Growing Justice

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Original Air Date: 
August 22, 2020

A new generation of Black farmers are working to reclaim land, hoping to grow justice along with vegetables and plants.

Farmers work the fields on Soul Fire Farm as part of their workshop series.

Farmer Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm in New York state, and author of "Farming While Black," is digging deep into the soil and her African history to change the story for a new generation.


The promise of 40 acres and a mule didn't materialize for most Black Americans. But attorney Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, is fighting for Black farmers to get their land back, now.

(Left to Right) Venice Williams gives Anne a tour.

Venice Williams, an ordained minister, runs Alice's Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee. She finds connection and spirituality on this land, which was once a location of the Underground Railroad.

cooked greens

John Givens invites us into his kitchen where he cooks his family's traditional greens.

mcdonalds sign

Historian Marcia Chatelain found a surprising connection between McDonald's and civil rights history when researching her book "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America." She writes about the intersection of race, capitalism and fast food.


Show Details ๐Ÿ“ป
August 22, 2020
May 15, 2021
February 26, 2022
October 08, 2022
September 02, 2023
Attorney and Executive Director, Land Loss Prevention Project
Venice Williams
Executive Director, Alice's Garden
Full Transcript ๐Ÿ“„

Anne Strainchamps (00:22):

The first time people talked about reparations for slavery, they talked about land, 40 acres and a mule.

Leah Penniman (00:34):

Something that was really powerful that I learned recently is that in 1865, when General Sherman met with about 30 black clergy to find out what it was that they needed after the war ended. They said, "We need homes and the ground beneath them, so we can plant fruit trees and say to our children, these are ours."

Anne Strainchamps (01:07):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. That dream of owning land, growing food to feed your family and your neighbors, maybe it's not so old fashioned even today. What if reparations were finally paid right now as land? Would anyone want it? Meet Leah Penniman.

Leah Penniman (01:37):

Land really is the basis of everything. Without land we can't build our homes, we can't grow our food, have our businesses, have security for the future. I grew up in a rural town called Ashburnham, Massachusetts, I was mostly raised by my father along with my two siblings, Naima and Allen. Like most kids without a lot of means, you got to get a summer job as soon as you are of age so you can pay for your stuff and save for college and all that. So I got a job at the food project outside of Boston when I was 16. And being a teenager is complicated, being a teenager who identifies as black and was raised in this rural town is even more complicated. And farming is elegantly simple, you put a seed, you tend it, you harvest it, you feed the community, it's good. No one can tell you it's not good. And that was the rock that I needed in those challenging times. I was hooked, I kept farming and I haven't stopped for 23 years.

Anne Strainchamps (03:10):

Leah Penniman is founding co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. It's a working and teaching farm. She and her partner raise vegetables, chickens, eggs, and social justice. On this continent, land has been a source of generational trauma since the arrival of the first Europeans, but land can also be a place of healing. For farmers like Leah Penniman, it's a place to reclaim her own African roots. Steve Paulson wanted to talk with her about her path to farming.

Steve Paulson (03:45):

Leah, you have talked about yourself as someone who tends the soil, which is a phrase I love, what does that mean to you, to tend the soil?

Leah Penniman (03:54):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Soil to me is alive, she's a conscious, sovereign living being. And when I was living in Ghana, West Africa, the Queen mothers, who were my mentors there, really admonished farmers in the United States saying, "Is it true that a farmer will put a seed in the ground and not pray, or sing, or dance, or even say thank you to the soil?" I admitted that, that was the case and they said, "That's why you're all sick. You're all sick because you take, and take, and take and don't give back and don't ask permission." So I really see my relationship with the soil as one of reciprocity and reverence.

Steve Paulson (04:34):

What does that mean, that the soil or the earth is alive?

Leah Penniman (04:37):

Well in Afro-indigenous cosmology, whether you're among the Yoruba people or the Dahomey people, we really believe that the earth is what's called an [Arisha 00:04:46], which is a spirit. One of the names of the Earth is Ile Aye. And the idea is that the earth is the same way a tree, or a wolf, or a human being, or a star is, has consciousness and is desiring of being in relationship with us.

Steve Paulson (05:03):

You mentioned that you spent time in Ghana, and I read somewhere that you actually had a dream about planting maize, is that right?

Leah Penniman (05:10):

I love it, you're getting into the spiritual piece. So I'll try to make this not too long winded because it was quite a journey. But a big turning point for me when I was living in Ghana, I was there for six months as a 21 year old, was a night that I had a dream of planting maize on this mountain that I could see on the horizon. And I told my friend about this dream and there were words and I didn't understand, so I said the words and he said, "Well, those are the old Krobo, the old language we don't speak anymore. So I'm going to take you to the priest and get the dream interpreted."

Leah Penniman (05:41):

So long story short, what the priest said is that, basically, your people are from here, from this particular ethnic group, the Krobo of Eastern Region of Ghana, because you can't plant maize on that mountain unless you're from here. And so I want you to be initiated and then eventually to become a queen mother, a spiritual leader in our community and take our teachings back to the United States.

Steve Paulson (06:04):


Leah Penniman (06:04):

So I did.

Steve Paulson (06:05):

That's incredible. I mean, you have this dream and your life direction comes out of that. So you mentioned that you started this farm, Soul Fire Farm, why did you want to start a farm?

Leah Penniman (06:17):

I fell in love with farming as a teenager, so there was never a question that I would one day have my own farm. But the real causal event was when my partner John and I were living in the south end of Albany, New York, back in 2005, we had a newborn and a two year old. And we were super motivated to feed our children healthy, fresh vegetables and fruits. We had advanced degrees, we knew how to work the system. And even with that, because there were no grocery stores, farmers markets, public transportation, we encountered huge hurdles.

Leah Penniman (06:49):

And there was a moment when I realized that we actually as a community need to feed ourselves, we can't just rely on the "system" to feed us, we need to start a farm that's about feeding ourselves, training others to feed themselves, bringing food back to the south end to that neighborhood. And so in 2006, we signed white man's papers, and bought the land, and started to farm. And it has grown beyond anything I could have ever imagined from not just a farm that provides food doorstep delivery to people on the south end and other neighborhoods, but a real ground zero for the training of the next generation of black and brown farmers.

Steve Paulson (07:25):

What you described in the south end of Albany, a lot of people call that a food desert.

Leah Penniman (07:30):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So yes, the government would call a neighborhood without grocery stores a food desert. My mentor, Karen Washington, taught me to use the term food apartheid instead, because a desert is a natural phenomena, and apartheid is a human created system of segregation that relegate certain people to abundance of resources and others to scarcity. And that's really what we have today because of a legacy of racism, of redlining, of unfair zoning neighborhoods that are quite segregated in terms of access to food.

Steve Paulson (07:59):

We should talk about that because there used to be a lot of black farmers in America and there aren't anymore.

Leah Penniman (08:06):

Yes, despite the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule, black farmers managed to purchase almost 16 million acres of land by 1910 and run their own farms. And this was such a threat to the sharecropping way of life in the South that they were met with swift retribution. The white caps, the Klu Klux Klan, later of the White Citizens Council, started domestic terrorism campaign against black farmers and killed 4,500 people, burn their houses, lynchings, and cross burnings, and shooting at people.

Steve Paulson (08:37):

Because they didn't want black farmers to own land to grow their own food.

Leah Penniman (08:41):

Exactly. So if Black farmers owned their own land, not only are they opting out of sharecropping, which means there's no labor for the white plantations, but also they're disrupting the white supremacy status quo, they're getting too uppity, right. And the government was completely in collusion with this. In 1965, the US committee on civil rights found that the US Department of Agriculture was the number one driver of black land loss because it would punish black folks who were attempting to register to vote, to join the NAACP, to have their own businesses by denying them loans, denying them crop insurance and crop allotments and all these other benefits that white farmers were getting.

Leah Penniman (09:23):

Pete Daniel talks about the government programs, farming programs, being sharpened into a weapon to punish civil rights activity in the 1960s. And so you see a decline from black farmers having 14% of the nation's farms to just over 1% today, which is certainly no accident of history.

Steve Paulson (09:39):

But you mentioned what was happening during the Civil Rights Movement, obviously, there still were black farmers. And in fact, they played a pretty crucial role in a lot of what was happening during the Civil Rights in the 50s and 60s, it became this refuge, this safe space for a lot of those civil rights activists.

Leah Penniman (09:58):

Oh, my goodness, it's so astounding. One of my mentors, Donald Halfkenny, explained this so well, he said, "Without black farmers, there would have been no Civil Rights Movement at all", because you think about being a freedom rider going down to register people to vote, it's not like you could rent a conference center or eat at a restaurant, you needed a refuge. And so black farmers provided the meeting space, they provided the armed protection, they leveraged their land as collateral to bail people out of jail, they fed people, they fixed their shoes, they kept a lookout and would cut down a tree to block the road if the night riders were coming after you.

Leah Penniman (10:31):

So quite literally, there would be no Civil Rights Movement without landowning black farmers. And that's something we think about a lot. Malcolm X said that land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. And so, how do we as land owning black and brown farmers really use our land to leverage freedom even beyond the food space?

Steve Paulson (10:48):

And yet this history is of course even more complicated given the history of slavery, because I would assume that a lot of African-Americans would look at farming as this holdover of the whole history of enslavement and then later sharecropping, and to work the land conjures up images of picking cotton on plantations.

Leah Penniman (11:07):

Oh, you're so right. And I will tell you, time and again, when black folks first come to Soul Fire Farm and make a word association, they think about slavery even though that's obviously not what's happening. And my friend, Chris Bolden Newsome, who's a black farmer in Philly, explains it so well, he says, "The land was the scene of the crime." And I would add though that she was never the criminal, in fact, she was probably the reason we survived, our connection with the land, our connection with the bones and wisdom of our ancestors beneath the land.

Leah Penniman (11:33):

And so, when we did flee those red clays of Georgia for good reason, we fled those cross burnings and people trying to take our lands and our dignity, and went to the paved streets of Boston in Pittsburgh, we still left a little piece of our souls and our culture behind. And my generation is being called the returning generation that's going to claim the best of that connection to land and rewrite the story so that it's one of dignity and belonging, and not circumscribed by the oppression that our ancestors experienced.

Steve Paulson (12:01):

So do you still hear that from people? I mean, part of what you do on your farm is you train a new generation of black and brown farmers. Is there this visceral response, well, why would I want to do that, look at the history?

Leah Penniman (12:14):

I think mostly from young people, when schoolchildren come out on their field trips, they didn't necessarily decide to come to a farm. So yes, their first visceral reaction is, "Wait, I don't pick cotton any more, my parents and grandparents have ran far away from that." But I will tell you that of the thousands and thousands of youth that have come to our farm, every single one leaves with a smile and being happy about burritos and being happy about the land, and I have children asking me if they can have their birthday parties on the farm. So there's something very, very powerful about seeing that people who look like them are not only living their dreams, running their own businesses, defining their own lives, but that they've claimed a connection to the land.

Leah Penniman (12:53):

And I remember in particular, one young man, Deza Carter, who's a Albany resident, coming out to land very, very skeptical, didn't want to get out of the van, afraid that a bear would eat him, and then at the end of the tour saying, "Miss, this is going to sound weird, but when I put my foot on the ground, I felt my grandmother's spirit come up through my foot, come into my heart, and reminded me that when I was little we gardened together and she will put a worm in my hands and tell me it was okay. I didn't think I had anything to do with this place, but I'm realizing now I have everything to do with this place, I have everything to do with land, and the earth, and food."

Leah Penniman (13:29):

And he got a little teary, the other kids got a little teary talking about their grandmas. But I think it's moments like that where we realize that the colonizers, the oppressor, so to speak, can take a lot from us, but ultimately, we can't let them take our sacred connection to something that has been so central to our identity for thousands of years.

Steve Paulson (13:50):

Yes. It's so interesting what you're saying because there's a lot of different social justice movements, we tend not to also talk about that in the context of owning land. So what do you do on the Soul Fire Farm? What food do you grow?

Leah Penniman (14:05):

Yes. So we're busy out at Soul Fire Farm, we grow a whole lot of things. We grow vegetables, fruits, we raise chickens for eggs and meats, mushrooms, fish ponds. So real diversified, because we are a training farm and we want to make sure that folks who come can learn a lot of different models and systems for what they might grow in the future. We have programs almost every day, our most popular is called BIPOC FIRE, which is quite a mouthful, but it's black indigenous people of color farming in relationship with earth. And it's a residential week long course in all the basics of farming from seed to marketing, and also addresses methods for healing from the trauma of land based oppression and celebrating the food sovereignty movements of our ancestors. So there's a lot of singing, clapping, dancing, cooking along with how to analyze your soil test.

Anne Strainchamps (15:02):

That was Leah Penniman, talking with Steve Paulson. She's the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and she tends the soil of Soul Fire Farm in New York State. So having heard or remembered how deep our connection with land can be, now imagine losing it.

Savi Horne (15:32):

If you don't mind, I would just like to read a piece of Scripture that's pointed.

Anne Strainchamps (15:44):

This a Savi Horne, Executive Director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina.

Savi Horne (15:53):

So it says, "See, the Lord your God has given the land to you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors has promised to you. Do not fear or be dismayed." I started with that to ground just how it would have been that you're newly freed, unshackled from slavery and you need food, you need shelter, you need clothing, you need a sense of place that you can call your own, you need to be able to worship your God, you just need your family around, and you look around and there was the land that you were part of. You are the shackle of the land and you bonded with the land. And there are some narratives where ancestors would leave a plantation and go back because they couldn't live without that particular grove of trees.

Savi Horne (17:05):

When you hold land, you have to figure out how to keep it. Dispossession from land is so hurtful, it becomes an intergenerational root pain that multiplies over the decades that never leaves you, because you always have and hold those memories.

Anne Strainchamps (17:30):

How savvy Horne and others are working to get black farmers back on the land, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and NPRX. We've heard a little this hour about how black farmers were dispossessed of their land, it's a well documented history, a story of discrimination that gave white farmers something black farmers never had, an opportunity to build generational wealth. As we all know, today, there is a huge gap between the generational wealth of white and black Americans. And the story of what happened to black family farms is part of it. Savi Horne is a lawyer and director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina, which is part of an ongoing historic effort to fight for black farmers in the courts. She's seen a lot of hardship but also progress.

Savi Horne (18:34):

One that I'll carry till the day I die really, and it lives with me and it sits with me, and this particular farm family they're very, very dear and near to my heart and soul. And it happened when I first began to work in this field of black agriculture. Having come from New York City and getting to know a farm family who had got behind and loans weren't being rescheduled, they weren't getting the help that they needed. And they did all the legal mechanisms to hold on to the land, whether it be bankruptcy or whether it be trying to negotiate with the agency, none of that worked, it all failed. So it was about 180 acres, don't hold me to the numbers, and you had it being auctioned, the farmer lost that land, and eventually, the biggest insult to injury was somewhat the desecration of the family cemetery which was part of the farm that housed and kept their ancestors as well as Native Americans and enslaved African-Americans in that community. And it was almost destroyed just before Thanksgiving, and so that has always marred that holiday for me.

Savi Horne (20:02):

But this family were able to eventually turn their lives around, I think they kept about 20 acres, rented out the land, and they have done a great job of recovery in a sustainable way. Now they have more acres and they're expanding their operation, and they're a source of help for people in their community. So I mean, it's that kind of recovery that gives me hope every day.

Anne Strainchamps (20:36):

So much of this dispossession happened legally through the action of the USDA, through farmers being denied loans, aid that was going to white farmers was denied to black farmers. It sounds like such a familiar story, would you draw the comparison to redlining and housing?

Savi Horne (20:56):

Yes, I see the parallel. And then further back, when black people were purchasing land, they could only purchase land in very fragile ecosystem with erodible soils, they were the least wanted land, right. Likewise, when black people were trying to purchase homes, they were basically steered away, and I don't want to use the word ghettos, but in very high dense housing situation where they couldn't really build wealth.

Anne Strainchamps (21:32):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Savi Horne (21:33):

And so this is the root of the resistance and really the redemption and the reparation that young black folk are talking about and are willing to be engaged in uprising about.

Anne Strainchamps (21:49):

Can you put any number or dollar value on this loss of black land?

Savi Horne (21:54):

The Republic of New Africa that was organizing around consolidation of African-American land, they had put it at 14 trillion or close to that.

Anne Strainchamps (22:08):

Wow. It's interesting thinking about the money, it makes me think about reparations for slavery. And people are talking about a lot of forms that reparations could take from cash checks, to education loans, to health insurance. This makes me wonder, what about going back to the original promise, 40 acres, land?

Savi Horne (22:29):

Yes, which we never got, mind you. Yes. So I mean, there are new thinkings emerging in Congress on how to repair African-American farmers, looking back at land and what black people didn't get. So when you look at the land that white Americans got 180 acres onto the Homestead Act, then reparations, just to deal with the land, would mean that if justice is to prevail that you restored that equal amount to African-Americans so they can repossess land that was taken. And that's why in the reparation dialogue, land needs to be centered and it needs to be actual land.

Anne Strainchamps (23:20):

I know you've talked a little bit about how you think churches can be helpful in land rights, which I find really moving. Partly, I was thinking that the mutual aid or spirit of mutual aid you're talking about is what black churches have been all about, especially in rural areas. But I'm wondering if getting churches involved in land rights, is that just as buildings or is that in a more spiritual way?

Savi Horne (23:46):

I think you're seeing a spiritual transformation of churches and a reckoning of just the complexity of Christianity, and oppression, and slavery. You do have your Americans who are offering up land, you have Reparations Summer, similar to the civil rights, summer of people offering resources or offering land to young people. You have some very, very wealthy young people through resources generation, they're looking at buying land and making land available for African-Americans, groups are looking at even divesting some of their easement land to make that available to next generation African-Americans. So I see a new sense of what it means to take possession.

Anne Strainchamps (24:46):

I guess I'm wondering if there's a deeper structural issue having to do with the way Western law defines property legally, because there're long traditions in say, African-American Communities thinking of land as family land rather than land that has to be owned individually.

Savi Horne (25:08):

That's right. So there are glimmers of hope out there and you're seeing a rejection of the traditional fee simple absolute to more looking at more collectivize models of land ownership.

Anne Strainchamps (25:23):

What's an alternative model? Tell me about, I don't know, some younger people you know who are making it work.

Savi Horne (25:29):

Well, you have a very nuanced collective called Earthseed, they have purchased land that was the largest plantation in the county of Durham, and they now are holding down 40 something acres, they are engaged in regenerative agriculture, they're feeding poor black communities in East Durham.

Anne Strainchamps (25:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Savi Horne (25:53):

They are repurposing structures, planning homes through a collective model. So I think next generation African-American and people of color farmers, they get what collective economics means to self determination. This Western way of looking and possessing land that is going to eventually be within the dustbin of history because it doesn't work, doesn't work for black people.

Anne Strainchamps (26:23):

Have you been there to Earthseed?

Savi Horne (26:25):

Oh, absolutely. It's one of my favorite places. And the beauty of it is that you now have families, you have babies that I've met who are now in elementary school on that land and it's a very beautiful thing.

Anne Strainchamps (26:40):

Well, yes, this movement being created by people whose ancestors were treated as possessions, that original sin, to have that come around and result in people rethinking the very concept of what it means to possess, to have property and realizing that that has to mean an entirely different relationship to the land, and there's something just so beautiful about that.

Savi Horne (27:05):

I absolutely agree. Just to paraphrase an African proverb, the beautiful ones are not yet born, I say they are born, and it's about time because we're running out of time to save the planet.

Anne Strainchamps (27:30):

Savi Horne is a lawyer and executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina.

Anne Strainchamps (27:45):

You don't necessarily need a huge amount of acreage to make a difference. In my own state, Wisconsin, Venice Williams runs Alice's Garden and Urban Farm on a small piece of historic land on the north side of Milwaukee. It's a real farm, it sells produce to farmers' markets and also a community garden, where neighborhood families have their own plots. When Venice steps on stage to tell folks about the project, she describes it as part garden and part ministry.

Venice Williams (28:33):

If I am to close my eyes as I think about walking through the gates of Alice's Garden, and very often I'm coming through by myself because I am coming in to harvest herbs for farmers' markets, before I even enter the gate, I'm greeted by the sounds of birds, butterflies and bees. There's all of this life, it's beautiful. The colors of the flowers in all of the vegetation growing, but before long, within an hour, there are people who are coming to water their plots or to harvest before going to work, or after they drop children off at daycare, or before they go to have breakfast with their best friend, or maybe they're meeting their best friend in the garden for breakfast.

Venice Williams (29:27):

As a lay minister in the Lutheran Church, when I came to Alice's Garden, I was reminded as to why part of our creation story is birthed in a garden. I looked up one day and I had this incredible community that indeed was a parish, people who weren't just connected because they were growing food, but because of their love of land and the elements, and their love that was growing for one another. That is what a parish means to me.

Venice Williams (30:08):

We baptize the land, and more importantly, the land baptizes us. Libations is a very sacred ritual for us at Alice's Garden. We ask permission of an elder to do this ritual, we call upon ancestors throughout historical moments in time, so it might be your biblical ancestors, historical ancestors, you call upon your personal ancestors, those people who existed and therefore you are. You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the generations before you, the same is true of the land. The very first libations we pour is for the earth, for the elements, for fire, for water, for air, and then that fifth element, for spirit, spirit is an element. So you pour water as a symbol of life and you're nourishing the earth as you're pouring that water.

Venice Williams (31:16):

For us in our community, it's important for us to remember that in the Summer of 1842, when a 16 year old enslaved girl in St. Louis by the name of Caroline Quarlls, when she woke up on July 4th, to claim her independence, and she finally made it to Milwaukee and to Wisconsin. And as she went from safe house to safe house, the land that Alice's Garden sits on, which was the land of Deacon Samuel Brown is part of the birthplace of the Underground Railroad in the state of Wisconsin, not just Milwaukee, but in the entire state. She was not the first person who had found refuge in Wisconsin, but she is the first documented passenger on Wisconsin's Underground Railroad. And so we honor that, we're really proud of that, that history. Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Venice Williams (32:15):

And so the best type of parish, the best type of Earth is all about nourishing everything that comes into touch with that land.

Anne Strainchamps (32:33):

Venice Williams is the director of Alice's Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee, she's also an ordained minister who calls her garden her outdoor parish.

Anne Strainchamps (32:46):

I'm Anne Strainchamps, and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We've been talking about growing food and growing justice, but we should also talk about eating, about the pleasure of cooking something delicious that was dug out of the ground. A few years ago, around Thanksgiving time, Cynthia Woodland asked a friend to share his recipe for cooking up a big pot of greens.

John Givens (33:17):

John Givens Mississippi. In the North they call me John, in the South they call me John Lee. I'm going to cook some [inaudible 00:33:27] today for you. [inaudible 00:33:31] here, just dump them in there. A little [inaudible 00:33:36] powder. And while we waiting on that, got a little serum to start on the serum mix. My mother always had me in the kitchen with her. This time of year with holidays and she's baking cakes, and she gave me the pan after taking out all the stuff out of it, so I loved it. But she also said that she was going to teach me to be independent and to not have to depend on a woman to do anything. When I got married, my wife didn't cook. So guess what? Here I am cooking.

John Givens (34:23):

When you eat greens, a lot of times people cut the stems up in them, I like mine without the stems, so I take a little extra time to take the greens off the stem part so that when I'm eating it's just all greens. My mother and her sisters, they would have little cooker thons where, how they would like to say, everybody had their own specialty. My mom, she would do the greens and one of my aunts, she would make corn bread from scratch.

John Givens (35:04):

Down South they had a beer called [Foster 00:35:06], and they would get a cup of Foster and they would get to talking, and I learnt more about them coming up, they lived on a plantation like sharecroppers, by then they cooked three meals a day, breakfast, lunch, and you had dinner that was cooked. And they had the microwaves and all that quick stuff. But yes, I remember those time. But we're about ready to put the greens into the ham [inaudible 00:35:45] now. Another key thing about cooking these greens is that you don't leave it, you take care of it, you pamper it, sometime I say, you even talk to it. You smelling good. That's a good meal. Come on baby, cooking, greens is cooking. Sound good.

Anne Strainchamps (36:22):

John Givens is the cook, Cynthia Woodland is the producer, and thanks to our friends at Wisconsin Life for the story. Okay, so if you've listened this far, you might not be the kind of person who feels much affection for fast food. But then again, maybe you do.

Marcia Chatelain (36:51):

When I was in high school, I participated in a locally televised, very low budget, African-American History quiz bowl show.

Speaker 8 (37:01):

It's Know Your Heritage, the quiz show series that features competing high school students testing their knowledge on African-American culture both past and present.

Marcia Chatelain (37:14):

When my team got their, I don't know, third or fifth place awards, I remember that a lot of the program was sponsored by a local chapter of the National Black McDonald's Operators Association.

Speaker 9 (37:28):

Here's the first question in the category of Civil Rights for 30, what legislation decreased the migration of blacks? Valarie.

Valarie (37:33):

The Immigration Law.

Speaker 9 (37:36):

To the city of Chicago, for 30 points. Congratulations. Well done.

Marcia Chatelain (37:38):

Years later when I went to graduate school, I thought how strange it was that my first introduction into a substantive piece of African-American History was by way of Black McDonald's Operators.

Speaker 9 (37:50):

So what we're going to ask you our audience members to do right now is to stay tuned for that exciting second round coming up next. Stay with us, won't you?

Marcia Chatelain (38:00):

I just found that so fascinating that I started to think more and more about the role of black franchise owners in the cultural and social life of African-Americans.

Speaker 8 (38:09):

Know your heritage is brought to you by the McDonald's Owners of Chicago lab in Northwest Indiana.

Marcia Chatelain (38:16):

For Americans, fast food means different things in different places because of race.

Anne Strainchamps (38:30):

That's historian Marcia Chatelain. Her book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, is a cultural history of the intersection of fast food, race and capitalism. It's a fascinating history, and Shannon Henry Kleiber wanted to know more.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (38:52):

Why did McDonald's seek black franchisees out to replace white ones?

Marcia Chatelain (38:58):

So a large part of that transition was because of the unrest after 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King. There had been conversations throughout the 1960s about the roots of civil unrest, and many people tied it into the fact that in many African-American communities, there were a lack of black owned businesses. But that was one of many prongs of why people were so frustrated and so upset with the system. And so the push for black owned businesses really reached its height in the 1960s when Richard Nixon had initiated a program to promote black capitalism. And in many African-American neighborhoods, white business owners no longer wanted to do businesses in communities in which they felt like they were the target of animist or criticism, or could potentially be the target of property damage for existing in that business.

Marcia Chatelain (39:57):

So in many ways, after April 1968, there was this perfect storm and all these forces are converging, you have a White House that's promoting black business ownership, you have a mainstream Civil Rights organization structure that's starting to wonder if economic development should be the next turn in terms of movement activity, and then you have a number of white business owners who want to move to the suburbs. And in this, McDonald's believes that they can possibly maintain their presence and grow it in urban America if they recruit black franchise owners to their system.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (40:36):

How unusual was McDonald's among fast food restaurants or other national chains in seeking out black owners?

Marcia Chatelain (40:44):

So in the late 1960s, because of some of the gains of the Civil Rights movement, there was a growing middle class of African-Americans who wanted the experience of consumer citizenship like everyone else. And so a lot of companies started to create advertisements that were supposed to bring in the black dollar. But what distinguished McDonald's from all of these other attempts is that they saw that if they had black franchise owners, they could get brand loyalty and recognition among black consumers. And they took it one step further because they not only were on the forefront of recruiting black franchise owners, they were also on the forefront of creating ad campaigns that were designed by African-American advertisers and market research firms to connect to black consumers in their reality, in their context.

Speaker 12 (41:40):

What's up Jake?

Jake (41:41):

What up? Where's Calvin?

Speaker 12 (41:42):

At the J-O-B, man.

Jake (41:44):


Speaker 12 (41:45):

He's still flipping those burgers at Mickey D's.

Calvin (41:47):

There's your order.

Speaker 15 (41:48):

Thanks Calvin.

Marcia Chatelain (41:50):

And that cultural work I talk about in the book was so important in helping people feel recognized and acknowledged and seen by McDonald's.

Speaker 16 (41:59):

Meet the newest member of our management team, Calvin.

Speaker 17 (42:02):

Congratulations [crosstalk 00:42:03].

Calvin (42:03):

Yes, I'm part of the management team now momma.

Speaker 18 (42:10):

Oh, baby, I'm so proud of you.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (42:17):

You talk about 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. as a turning point. Is there a story or an event at a McDonald's that you can tell us about came from that moment?

Marcia Chatelain (42:30):

Yes. So one of the people I had the pleasure of interviewing was a man named Roland Jones who was a McDonald's manager in Washington, D.C. And he talked about how immediately after King's death he saw parts of Washington go up in flames, people taking to the streets, police clashing with civilians. He was sent out to the stores to see their conditions, and he did a pretty good job staving off very angry crowds and getting the McDonald's open again. And so he was recruited by McDonald's corporate to come to Chicago to do the critical work of identifying people who could become black franchise owners.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (43:19):

I was so surprised in reading your book that if you look at so many Civil Rights events in America, since the 1960s, McDonald's turns out to be the setting, like the 1992 LA riots after the beating of Rodney King and the protests in Ferguson in 2014 after Michael Brown's death. In many cases, the buildings seemed like they were considered safe spaces and in turn spared any destruction or looting. How did that happen? What did McDonald's come to represent?

Marcia Chatelain (43:52):

Well, it's funny now that I mentioned it, you will see it everywhere, McDonald's and chaos go hand in hand in this really strange way. Even if we go before they recruited black franchise owners after 1968, McDonald's was the site of a lot of Civil Rights activism about desegregation. In addition, McDonald's as a community anchor has been a reality in a lot of African-American communities because they're often the place where people can get first jobs, they're often the site of civic activities like voter registration, like senior citizen hangouts. And the black franchise owners, because of their unelected role in black America, that person is often visible to community members as the person donating to historically black colleges and universities or underwriting local youth sports. And so McDonald's believes that, that presence has inoculated it from being targets in moments like the 1992 uprising and moments like the Ferguson uprising.

Marcia Chatelain (44:56):

And while that's not entirely accurate, I think is a really powerful way of understanding that, again, fast food is a quotidian part of our life, but boy does it mean different things to different people.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (45:10):

What did the franchises mean for black capitalism? And you also talk about disaster capitalism too in the book, what are those two kinds of capitalism?

Marcia Chatelain (45:20):

After King's assassination in 1968, people become very invested in the idea of black capitalism because they're just so exhausted in seeing these historic pieces of legislation that are supposed to guarantee civil rights, and that are supposed to guarantee voting rights, and are supposed to end housing discrimination not necessarily yield significant changes in the quality of people's lives. And so the idea is, well, maybe we should just pivot towards business, maybe this is a moment for us to think about making money.

Marcia Chatelain (45:54):

And in similar ways, disaster capitalism is about people having to engage what I see as a lack of choices and options. And so disaster capitalism is about these moments in which some type of natural disaster or some type of social disaster leads to a moment where corporations and businesses can take over, they can privatize, they can capitalize on these great tragedies. And so some people argue that Hurricane Katrina was a moment that allowed for disaster capitalism to evolve and you see the privatization of the public school system.

Marcia Chatelain (46:35):

And so all of this is to say that, in this period after 1968 where African-Americans are legally protected in some ways but they aren't getting access to the great society programs that are starting to wither and the focus on poverty has shifted because of the Vietnam War, there's very little left and that void is filled by businesses like McDonald's that are suggesting that they can deliver the needs of a community that have been left behind by the state.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (47:12):

Yes, it's so interesting as you track the public and private interactions and how McDonald's as a private organization had an outsized role in things that you think of as public responsibility. They were one of the only places some people could find internet access, I thought that was striking.

Marcia Chatelain (47:35):

Oh, absolutely. I used to live in Oklahoma, and in some places in a more rural part of Oklahoma, the McDonald's is also where you can get air conditioning if your air conditioning goes out. So these multiple roles, socially, and politically, and culturally of a McDonald's, I think, is important to recognize because so much of the interventions about food choices and health and nutrition minimize the fact that fast food isn't just about the food, it's about memory, it's about nostalgia, it's about feelings of connection, it's about a lot of complicated emotions.

Speaker 19 (48:20):

Hi, good to see you. May I help you?

Speaker 20 (48:22):

Two big Macs and a chocolate shake.

Speaker 19 (48:24):

Would you like some french fries with your order, sir?

Speaker 21 (48:26):

That be three filets, two cheeseburgers and four cokes?

Speaker 22 (48:29):

Good morning sir, may I take your order please?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (48:44):

What parallels can we learn from as we navigate so many of today's challenges? What's happening today that we can look back on the history of McDonald's and gain some understanding from?

Marcia Chatelain (48:56):

We have to understand that the roots of unrest have been identified, have been narrated for generations. There is nothing new about people taking to the streets in protest and in anger, there's nothing new about property damage, and unfortunately, there's nothing new about police brutality. So we have a long history of people identifying what the problem is, what we don't have is a rich history of us being creative on how we solve these problems.

Marcia Chatelain (49:28):

The idea that more black businesses will mediate the real problems of racist violence is a ridiculous idea. And I think in this moment, we have to remember that we actually have public resources still, that we don't necessarily have to default to corporate solutions, that we have power within our own communities to find ways to get people the things that they need. And I really, really hope that we see this moment as an awakening to turn toward each other to solve our problems than believing that we have to wait for corporate sponsorship or underwriting in order to do it.

Anne Strainchamps (50:17):

That's Marcia Chatelain, author of, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. And she was talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Hey, thanks for joining us today. And thanks also to Marcia and our other guests, Leah Penniman, Savi Horne, and Venice Williams. If you want to know more about any of their work, visit our website that To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin. It's produced by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hartke. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

Speaker 23 (51:04):


Last modified: 
September 01, 2023