MONTESUMA, GEORGIA (AP) – When the 74-year-old Cleveland Whitehead drives his black Chevy Silverado through the backyards of Macon County in central Georgia, he remembers families who were cultivating land on Flint River farms at the time. He looks at the cotton fields, pecan gardens and filthy tracts that dot the area.
“When I approached, I plowed with two mules,” he said. “We had a garden and an okra next to the house. My dad grew cucumbers, corn, cotton, sugar cane and peanuts. ” The 178-acre family farm also had a small orchard with enough peaches and pears to feed the family from time to time.
Being under the age of 13, Whitehead admitted to not doing much work on the farm. While he occasionally helped with the sowing, a small creek near Whitehead Farm offered attractive opportunities for catfish noodles – this southern tradition of catfish fishing with bare hands.
And he vividly remembers the day when he and his brother went to the field in a cart pulled by a mule to dine with his father.
“When we arrived, he was holding his head in his hands,” Whitehead recalled. “Full of despair, he was trying to figure out how to make ends meet. He said, “No seeds, no rain – these are terrible times.”
The Whitehead family was one of the original families involved in the Flint River resettlement project. Founded in 1937 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a new course project, it gave African Americans the opportunity to acquire farmland and develop their farming skills at a time when most black farmers were sharecroppers. It was a noble attempt to create some kind of racial equality that had mixed results. And it was an important part of the history of blacks that Whitehead and its co-founders, the Flint River Conservation Society, sought to preserve alive.
The New Deal resettlement project covered more than 1.8 million acres throughout the United States, much of the former plantation land acquired by the federal government. Thirteen communities designed for African-American farmers have been established in the South, including Flint River Farms.
The community was originally intended to be housed in Fort Valley, but resistance from white families led to its relocation 22 miles near Montezuma. It covered 10,879 hectares, divided into 107 farms of 90 hectares each. Each farm had a house, a barn, two mules, an outbuilding, a chicken coop and a smokehouse.
The heart of Flint River Farms was the school and community center, which contained six classrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, an auditorium, a vocational store and a wellness center. In addition to local students, the school was used as a training center for African-American teachers from Fort Valley State College.
“The Flint River Resettlement Project has given hope and an opportunity to realize the dream of owning land for its participants,” Tasha M. Hargrove, an associate professor at the University of Taskiga, wrote in an email. She was part of a research group that in 2003 conducted a community study through grants. “The benefits of the project were not limited to land ownership. This project can be described as a successful demonstration of community action and construction for a group of people who were previously limited to the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder of society.
“The project was not perfect,” she continued, “but it achieved its goal of enabling landless shareholders and tenants to own farmland.” Many of the project participants were able to buy land, and some families still have land today.
The project received nationwide attention and was recognized as one of the most successful resettlement communities. In modern conditions, the project was a lease agreement. Five years later, families could buy land with a 40-year mortgage at 3% interest. Many of the original families did acquire certificates for their farms. But by the mid-1940s, the developer had bought 26 farmhouses and relocated them. In 1965, the school closed, and by the mid-1970s only 19 founding families still held land. In 2003, when scientists from Taskiga conducted their study, only 3,186 acres remained in the hands of 16 founding families or their descendants.
According to Hargrove and her colleague, Taskiga scholar Robert Entertainment, who writes for the New Georgia encyclopedia, Flint River farms have fallen victim to the events that surrounded her. In addition to the objections of conservative southern politicians, World War II affected many of the participating farmers who joined the armed forces or got jobs at the nearby Robins airfield (now the Robins Air Force Base).
SAVE THE PAST
Whitehead’s childhood home is no longer worth it, but there is a marker that identifies the location of the former home.
“The house really wasn’t that big,” Whitehead said. “It was about 40 by 24 feet.” He pointed to the foundation of the smokehouse, which was next to the house, and next to it was a barn and a chicken coop.
After graduating from college and serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Whitehead settled in Atlanta, where he made a career in the Atlanta Police Department as commander and the state of Georgia as a probation officer. But he often returns to Macon County, where he still owns part of the family land. He enjoys preserving the history of the Flint River Farms project.
Like 66-year-old Curtis MacDonald, co-founder of the Flint River Farm Conservation Society. Although his family was not one of the farming families, MacDonald attended school. He can still imagine it: a library, a professional shop, a basketball court, a softball court, auditoriums and a medical building where doctors would visit to provide medical care.
“Before the construction of this school, the children studied in temples,” he said. “Blacks had no schools. So when this school came along, it was like a campus. It was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. I guess there were about 300 students, most of them girls.
“You girls were tough then,” he said, shaking his head and grinning. “They worked as hard as we did and played as hard as we did. And they will fight as hard as we do. “
In 2004, McDonald and Whitehead co-founded the Flint River Farm Conservation Society with Bob Melvin and Ricky Waters.
The following year, they received a long-term lease from the local school board of 25 acres of primary school site. They cleared about 11 acres and created the Flint River Farms Community School Heritage Park, where community events and fundraisers are held, such as the upcoming February 5 Heritage Day. The festivities begin at 9 a.m. and include roast pigs and agricultural demonstrations. Other upcoming events include a community cleaning day, an Easter egg hunt and a car dealership. And if possible, the activities provide an opportunity to teach the younger generation what life was like on the Flint River farms.
At last year’s Christmas party, paper bags stood upright on a picnic table, the contents hidden from children who were looking forward to it. When each child was given a bag, an apple, an orange and one piece of mint candy were found inside.
“That’s what I used to get for Christmas,” MacDonald said. “I want the kids to know it wasn’t easy. Don’t forget where you came from. “
Three years ago, the Flint River Conservation Society relocated the original Flint River Farmhouse. Work continues, it stands on cinder blocks, and above the front door stretches a metal roof, which is supported by temporary 2 on 4. The goal is to return the house to its original glory and enter it in the National Register of Historic Places.
McDonald rests at the door of the house with folded arms, and admires views of historic property and the public park. He projects a seriousness that only slightly masks the calm manner when he looks across the road at an uncleared cotton field that belonged to one of Flint River’s original farms. Combines and trucks of all sizes interrupt his inspection as they drive along the ring road 289.
He dreams of a day when schools will teach the history of the Flint River farm project. He doesn’t want people to forget this place and what community meant to people.
“The foundation for the Flint River Farms project is its people and their passion for preserving their heritage,” Hargrove said. “Project participants came to believe in realizing the dream of land ownership, and were able to achieve their dream. Descendants of the original members … worked diligently to preserve the history of this community. This group is a great example of community activism and empowerment. ”
For MacDonald and Whitehead, it’s all about remembering the past and preserving history.
“President Roosevelt has thought about it enough to launch and develop, and I think that’s enough to keep going,” MacDonald said. “People need to know that this place exists and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. Our heart is in this case. “