Friday, April 8, 2011

Black farmers continue the legacy of economic independence

Palmer Harrell

"Growing up in a rural area as a descendant of farmers, my attachment to the land began early in life," said genealogist and researcher, Antoinette Harrell.  Antoinette's great uncle, Palmer (Palmer Harrell), who is also called Buddy, would drive over in his green pick up truck to pick up Antoinette and her brothers every morning when school was out.

He would bring cheese and crackers and vanilla wafers.  She would be so excited to see the green pick up truck turn into the driveway.  They would go down to the field with him.  He planted butter beans, snap beans, corn, watermelon, and field peas.

Antoinette and her brothers would fill a hamper of beans for twenty five cents, and it was a big treat for them to go to the store with that twenty-five cents.  For lunch, Uncle Buddy ate lunch from among the things he grew, raw snap beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

Antoinette said that was the way that she remembers spending the summer.  She says it was such a a treat, and that Uncle Palmer "gave us love and sweet memories."  These experiences are why she loves farming and gardening today.

Her cousin, Henry Wheat,  had a farm and cows.  Her mother would let his cows graze on their land because they kept the grass from being too tall.  He made his own syrup.  Antoinette only remembers him in two places, in church, and in the field.  He was often found picking greens or peas or growing something.  Antoinette remembers when some farmed with a mule and when they first started using tractors. 

Henry (Doris) Wheat taught them a lot about farming and planting food.  He spent most of the time in the field, and  they planted big crops which fed their families.  That was their livelihood.  There was a fish pond on the land, and sometimes Antoinette and her three brothers would go fishing with their cousin Bruce Wheat.  "Often we would only catch seven or eight crawfish, and we would still boil that seven or eight crawfish as if we had a whole sack of crawfish, and that was Summer entertainment for us,"  explained Antoinette.

The Wheats and the Harrells lived right next door to each other.  Emma Mead Harrell, Jasper and Palmer's mother, purchased 11 acres of land in 1902 and more land in 1904 during a time when women were not purchasing land on their own.  Out of 13 children, Jasper and Palmer remained attached to the land.  They always shared what they grew and gave food to other people.

Cousin Eugene Edwards on his tractor. Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Antoinette's 87 year old cousin, Eugene Edwards farms everyday.  He still drives and repairs his own  tractor.  In 1950, Eugene left for Detroit to find work at an auto plant.  A country man at heart, he found his way back down South to the land his dad purchased around 1930.

Euguene's mother, Annie, died at a very early age.  Her father, Tres Williams, was once a sharecropper for the McDaniels'.  Annie was married to Ben Edwards on Feb 7, 1921.  Eugene grew up on the land his father purchased in St. Helena Parish, LA.   When Eugene returned to the land, he vowed that he would never leave it again.

"He grows potatoes, corn, okra, tomatoes, field peas, and watermelon. He even raised his own livestock.   His son has also returned to the land and Eugene has "given his son a spot.  He has disked the land up so his son can have a place to grow crops," says genealogist and researcher, Antoinette Harrell.

Potatoes.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

"There was a time when I didn't have a dime in my pocket, but I had plenty to eat...and did not owe anybody for the land,"  Eugene Edwards.
"Having your own water well, water pond, food, land, furnished wood, stove,  that's economic independence.  It does not get any better than that,"  Antoinette Harrell.
In the Field.  Photographer, Walter C. Black, Sr.

Antoinette was just recently out visiting Cousin Eugene.  She heard Cousin Eugene teach about hybrid seeds and regular seeds.  She sampled fresh English peas.  She said they were so sweet and good that they did not even need to be cooked.  She pulled English peas and turnip greens.  Another farmer who is 64 years old plants food and gives it all to the elderly and widows.

I love the capacity Antoinette has for bringing history to life.  The work of Walter C. Black, Sr. speaks for itself.  I am truly touched by the work of these two individuals.  Walter, the last photo with Antoinette and Cousin Eugene speaks volumes.  It symbolizes the past, present, and the future.  Join us for the Tuesday, April 12th episode of Nurturing Our Roots:  African American Midwives and Black Farmers, where we will interview Cousin Eugene Edwards, the grandson of midwife, Mandy Jones Wheat

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