’s too close to slavery’.”
For Clemens, the farming life is freedom. “I’m working for myself, not for any other man,” he said.