Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land - Part 2

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 


PART II: Back to the Land 

Modern Farmer
Engineer-turned-farmer Chris Newman left fast-paced Washington, D.C. for the quiet hills of Charlottesville, VA. In D.C., long hours and fast food halted his quest for a healthier life; he wanted to get outside and move around. Now, living on his farm in the country, he is healthier, eats dairy products again, and enjoys rising with the sun. Newman and his wife raise pigs, ducks, and chickens.

“Because I grow all this stuff, I tend to eat it. I don’t eat at Popeye’s anymore. I think it’s disgusting. I used to love Popeye’s. Now I can’t eat that crap,” Newman said.

The transition from engineering to farming was more a political act than for personal gain. Newman hopes to encourage other people of color to become farmers. He advocates for sustainable farm practices that enable access to healthy food for all communities. His main goal is to fix the system to be more inclusive: farming is more than 90 percent white and the second whitest job in the country. Visibility of African-Americans in this field is somewhat nonexistent.

“You go into Whole Foods around here, you don’t see black people; you go to farmers markets, don’t see that many black people; you go to farms, don’t see any black people.”

Newman suggests money and continued racism are the pitfall of inclusivity in farming. Newman’s produce is expensive: eggs sell for $5 a dozen. This price tag comes from the fact that his farm is completely organic, chemical, and preservative free. His animals fertilize the soil: the healthiest way to grow crops. Newman is quick to acknowledge his food is not affordable or accessible for everyone. In the United States, accessing fresh, healthy food can be particularly challenging for people living in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Lack of access to healthy food limits overall physical health. According to author Alan Yu, “African Americans are one and a half times as likely to be obese than white people, and they eat fewer vegetables than other racial groups.”

In this new profession, Newman has experienced racism and prejudice first hand. The cops were called on him when he delivered food to customers, and when he pulled over in a white neighborhood to eat his lunch. As he puts it, this is just part of  farming while black. Even so, Newman continues to address the lack of diversity among farmers by hiring interns, prioritizing the recruitment of women and people of color from underrepresented communities.

“It’s about recognizing that there are barriers there for them that there aren’t for other people and that we need that lift, because the world is not our oyster,” he said.

Newman’s hard work paid off: last year his farm broke even. He hopes his story will be an example to people of color that they too can succeed in an industry that has previously taken not only their land, but their connection to the land.


Next Generation
Many black people have strayed from farming because of the legacy of land grabbing and forced labor. In an interview with VICE Impact, Walker Marsh, founder of Tha Flower Factory, a Baltimore initiative to grow local herbs and flowers, stated, “I used to equate land work to slavery. But the first day I started farming, I realized this was not slavery at all. When you can go out and create something, that’s true freedom to me.”

Marsh is one of many black farmers who have new joy in farming and use this work to diversify and reclaim a practice once corrupted with injustice.

According to black famers and activists alike, the revitalization of farming in the African-American community lies in the hands of youth. In partnership with the Chrysler Foundation, the National Black Farmers Association grants scholarships to encourage young people to get involved in farming.

“You don’t see black farmers,” said Marsh. “We don’t know what a black farmer looks like. When I was a kid, I pictured an old white dude with a pitchfork on a tractor. But now that I’ve been doing it, I’ve met black farmers I look up to.”

Representation and visibility are key to improving the number of African-American farmers. Local farmers Xavier Brown, Boe Luther, and Wallace Kirby, founders of Hustlaz to Harvesters, offer the formerly incarcerated a way out of poverty by introducing them to urban agriculture careers through the Dix Street community garden in Washington, D.C. The farm was created through the urban agricultural initiative Soilful City. Thirty-two garden beds serve the predominantly African-American community of Clay Terrace, home to 70,000 people. Like most low-income African-American communities, access to healthy, fresh produce was limited: there’s only one large grocery store. Most of these communities are food deserts. Through the garden, the community was rebuilt. Connection to healthy produce and cultural heritage were regained.

 “Afro-ecology is reorientation of our connection to the land, an organizing principle, and the way we express our culture while we grow food and grow healthy people.” – Xavier Brown



Community Farming 
A number of Corps engage in urban farming or have created community gardens to provide healthy produce to communities in need and train a young, more diverse generation of farmers.

Green City Force
Since 2012, Green City Force has worked with New York City Housing Authority to bring urban farming to low income communities. The Farms at NYCHA program is part of Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a city-wide partnership focused on improving health outcomes in 12 neighborhoods throughout the city. The farms, which are located on NYCHA properties, are designed to bring organic produce to food deserts and promote sustainable living in public housing communities. Their presence is intended to encourage residents to engage in local green spaces and start important conversations about food and environmental justice. The Corpsmembers who grow the food and maintain the gardens are also all NYCHA residents. Through the program, they gain valuable leadership and job skills.

Covering a total of five acres, the NYCHA farms have transformed formerly underutilized areas in low-income communities into lush green spaces that encourage active living and healthy eating. The farms project a spirit of togetherness; fruits and vegetables are distributed to public housing residents in exchange for volunteer time or household compost; over 20,000 residents benefit from this program.

Civic Works
Civic Works’ Real Food Farm initiative works towards a just and sustainable food system by improving access to food, providing education, and developing an economically viable and economically responsible local agriculture sector. Corpsmembers at Civic Works help transform abandoned lots throughout the city of Baltimore into community gardens and green spaces. They also grown local fresh food by managing an eight-acre farm at Clifton Park. Food access in the city is improved through the Corps’ Mobile Farmers Market, a converted delivery truck that sells fresh fruit and vegetables at community gathering locations, like schools and libraries. Since 2009, over 60,000 of food has been grown and over 3,000 people have been educated about gardening, sustainable agriculture and healthy eating.

Los Angeles Conservation Corps
From 2013 – 2017, the Little Green Fingers program, made possible through a grant from First 5 LA, sought to address the growing obesity epidemic in Los Angeles County by providing access to fresh fruit and vegetables to young at-risk children in low-income communities that are also considered “food deserts.” The goal was to help children and their families lead healthier lives and maintain healthier weights.

The LA Conservation Corps and partner organizations worked closely with the community to plan a garden. They considered everything from its layout, to amenities in the garden, to what crops to grow. Families applied to join the garden and played an active role in its construction.

Once constructed, Corpsmembers handled the final details – like ensuring the irrigation system worked, installing fencing, and constructing children’s play equipment – before handing over care of the garden to the community; many garden’s are still run by communities today.


For African-Americans, reclaiming connection to the land is, in fact, a political act. Instead of walking away from farming, and its history of hatred and discrimination, today’s community of African-American farmers recognize the past, and realize the importance of participating in building a future agricultural system that is inclusive, empowering, and capable of making healthy food more sustainable and accessible.


All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.

For your consideration

  1. The vast majority of farm owners are white. What steps should be taken to generate more diversity and inclusivity in farming? How do we move forward?
    • ​In what ways (if any) do you believe our agricultural system might be affected if farm ownership were more diverse?
  2. Newman states “farming while black” can be difficult. Why do you think there is a stigma around black farmers?
    • ​Does unconscious bias play a role?
  3. In the last few years, community farming in low-income communities has boomed. What benefits could community farming bring to any community, not just low-income neighborhoods?



Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 

Part I: A Legacy of Loss and Exploitation

Would you believe me if I told you that farming is a political act for African-Americans?

As said by Leah Penniman, a farmer and activist, “You can’t go through hundreds of years of enslavement and sharecropping and tenant farming and convict leasing and not have that trauma get imprinted into your DNA and your cultural history.”

Penniman, Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, is a prominent figure in the conversation about diversifying the farming community and reconnecting people to the land. Through accepting food stamps and supporting customers who can’t pay every week, Soul Fire Farm developed a progressive system to feed hundreds in the community. In addition, Penniman offers workshops focused on basic farming skills, healing people and the land, and understanding the history between black people and farming in the United States. The act of farming, as well as teaching and understanding the history of black farmers, is a source of liberation.

“We are in a moment where Black and Brown people are ready to reclaim our right to belong to the Earth and ready to reclaim our place and agency in the food system.” – Leah Penniman, pictured right


History of Exploitation

Farming for African-Americans is tainted with a history of racism and discrimination. During the centuries of enslavement, African-Americans harvested cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar. In addition to their labor, the knowledge of enslaved Africans was also exploited. According to Judith Carney, author of Black Rice, the enslaved people who worked on rice plantations in South Carolina helped create one of the most profitable economies of the 18th century. European settlers, who did not know how to grow rice or millet, could not have achieved this on their own; they relied on the skills of enslaved persons, who brought knowledge of these grains from Africa. Other popular crops brought from Africa to the U.S. include coffee, watermelon, black-eyed peas, and okra.

Post-enslavement, black farmers continued to face injustices, beginning with the failed promise of, “forty acres and a mule,” the federal government’s attempt to distribute land to freed African-Americans.

The idea behind “forty acres and a mule” started during the Civil War, when blacks cultivated land abandoned by whites throughout the South. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 20,000 acres of abandoned Confederate land be sold to freedmen in 20-acre parcels. Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, expanded the parcel to 40 acres and agreed to loan army mules to freedmen. By 1865, 40,000 formerly enslaved persons lived on 400,000 acres of coastal land in South Carolina and Georgia. There were indications Congress would expand this program when they authorized the Freedmen’s Bureau to divide additional confiscated lands into small parcels to sell to African-Americans and loyal Southern whites. However, President Andrew Johnson intervened, ordering most of the confiscated land be returned to its former owners, despite how the land had already been settled by African-Americans.

This was the first of many practices crippling African-Americans’ access to land. The Southern Homestead Act, which created a program to help poor tenant farmers and share-croppers acquire land, offered land prices that were still too expensive for most freedmen. Additionally, the development of Black Codes, restrictive laws that forced African Americans into oppressive labor contracts and servant positions, greatly limited hopes of economic prosperity.

For African-Americans who did not own land, the practices of sharecropping and tenant farming were essentially another form of slavery. In sharecropping, landowners (who were primarily white) assigned families land to farm in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, and farming equipment. When the land was harvested, and goods sold, owners deducted a “furnishing” tax for room and board, giving the meager amount of remaining cash to the African-American farmers. By 1930, there were 1,831,470 tenant farmers in the South.

Despite the laws and systems working against them, African-Americans had accrued some 15 million acres of land by the 1920’s. Most of this land was in the South in “low lands” – areas by rivers and swamps that had been abandoned or deemed undesirable by whites. Much of this land was used for farming: at the time, 925,000 farms in the U.S. were black-owned. For generations, however, this number has dwindled. Land has been taken, sold illegally or deviously schemed from black property owners.


Land Grab

“If we don’t have our land, we don’t have our family. This is the battle we’re in now.”
- Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation


Roosevelt Simmons (pictured right) of South Carolina is one of many victims of land grabbing. Simmons’ family owned 54 acres on Johns Island for more than three generations, but part of the property was sold last year. The sad reality is that Simmons had been trying to get a title for his land since 1999; the parcel was previously owned by his grandmother and had been in her name. Although he worked with numerous lawyers and spent thousands of dollars immersed in legal battles, the property was sold, without his consent, due to arguments that a “false heir” had claimed it. Offered a mere $50,000 for his share of the land, Simmons continues to fight to get his property back.

According to Barney Blakeney of the Charleston Chronicle, stories like Mr. Simmons’ are common.

“…the impressive number of Black farmers and rural landowners would drastically decrease over the 20th century. During that century, some 600,000 Black farmers were forced off their lands. The Nation reported that by 1975, only 45,000 Black-owned farmers remained,” said Blakeney.

For many years, black farmers protested and filed suit over these discriminatory practices. In 1999, 40,000 farmers filed a discrimination lawsuit against the federal government, claiming denial of loans. Overtime, the government recognized these injustices. In 2010, President Obama signed into law a settlement that would repay $1.2 billion to about 18,000 farmers; payments of $62,500 began in 2013. This was the second time black farmers received payments from the government. In 1999, several farmers received funding from a class-action lawsuit over claims of discrimination by federal officials who denied them loans and aid because of their ethnicity.* 

In parts of South Carolina, where Mr. Simmons is from, a main force driving African-Americans off their land hasn’t necessarily been the denial of loans, but the development of coastal properties.

Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves, work to preserve their cultural practices to this day. Brought to the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in the 1700s, the Gullah/Geechee worked on rice fields, cotton fields, and indigo plantations on fertile lands in a similar climate to their homeland. Post-enslavement, they settled in remote villages, forming strong communal ties and a rich history.

Not long ago, the Gullah people inhabited all of Hilton Head Island. The Gullah people thrived in isolation, free of the Jim Crow South. Economic prosperity was finally attained, but, throughout the 1950s – 1990s, the development of high-priced waterfront properties displaced many Gullah people, threatening their history and culture. Some families lost their land due to high taxes, but, according to Leah Douglas of The Nation, many in the community lost their property for a variety of other reasons, including land partition sales, auctions and forced sales by developers, or schemes by partial owners to convince majority-owners to sell the property for a fraction of its value. There was a time where the Gullah accounted for 90 percent of the population across Hilton Head, compared to just 10 percent today.

“The property that we owned was prime property,” says Alex Brown, a Gullah native and chair of the island’s planning commission. “Over time, it’s been sold and traded and stolen.”

Landgrabbers fail to realize that the loss of land is far more than just an exchange of property. Cultural heritage, family legacies, and generational economic opportunity are taken.

*The National Action Network and National Black Farmers Association continue to fight against unfair loans, land grabbing, and other discriminatory practices in agriculture.


Parker Family

My family have been the target of land grabbing attempts as well. Over the last 175 years, my family has owned 35 acres of land in King George, Virginia. My great-great grandparents purchased the property with the intention to live on and work the land. The land is currently owned by my grandfather and his four siblings (who are all alive – ages 85 to 90). For generations, my family has raised children, produce, and countless memories there, but we have also been met with turmoil. I remember as a child, my grandfather talked about how developers offered to buy the land at a price that undercut the value of it, hoping he would fall for a scam. Because of this, my family has been proactive in paying taxes and having accurate titles on the land, just in case we are met with questions of ownership or fraud, like Mr. Simmons.

Whether he’s tending to the yard or talking with neighbors, my grandfather still spends most of his time outdoors. Although we don’t live on a farm, every summer he builds a garden in our backyard. He plants sweet potatoes, corn, kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, you name it. He loves getting his hands dirty and watching the fruits of his labor come to life. I often wondered why he enjoyed spending so much time outdoors, but I now see the connection. His time working, living, and cultivating his family’s land brought him great joy. His early connection to land and nature has continued throughout his life. This connection could one day be lost. We are currently in talks to sell our land. My grandfather and his siblings are getting older and taxes on our property continue to rise. Selling a piece of family history is devastating, but ultimately might be necessary.

While activists like Penniman use farming as a political act to reclaim connection to the land that was once lost, land ownership for my grandfather and Mr. Simmons is a connection to family lineage. Without both, each story becomes a fragment of history and time.



All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.
Photos are linked to their source. 


For your consideration

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider:

  1. African-Americans have played an enormous role in building our country’s agricultural system. How can we recognize these contributions? Where do we begin?
  2. The agricultural system, and society as a whole, continue to harbor racism. How do we promote one’s agency in a racist system?
  3. In what ways might the false promise of “forty acres and a mule” continue to hinder black farmers? How might farming – or society in general – be different in this country had a program like forty acres and a mule succeeded in giving freed African-Americans land and a livelihood? 
  4. Regarding the 2010 settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay $1.2 billion to 18,000 farmers who sought justice for discriminatory practices at the Department of Agriculture:
    1. Do you believe the $1.2 billion payout helped or hindered this community of farmers?
    2. Do you believe the farmers should have received land instead of money?
    3. Why weren’t farmers given the option to choose land or money?
  5. How can the practice of land grabbing be prohibited in the future? Is this something that can’t be fixed?
  6. In about forty years’ time, Hilton Head witnessed the erasure of a culture. How do we reconcile with these circumstances? Should the Gullah community receive some sort of payout as well?
  7. When we visit a new place, we might not fully understand or appreciate the history of its people and cultures. How can we better educate society about the ways in which cultures are tied to land and place?
  8. Do you have any familial ties to land? What would you do if you were faced with selling your property? Would you try to keep it, or would you sell?

Points for further research and consideration:

  • Do some research on the Freedmen’s Bureau. What was its significance for African-Americans after the Civil War? What role did it play in land distribution?
  • The blog discusses “forty acres and a mule.”  Early after the Civil War, land confiscated from Confederates was distributed to freedmen. President Andrew Johnson intervened and ordered that the vast majority of this land be returned to its former owners. Compare this to the Homestead Act of 1866, which was designed to give sharecroppers and other poor families access to land, but failed due to high prices that kept land ownership out of reach for many of the people the program was designed to help. What are your thoughts on both polices/programs? What are the underlying reasons why these programs didn’t work? What could have been done differently to make them succeed?
  • George Washington Carver is widely known as the Peanut Farmer, but his agricultural contributions are enormous, including his research into Crop Rotation and the “biological regeneration of the soil through the Nitrogen Cycle.” Dr. Carver looked to address the stripping of the soil as a result of cotton planting. Take a look at this article and note some of his other contributions:
  • Research the role of other black inventors in America’s agricultural advances, including the contributions of Frederick McKinley Jones, who patented the refrigerated truck in 1940, which allowed for the shipping of produce over long distances. See what you can find and discover for yourself the “hidden history” of black inventors and farmers.
  • The Gullah/Geechee people have been featured in mainstream culture. For example, many of you may remember the Nickelodeon show, “Gullah Gullah Island.”  Additionally, the Gullah/Geechee’s rich history was chronicled in the 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust.”  Beyond these mainstream cultural artifacts, what else can you find out about the Gullah people of today?



The CCC Indian Division: Native Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps

Via WPAToday, YouTube: "During the New Deal era, tens of thousands of Indians enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps. This brief film clip shows some of their work. The clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives."

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant, The Corps Network 

Created during the Great Depression, a time when the United States faced grave economic peril, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a federal work relief program that, from 1933 until 1942, put 3 million unemployed young men to work building and restoring America’s natural resource infrastructure.

Though the CCC was intended to provide stability and a new beginning for its participants, the benefits of the program were not equally distributed among all populations; the main beneficiaries were white enrollees. As detailed in a previous blog, the CCC failed to live up to its promise to provide equitable work and training opportunities to African American Corpsmembers. Many African Americans faced hostility from white supervisors, or were forced to serve in black-only camps, where conditions were poor. For Native Americans, however the federal work relief experience was quite different.

Technically, most Native Americans did not serve in the CCC, but rather in a parallel program. In 1933, not long after the formation of the CCC, the Indian Emergency Conservation Work (IECW) program was created at the request of John Collier, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). It was Collier’s hope that work relief projects, like those performed by the CCC, could benefit reservations. Pressure to create a separate program came from Native Americans and the BIA, who objected to having the standard military-style CCC camps on tribal land.

President Franklin Roosevelt initially approved $5,875,200 in funding for the IECW, which, by executive law, was renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division (CCC-ID) in 1937. The program was focused on “Indian work”: employing Native Americans on federally recognized reservations with a goal of preserving tribal lands and promoting sustainable ranching and farming. Projects involved road construction, erosion control, reforestation, and water resource development.

Records indicate 80,000 – 85,000 men served in the CCC-ID during the years of the Depression. Outside of work on reservations, the CCC-ID built dams, roads, trails, and fences on land near reservations. Native Americans received training in gardening, animal husbandry, safety practices, and academic subjects. As stated by political columnist Albert Bender in the article “History shows that joblessness among Native Americans can be lowered,” “The Indian Division produced awesome results. To cite only a few, reservation forests had 9,739 miles of truck trails laid out; 1,351,870 acres put under pest control; and countless fire lookout towers constructed. Indian grazing and farm lands had 263,129 acres subject to poisonous weed eradication, and 1,792 large dams and reservoirs were constructed.” Some of these accomplishments are still visible to this day.

While day-to-day operations at CCC camps were largely managed by the military, the BIA and tribal governments, or “agencies,” oversaw the CCC-ID. For example, branches of the CCC-ID were overseen by the Crow Agency of Montana, the Northern Cheyenne Agency of Montana, the Flathead Agency of Montana, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, and the Sioux of South Dakota.

The CCC-ID was one part of what would be the called the “Indian New Deal.” In 1934, John Collier encouraged President Roosevelt to sign into law the Wheeler-Howard Act, otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act. This legislation reversed harsh restrictions enacted through the Dawes Act of 1887, which had authorized the federal government to assimilate and strip Native Americans of their culture and claim 90 million acres of tribal land.

Under Wheeler-Howard, Native Americans could purchase new land. Additionally, the government recognized tribal institutions and repealed prohibitions on Native language and customs. In conjunction with this legislation, the CCC-ID was the first measure to bring material aid to reservations, encouraged self-administration by Native Americans, conserved tribal land resources, and employed thousands of Native men.

As Collier said, the CCC-ID was, “the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge confronting the Indian Service and the Indian tribes.” In simple terms, this was the first time the federal government allowed Native Americans to, at least to some extent, hold the reigns. Collier went on to state, “No previous undertaking in Indian Service, has so largely been the Indians’ own undertaking.”

Once the CCC-ID received funding, the program grew quickly. Within six months of its inception, 72 camps were present on 33 reservations in 28 states. The CCC-ID received more applicants than anticipated. To accommodate this, officials staggered employment of enrollees and allowed them to work on neighboring reservations only if it was approved by tribal council.

With assistance from the BIA, tribal councils oversaw CCC-ID camp enrollment, structure, and projects. Because of this, records of enrollees were processed differently, with some tribal governments collecting more data than others. Many tribes created narrative reports detailing work completed by enrollees. Some tribes opted to publish information about their work in their own newsletters, such as the Shoshone Tattler and the Blackfeet Tom Tom Echoes. These publications featured anecdotal history, as well as jokes, stories, and drawings from corpsmen.

One notable source that discussed Native contributions was, Indians at Work. This monthly publication, produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), contained articles, photographs and drawings of Native Americans, reservation life, and western scenes that helped promote the accomplishments of Native corpsmen.

Besides its management structure, the CCC-ID program differed from the CCC in many ways, including such elements as age restriction, living arrangements and wages. The CCC only enrolled men between the ages of 18 and 25. The average age of Native American corpsmen was 34; 172 enrollees were over the age of 35, and three were over the age of 75.

While CCC camps employed 200 men for six-month terms, only 40 to 50 Native Americans worked in units together. Also, as opposed to the traditional camp-setting, Native corpsmen lived in one of three types of domiciles: the permanent boarding camp for single men; the home camp for those wishing to live at home; and the family camp for projects of short duration where the entire household could reside temporarily in tents (another difference about the CCC-ID was that married men could serve). African American and white corpsmen did not have these housing options.

The basic wage for CCC-ID members was $30.00 for twenty workdays a month, or $1.50 per day, plus a 60 cent-per-day subsidy for those living at home. Enrollees also received from $1.00 to $2.00 per day for use of their own teams of horses. For those who lived at home, their pay was $2.10 per day for not more than twenty days in any one month, a possible total of $42.00 per month. In comparison, white and African American corpsmen earned a flat $30.00 per month, $25 of which had to be sent home to their families.

While the CCC-ID had what could be considered advantages over the CCC, there were some downsides. For instance, some living conditions were unsanitary. In all, however, the CCC-ID was more flexible than the CCC. It had less militarily structure and focused primarily on the goals of the Wheeler-Howard Act and improving Native American self-sufficiency.

The CCC and CCC-ID came to an end in 1942 when, as the U.S. joined WWII, Congress rejected funds to continue programming. For Native Americans, the CCC-ID was progressive in many ways. Native peoples reclaimed aspects of their culture, gained new educational and agricultural skills, and saw employment opportunities. The end of the CCC was arguably a setback; the program was important to Native Americans because one of their most valuable resources – their land – was cultivated, and small parts were returned to them. Collier stated, “The ending of a heavy, heavy blow to Indian Service, to the Indians, and to social policy in the United States. It is just that: a heavy and undeserved blow.”

For your consideration 

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  • The CCC and CCC-ID were disbanded in the early 1940s as the country turned its attention to WWII. John Collier described the end of the CCC-ID as a “heavy and undeserved blow.” Do you agree with his statement? If the CCC-ID program had continued (or possibly still functioned to this day), how do you think it would have influenced Native communities culturally? Economically? Socially?
  • The Smithsonian Libraries website offers the opportunity to read old copies of Indians at Work, the Bureau of Indian Affairs publication from the ‘30s and ‘40s. What do you learn from these publications? What do you not learn?
  • After decades of stripping Native peoples of their land and culture, the federal government gave tribal leadership a degree of agency over the CCC-ID program. How do you think tribal governments felt about this?
  • It has been over 80 years since passage of the Wheeler-Howard Act, or “Indian New Deal.” However, as stated by the National Congress of American Indians, “Tribal communities are among the poorest in the country and unemployment rates in Indian Country often stand above 50 percent.” What do you believe the federal government should do to address these ongoing issues?   
  • What can land management agencies do to better share the history and accomplishments of Native Americans on lands that are now national parks, national forests and other public spaces?
  • For Corps: Do you engage Native American youth in your programs or offer programming specifically for Native youth? If so, how is programming for Native youth different? How might any specialized education and activities offered in Native American programs also benefit non-Native Corpsmembers?
    • If your Corps does not actively engage Native American youth, what steps can you take to better engage Native populations in your region?


These resources, and much more, can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative resource library.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Indian Reorganization Act.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 10 October 2016.

Bender, Albert. “History shows that joblessness among Native Americans can be lowered. People’s World. 22 September 2014.

“Native Americans.” Digital History, 2016.

White, Cody. “The CCC Indian Division.” Prologue Magazine. Vol.48, No.2. 2016.


Gower, Calvin W. “The CCC Indian Division: Aid for depressed Americans, 1933-1942.” Minnesota Historical Society.

Bromert, Roger. “The Sioux and the Indian-CCC.” South Dakota State Historical Society. 1978.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dawes General AllotmentAct.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 12 December 2016.

McLerran, Jennifer. “A New Deal for Native Art: Indian Arts and Federal Policy 1933-1943.” The University of Arizona Press 2012. 

Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Indians at Work.” 1933 Bureau of Indian Affairs.

WPAToday. “The CCC on Indian Reservations.” YouTube, 27 June 2015,

Moving Forward Initiative Guest Series: Interview with Dr. Dorceta Taylor on Diversity and Equity Initiatives within Environmental Organizations

Dr. Dorceta Taylor is the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dr. Taylor is the author of The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies (a publication prepared for Green 2.0: 2014) and The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press: 2015). Both publications fundamentally seek to examine the state of gender, racial, and class diversity within environmentalism.

As part of The Corps Network's Moving Forward Initiative, we spoke with Dr. Taylor about her inspiration for environmental work, her education and career path, as well as the efficacy of diversity and equity initiatives within environmental organizations.

Click here for Moving Forward Initiative Homepage

- By Cassandra Ceballos, Programs Assistant, The Corps Network

Growing up in 1960s rural Jamaica, Dr. Dorceta Taylor found herself instinctively drawn to the natural environment.

"I really think I was one of those people who was just genetically hard-wired from the womb to come out caring and wanting to know about plants and animals," she said.

As a young girl, one of Dr. Taylor's many chores was to take care of a rose garden near her home. The garden fascinated Dr. Taylor; the various colors and kinds of roses, the bees pollinating the different flowers. She thought it was "the coolest job ever," and credits this early exposure with cementing her "respect, understanding, and curiosity" in biology.

Unable to attend school until the age of seven due to family responsibilities, Dr. Taylor taught herself how to read and write. In her studies, she came across a book that talked about the prestigious Yale University and decided then, at age seven, that she would one-day attend. "Ignorance is bliss," she shares, "because, at the time I said that, Yale did not admit black students and it did not admit women. But since there was nobody to tell me otherwise, I put it as one of my dreams and decided to pursue it."

In her first years of college in Jamaica, Dr. Taylor continued to pursue her interests in the biological sciences, specializing heavily in zoology and botany. Upon immigrating to the United States at age 20 she chose to continue along a Biology track at Northeastern Illinois University but was unable to register for an upper level Botany class in her first semester due to limited enrollment. Dr. Taylor instead enrolled in an environmental class at the suggestion of a professor. Her experiences in that first environmental class fundamentally shaped her life's trajectory.

Though medicine is a common career trajectory for biology students, Dr. Taylor never wanted to be a doctor; she hates the sight of human blood. She felt stifled in the sterile setting of labs and much preferred to work outdoors. The environmental course offered Dr. Taylor an "opportunity to see how you can connect people to the environment and focus on human interactions with the environment," rather than following more traditional STEM career paths. Yet, there was another side to this revelation. The lack of diversity in the environmental class both startled and disturbed Dr. Taylor.

"We were learning all this cool stuff about the environment, and pesticides, and I thought to myself ‘where are all the other black kids?’"

For the first time, Dr. Taylor found herself sitting in a science classroom as the only person of color. Surrounded by about fifty white students and a white male professor, she remembers thinking, "I know I left Jamaica, the Caribbean, but did I go that far out of space that I'm in a place where black and brown students are not taking these courses?"

Never one to be deterred, Dr. Taylor posed this question to the professor, who responded in front of the class that blacks are simply not interested in the environment. "I was stunned," she said. This comment lead Dr. Taylor to the library, determined to debunk his statement. She left disappointed, "I pulled out every book I could on behavior and the environment and every single research article said exactly what he said: blacks are not interested in the environment."

Those findings directly contradicted Dr. Taylor's lifelong knowledge of environmentalism. She grew up amongst black and brown people who cared about the environment, studied the environment, worked in the environment, all with excellence. Dr. Taylor realized the problem was not with participation, but with perception, "this perception that somehow an entire race of people does not care about the environment. How, how is that possible? And what does that mean if you have that kind of racialized understanding of caring about the environment?" Fostering stereotypes about the parts of society that do or do not involve themselves in environmental work establishes a logic about who to hire or engage in those capacities.

Dr. Taylor graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in 1983 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies and Biology. She enrolled in the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment later that year. Concurrently, the environmental movement was in full swing on national and international stages. Intrigued by the interaction of society and nature, Dr. Taylor found herself particularly drawn to the burgeoning environmental justice movement. This interest influenced her decision to pursue an interdisciplinary field of study. Not only did Dr. Taylor fulfill her childhood goal of attending Yale University, she did it with pizzazz. Dr. Taylor holds a Master of Forensic Science in Social Ecology, both a Master of Arts and Master of Philosophy in Sociology/Forestry, and dual doctoral degrees in Environmental Sociology from the Department of Sociology and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Even now, Dr. Taylor vividly remembers her experience in that first environmental class, her shock at the professor's racist remarks.  Unfortunately, this kind of racist understanding is not unique to the conservation movement. Such beliefs spring from historical rhetoric that erases the active participation and extraordinary contributions of persons of color in many aspects of our society. Growing up in a rural area of a developing country, however, she knew intimately the extensive body of environmental knowledge necessary to survive in such communities. Much of Dr. Taylor’s research works to rewrite, or “re-right,” the traditional narrative of environmentalism. She wishes to disprove, "the idea that black people are somehow so different from everyone else in the world that we don't care, we have no knowledge."

Documenting Black Contributions to Environmentalism

Authored by Dr. Taylor in 2016, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection comprehensively details the roles of race, class, and gender in shaping the environmental movement from the mid-1850s to the early 1900s.

"I thought that if I looked at slavery, I bet you we will find people of color doing amazing things either for the environment or to survive in the environment. We just haven't documented it,” said Dr. Taylor. “…If you look at slave plantations, what slaves did. The fact that they had incredible knowledge of the plants, the animals, it's just not written about. These were environmental activities. These were sustainable activities."

In The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Dr. Taylor analyzes the environmental characteristics of prominent figures like Harriet Tubman and Phyllis Wheatley, providing nuanced perspective on their lives. She writes about the environmental knowledge used by Harriet Tubman in operating the Underground Railroad, "she was a human minesweeper before we knew about minesweepers. She understood the water, could read the water so very well. It's really quite a hard thing to navigate along water in a forest, much less at night."

Dr. Taylor further argues that Phillis Wheatley, enslaved in the late 1700s, "was writing about the environment in a very positive way. Telling us to care about it for almost a century before Ralph Waldo Emerson, yet he gets credit for it." Traditional narrative surrounding these women and their accomplishments does not include these environmental elements. 

The 1960s saw an explosion of social movements in the United States, including the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement. 

The rhetoric of the civil rights and environmental movements established a false dichotomy between the two. The environmentalists at the time framed the environment as everything except for urban areas and everyone except people of color. It was mostly focused on middle and upper-class white people and the places where they lived and recreated.

"Through the 1960s and 1970s the environment is framed as the forests, the trees, the beautiful birds, the perfect oceans and lakes. It didn’t include the issues that related to urban areas or to poor people. Certainly not to persons of color,” said Dr. Taylor. “Part of the pushback of communities of color was a sense that, we’re not going to come out and march to save the bald eagle when we don’t have food in the house to feed our children. We have to take care of that first."

As a result, documentation of the civil rights movement fails to account for the environmental activism of its participants. "We talk about the fact that blacks were carpooling and we talk about it in the context of we couldn't get on the bus therefore, we had carpools. And guess what? Everybody now knows carpooling is environmentally friendly. But we don't frame our activism in those terms."  Dr. Taylor points out that, "there were more blacks carpooling in the South than environmental activists carpooling in the North. But white environmentalists get the credit for carpooling."

Dr. Taylor stresses the importance of telling these stories, "I’m hoping a whole new generation of people of color go back into their literature, go back into their stories that their parents and their grandparents and great-grandparents tell them about the way they lived. About activities. And, rather than seeing it as backwards, understand not only how it plays into who we are as a people, but how we can use it to understand our contribution to the environment and that we were always extremely connected to the environment. If we weren’t, we absolutely would not have survived."

The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations

In her 1997 journal article, American Environmentalism: The Role of Race, Class, and Gender in Shaping Activism, 1820-1995, Dr. Taylor writes that "the [environmental] movement faces enormous challenges in the future. Among the most urgent is the need to develop a more inclusive, culturally-sensitive, broad-based environmental agenda that will appeal to many people and unite many sectors of the movement.” In the 20 years since making that statement, Dr. Taylor has good news and bad news.

 The good news is there has been some increase in diversity.

A 1990 survey found that less than two percent of the staff at the largest environmental organizations were people of color. Most of the employees of color worked in the mailroom, on the janitorial staff, or strictly in entry-level positions. In Dr. Taylor's 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies, she studied several hundred mainstream environmental organizations and found that people of color made up about 16 percent of the workforce, an increase of about 14 percent in 24 years. Meanwhile, white women have made incredible strides, making up 60 percent of the staffing at environmental organizations, up from 14 percent in the 1980s.

Dr. Taylor says her report acted as, "a jolt to organizations. Because I put so much data out there, it's become very difficult for them to sit around and simply say people of color are not interested in the environment, that they don't want these jobs or apply to these jobs... And all the data we have says exactly the opposite. Young people of color, old people of color, they will take these jobs, want these jobs, and are qualified for these jobs."

The bad news is that we aren't where we need to be.

Currently, people of color make up 38 percent of the population, a number expected to increase to over 50 percent in the coming decades. "We are a growing segment... 16 percent in environmental organizations is well below our representation in the general population. We are underrepresented, by a significant amount."

Additionally, people of color working at environmental organizations continue to be concentrated in entry-level positions. "When you get to senior staff, Presidents and Vice Presidents, it's rare to see [people of color]. We need to look at diversity as we look up the hierarchy. The mentoring piece is missing. People are being hired but they’re also leaving because they feel alienated, isolated, and the conversations that are taking place in these organizations are sometimes very hard for the young people of color to deal with, especially when there are very few of them. So, the institutional culture has to change."

Moving Forward with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Dr. Taylor offers suggestions on how organizations might better approach diversity. Her first recommendation involves improved wages. "I find most [organizations] underprice the labor of young people of color," she said, "they don’t put a market value on it. So that's one of the first things."

When many foundations talk about funding diversity they talk about it in terms of how many bodies are in the room. But when Dr. Taylor approaches it, she thinks in terms of wages and salary scale. "Your wages today determine your wages tomorrow, and next week, and way down the road. That part of the diversity piece is so critical in building job negotiation skills.”

Dr. Taylor's undergraduate and graduate summer internship programs provide generous financial compensation to participants.

Spanning two summers, the undergraduate program consists of two cohorts of twenty students each. With over 400 applications a year, competition is high. The program focuses on very high achieving STEM students, with GPAs above 3.4. The grant includes money for travel expenses, including a car service from the airport. Meals and housing are also covered. Students make $4,200 for eight weeks. Dr. Taylor does this, "with the idea being that, when they leave here, they can go home and take their entire stipend back with them to help with college in the fall"

The graduate students start at $10,000 for 12 weeks in the summer, so that when they leave, multiplying the weeks over the summer, their biggest salary history is about $55,000/year. They can negotiate a different base salary than if they were paid $2,000 for the summer.

"It’s not just getting good students academically. It's about getting the ones that participate to be really excited and proud of what they’re doing. And they can say ‘wow, look at what I earn.’ People tend to say ‘oh bring me some students of color’ but then don’t want to pay these kids. That’s the dirty underside to this diversity piece, is that nobody wants to pay for it."

Dr. Taylor stressed the need to prepare young adults of color to be leaders in environmental conservation, rather than just entry-level employees. In her program, the undergraduates spend their first summer in a lab and their second summer in various environmental organizations.

"We have to think about where are we placing the students. If we’re not placing them in the labs and in the professional setting, we won’t diversify upwards through the pipeline. Otherwise all we have done is for them to say to us: find us these students and train them, when in reality we’ve only trained them for entry-level. So, chances are they’re only going to be in the organizations a very short time because they’re frustrated and don’t see the upward mobility. The hardest thing within diversity is for folks to realize that we are not just talking about back office. We’re talking about the front office. The presidential suite. Every part of the organization. And for these young people to have access to those [positions], to know that they can have access to these spaces, becomes really critical."

Dr. Taylor hopes to prove there are students of color interested in conservation work. "We’re not the only program that is seeing that incredible demand from students of color," Dr. Taylor said. "High-performing students of color, that want to do environmental justice, want to do conservation, forestry, those kinds of things. Those students are absolutely out there."

Finally, Dr. Taylor advocates developing a strong cohort and network amongst young adults of color participating in environmental programs, guided by the spirit of mentorship.

"The few of us who run these programs can't fix everything. In communities of color that kind of networking, especially in the environmental field, is not common. It’s important for students of color to understand how networks work. Some of these students are actually really good peer mentors and so we’ve actually appointed some of the very mature ones to help with the mentoring of their counterparts. It’s amazing how they can start helping each other."

For Your Consideration: 

1. Read this summary of Dr. Taylor's 2014 report, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. What surprises or stands out to you the most? Given the changing demographics of the United States population, what are the implications of the current state of diversity in environmental organizations?

2. Many stereotypes exist about what communities or types of individuals care about the environment. In your own career or education, have you been stereotyped or witnessed the stereotyping of others? If so, how have you reacted or responded? What are the effects of these stereotypes? Ask yourself, “what can I do to change the narrative?”

3. Dr. Taylor mentions carpooling as a sustainable activity most often credited to white environmentalists, despite the earlier use of carpooling by people of color during the civil rights movement. Consider other sustainable activities generally attributed to the mainstream environmental movement. Thinking critically, might there be other stories behind these activities?

4. In The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Dr. Taylor documents the environmental consciousness of Harriet Tubman and Phillis Wheatley. Why do we not view the work of these women through an environmental lens? What are the effects of omitting such individuals from the collective of historic environmental figures? Pick a figure from this list of civil rights activists. Can you find information on the individual’s environmental contributions? If not, think creatively. In what ways might this individual have been an environmentalist?

5. Skim through Dr. Taylor's latest research publication, Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Reporting and Transparency. What are the major findings from the report? Why do you think transparent reporting of diversity data is important?

6. For Corps: Dr. Taylor credits her early experiences tending a rose garden in Jamaica for sparking her interest in the natural world. Do you have a similar story or memory? Think back. When do you remember first gaining interest in conservation and preservation? Is there a standout influence?

7. For Corps: In this blog, we identify equal representation, mentorship, and fair wages as important elements of "diversity, equity, and inclusion". What do these terms mean to you? How can you contribute to making the environmental workforce more diverse, inclusive, and equitable?

8. For Corps: What do you do (or can you do) to promote “professionalism” in your program? What do you do to help Corpsmembers explore career and educational pathways that build on their Corps experience?