Student Project Profile

Reclaiming the Visionary Power of Black Women Farmers in Northeast Ohio

Project Title

“This is A Place of Healing”: Reclaiming the Visionary Power of Black Women Farmers in Northeast Ohio

Faculty Mentor(s)

Project Description

Two Black women, one older and one younger, work together tending to plants in a garden.
Photo credit: Hannah Gregory

The Black agrarian tradition transcends the history of enslavement or sharecropping in the United States and defines how Black people have cultivated community ethics and sense of identity through farming.

Based in oral history interviews with Black women farmers from Northeast Ohio, my project declares the everyday practices of Black women farmers as radical acts of self-making, community-building, and Black agrarian values. I engage a feminist ethnographic approach in order to understand how Black women farmers in Northeast Ohio—specifically those who are the children of Black agricultural workers who relocated during the Great Migration—have come to understand their own relationship with land, the environment, and farming. Ultimately, I am seeking to (1) redefine Black people’s relationship to land and the Earth, (2) shift the narrative of our connection to land away from being defined only by trauma, and (3) begin to develop an adaptable pedagogy for building food sovereignty in Black urban communities.

Grounded in feminist ethnographic practices and scholarship of Black women agricultural historians like Monica White and Leah Penniman, I argue that in contrast to Black women historically being assumed homemakers and caretakers, Black women’s role in agrarian community-building originates from an inner consciousness of self-worth, intentionality, and agency. This is part of a larger project to illuminate the environmental, historical, and cultural landscape of Black agrarianism in the American Midwest in order to restore Black ecological connection and right relationship with the Earth.

Why is your research important?

I created this project to illuminate the histories I never learned about growing up and inspire young Black people to plant their own gardens and reconnect with the Earth. Because the dominant narrative and depiction of the “American farmer” is most often associated with rural white farmers—i.e. the notable painting, “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood—Black women are largely written out of the history of American agriculture. This is why it is crucial to retrace the lives of Black farmers who are women and those of other marginalized genders because of the particular intersection of oppression that they face and the unique potential that they hold for resisting cultural erasure. In a global conversation, I intend for this research to redefine what climate “resilience” and environmental justice looks like for women farmers across the Global South who are the backbone of the agricultural industry but are increasingly vulnerable to climate catastrophe and capitalist exploitation.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

I use a mixed-methodology approach that includes oral history interviews and feminist ethnographic practices, as well as experiential, community-based Participatory-Action-Research (P-A-R) on Black-owned gardens and farms in Northeast Ohio. This summer, you could most often find me farming at Ms. Shonate Jackson’s farm located in Lorain, OH, doing tasks such as pruning tomatoes, digging trenches for new vegetables, and transplanting crops for the fall growing season like kale and collard greens.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

So far, I have conducted four, hour-length oral history interviews with Black women farmers in Northeast Ohio. Grounded in the foundational feminist teaching that “the personal is political,” my interview questions focused on the personal experiences of each narrator and their everyday relationship with the Earth to understand the larger racial, gender-based, socioeconomic, and cultural interactions between community members and their spatial environment. I am also in the process of coining a term to describe this expressed relationship with the environment.

In what ways have you showcased your research thus far?

This year, I was invited to present at the first annual Black Geographies Conference at UC Berkeley in California, intended for graduate-level students. Last year, I presented as an undergraduate keynote at Lincoln University’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, as well as the HBCU Climate Conference Justice in New Orleans, LA hosted by the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

My favorite part of the research process has been learning how to farm from my community partners and each woman I have interviewed. I am especially grateful to Ms. Shontae Jackson, the founder of Steel Magnolia and Steel Farm and Gardens, for taking me under her wing and teaching me the farming practices that she has learned. Since beginning my project in 2021, when I talk about my research with other people in my community, especially Black elders, I hear stories and memories of growing up on farms or one’s experience coming back to gardening after having watched their mothers or grandmothers plot flowers and food in their childhood backyards. These memories stay with the people I talk to and I feel so honored when they choose to share them with me.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Both of my mentors’ most valuable piece of advice to me was to always move at the pace of trust when working with community members and to move at the pace of trust. As college students, it can be really easy to stay self-focused with research, but my mentor reminded me that building genuine relationships and connections takes time and should take time. This helped me realize that I want to always follow the pace of the communities I work with and will always prioritize their needs in order to sustain a truly reciprocal relationship that can last beyond my research.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

This project has truly changed my life and has allowed me to engage with all the things I love about the Earth and environmental education, despite not being an Environmental Studies major. Coming into college, I never could’ve imagined the impact that farming, oral history, Black agrarianism and research would have on my life. Now I can truly see myself pursuing a career in community-based research and know that both environmental and racial justice around the world will be central in any future career path I choose.