The topic of reparations for African American descendants of the enslaved invariably is framed in the form of a check.
But momentum appears to be taking reparations back to its land-based roots, most famously voiced in the promise of “40 acres and a mule.” And a collaboration between Richmond’s Duron Chavis, an urban agriculturalist and food activist, and Callie Walker, the daughter of an Amelia County cattle farmer, has resulted in a effort to provide reparations for descendants of the enslaved on 80 acres Walker inherited from her parents.
Chavis and Walker are putting the word out about their effort — a project of their nascent nonprofit Central Virginia Agrarian Commons — to be stewards of acreage that would grant low-cost or no-cost 99-year leases to individuals who want to farm on the land at Amelia Court House, about 40 miles southwest of downtown Richmond.
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Community members would be schooled on farming at a 5-acre site in Petersburg before heading to Amelia, where land, equipment and philanthropic resources would be available for their use. “That way, we’re building a system between rural and urban where farmers can actually not have to go into debt to farm,” Chavis said Monday.
Central Virginia Agrarian Commons had hoped to build multiple housing units for the farmers on the property, but zoning restrictions prevented that. Instead, in upcoming months, the nonprofit will begin fundraising to build a bed and breakfast as a starter house for a family or two, as a business, or as a retreat center.
During the workshop, Agrarian Trust “gave us a pretty brief but pretty appalling history of practices” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including discrimination against Black farmers, Walker said. “My husband and I already knew that we wanted to donate this land” to environmental food growers, she said; after the presentation, they concluded that the donation must benefit African American environmental food growers.
Chavis was already in conversations with Agrarian Trust, and “it just kind of took off from there” in January 2020, Walker said. They formed a board, including consultant Renard Turner, co-owner and operator of Vanguard Ranch in Louisa County. Last September, Agrarian Trust facilitated the transfer of Walker’s 80 acres to Central Virginia Agrarian Commons.
If African Americans are conflicted about returning to our agrarian roots in America, our skepticism is hard-earned. There is the traumatic legacy of enslavement, the broken promise of property redistribution after Emancipation, and the loss of land through theft, violence, eminent domain and lack of access to USDA loans. Another problem is heirs property — land passed down to descendants without a will or deed — which left owners vulnerable to partition sales.
Chavis knows this history of land misappropriation all too well. But he argues that reconnecting Black folks with the land will not only heal communities, but a planet ailing from climate change.
“The land didn’t do anything to us,” he said. “There’s a difference between the land and the oppression that happened on the land. The land is necessary.”
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Land-based reparations came up during a meeting last Wednesday of the Virginia Commission to Study Slavery and Subsequent De Jure and De Facto Racial and Economic Discrimination Against African Americans. Commission member John W. Kinney said members of a Black realtors group proposed the donation of vacant state land for housing as a form of reparations.
“People are seeing another way,” beyond individualism and immediate gratification, Chavis said. “We can all boss up together if we work together” and take lessons from Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Charles and Shirley Sherrod, Chavis said, citing pioneers of the land trust movement.
“They laid blueprints down as far as how we can take care of our community through shared and cooperative ownership, for housing as well as agriculture,” he said. “This is where our movement left off, to be frank, after the Civil Rights Act passed.”
The Amelia farm on which Walker grew up has a complicated history of its own.
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When her father purchased the property in 1968, it had a plantation house on it. The family soon sold the house, which was dismantled, moved to Goochland and rebuilt. But two years ago — through the book “The Unsung African American Heroes of Amelia County, Volume 1” by Minister Emanuel Hyde III — she learned that the plantation once belonged to a man named Nathaniel Harrison, who fell in love with an enslaved woman owned by his brother Edmund.
Edmund learned of his brother’s affection for Frankey Miles and planned to sell her into the Deep South. But his brother had a friend purchase her instead. Nathaniel Harrison then purchased and freed Miles. Upon his death in 1852, he left the 1,100-acre site to Miles and their children, Walker said.
Their descendants held onto various pieces of the land and some remain in Amelia, Walker said. Descendants of people enslaved there also remain in the county. “And so my hope is that descendants of people who were enslaved on this property will end up being the ones who control it, and decide what to do with it and how to use it and what to grow here,” she said.
Walker’s husband, Pastor Dan Walker, leads United Methodist Church congregations in Amelia and Nottoway counties. Callie Walker was a United Methodist clergywoman in Philadelphia but is now on leave from that role in the church. They have no children to whom they can pass on property. “So I’m proud and honored to be part of a reparations project and to have inherited land that I can do this with.”
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The goal is to build a community of people descended from the enslaved in Amelia, “so that folks can actively participate in their repair or that healing that comes along with land-based reparations,” Chavis said. Central Virginia Agrarian Commons is seeking a conservation easement that would prevent commercial development of the acreage.
“We’re not giving you a check, but we’re going to give you 80 acres of land,” Chavis said of the project. “What do you do with that land to empower your community for generations to come? What you can do with land as a wealth-building strategy for your community is a real conversation.”
It is a conversation that is a century and a half overdue.