Thursday, May 28, 2015


Laurens County African American Farmers.

For more than two centuries they have toiled in the fields, first as slaves, then as sharecroppers and, eventually, as owners of farms.   Throughout our past the contributions of these men, and women too, have left an invaluable impact on our local economy and our way of life.  This is the story of the African American farmers of Laurens County.

When Laurens County was created in 1807, the first black farmers were slaves.  Three years later the first census of the county enumerated 485 slaves.  Most of these people lived in the northern regions of the county on the large plantations.   By 1860 that number had increased to nearly 3,300 persons, some of whom were employed in non-agricultural positions or were too old or too young to work in the fields.

The end of the Civil War brought about the liberation of the black farmers. While many farmers were relegated to living and sharecropping on the lands of their former masters, some were given land or were quickly successful enough to buy their own piece of land.  In 1870, there were fifty black farmers who were more than just farm laborers.  Among these, David Lock, William Coats, Jacob Coney, Moses Yopp, S. Ellington, Sandy Stanley, Robert Stanley, J. Yonks and Jordan Burch owned their own land.  The granddaddy of these farmers was 80-year old William Coats.  Harriett Harvard was the only female farmer in that census year.

During the latter decades of the 19th Century, the leading black farmers included Ringold Perry, Daniel Cummings, Hamlet McCall, D.  McLendon, Jacob Fullwood and many members of the Yopp and Troup families.  Adam McLeod, of Lowery's District, was so successful that he was known to have been the first black man to buy a car in Laurens County.  

In 1910 near the zenith of cotton production in Laurens County, there were 2266 black farmers in Laurens County, ten more than their white counterparts.  In that year, 274 farms were owned and cultivated by their black owners.  Nearly three fourths of all of Laurens County's five thousand farms were cultivated by tenant farmers, 2027  of them were black.  Though the net wealth of a black farmer was less than $40.00 per person, farm ownership increased by 76% in the first decade of the
Twentieth Century.   

The rapid growth in the impact of the black farmer came to a screeching halt in the next decade when the boll weevil came to Laurens County and all but eliminated cotton as the most important part of the local farm economy.  By the mid 1920s, many of the tenant farmers were leaving in masses for the North and better paying and more reliable industrial jobs.  One notable migrant was Walker Smith, Jr., father of boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson, who moved to Detroit to make $60.00 per week as opposed to $30.00 per month on his Laurens County farm. 

In effort to lessen the devastation of the coming of the boll weevil, Laurens County hired the first black farm agent, a man known only as Mr. Robinson and later Mr. Carlton of Tuskegee.  Essex Lampkin took over the duties in 1930.  Five years later, Emory Thomas came to the county and organized community farm clubs and 4-H clubs throughout the county.  The work of these pioneers continues today under the leadership of Gary Johnson and his staff and volunteers.

These farm programs worked and worked well.  Emmett Hall won national recognition for his planning and budgeting procedures.    With the aid of Farmers Home Administration and Georgia Extension Service, Hall, a tenant farmer for twenty six years, bought his own farm.  Through careful planning and hard work, Hall not only managed to pay off the farm's debt in five years, he bought two more farms.  Hall and his sons built nearly six miles of terraces to prevent erosion on their hilly farm north of Dublin.  Hall needed the extra money, for had eight children to feed.

Henry Josey followed Emmett Hall's example.    In a good year as a sharecropper, Mr. Josey would make about $5.00 a week.  With the aid of extension agents P.L. Hay and Luther Coleman and state leader P.H. Stone, Josey turned a hilly farm, with most of its top soil eroded down to the clay, into a highly profitable six thousand dollar a year enterprise.  Josey built terraces and planted lupine, kudzu and legumes to halt erosion.  He added to live stock to supplement his field crops.  Josey's yield of corn increased five fold.  After saving up enough money to put down on a farm, Josey said, "We had $29.00, 35 bushels of corn, and a broken down mule to make a crop with."    But Josey and his wife persevered.  The former sharecroppers paid off their loan in a few years, and increased their acreage from 40 to 184 acres by the end of World War II.   After thirty years of struggling to make a living on the farm, life was good for the Henry Josey family.

During the war years farm production was critical to the war effort.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized the Farm Security Administration to ensure increased production.  The Federal agency gave out awards to families who had gone above the goals set by the department for food production for home use and marketing with a special emphasis put on hogs, poultry and peanuts.  In 1942, six black farmers - Dempsey Wright, Johnny Beard, Jordan Wright, Ed Mathis, Emmett Hall and Bob Blackshear - were awarded certificates of merit for food for freedom production in a special ceremony held in the Laurens County Courthouse.

The location of the Georgia 4H Club for black youth in Dublin only helped the work of 4H programs in the community.  Willie Brantley lost his father and had to drop out of school in the 8th grade.  With no hint of hope in sight, Willie turned to Emory Thomas and his friends in 4H.  With their encouragement, Brantley worked hard and gradually began to increase his production of corn and livestock.  He served as chairman of the Laurens County 4-H Council for three years and garnered several awards.  In 1940, all of Willie Brantley's hard work and prayers were answered when he was awarded a scholarship as the state's most outstanding 4H club member. 

With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, black farmers, and especially their children, were afforded opportunities outside the farm.  Tenant farming was becoming a part of the past.  Farmers, like Robert Coleman of Dudley, took jobs in industry and worked on their farms on a part time basis. Coleman told a reporter for the New York Times in 1992, " It's twice as hard for the black farmer. We lose our land after a bad year or through bad management practices.  Some of us just can't afford new techniques to produce higher yields.  As for me, I'd have lost my farm if it wasn't for my job at the mine."  Fifteen years after the New York Times predicted that the extinction of black farmers was near, there are now less than sixty black farmers left in Laurens County.

Though the time of the black farmer in Laurens County may be coming to an end, their legacy of their steadfastness, dedication and hard work will endure for centuries to come.      

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