February is African-American History Month in the United States. It's a time people recall and celebrate the positive accomplishments and contributions made by people of African descent. But one centerpiece of the African-American experience is slowly fading away and soon may only be found in history books. VOA's Chris Simkins reports on a new photo exhibit which illustrates the plight of black farmers in America.
These photographs speak volumes about how generations of African-Americans have farmed their land to make a living. But across wide areas of the southern United States black farmers like these are disappearing from the landscape.
Award-winning photojournalist John Ficara spent four years capturing thousands of images of farmers who worked, struggled and sacrificed to keep their family farms.
"This story of black farmers was a very personal story and [when] meeting the farmers what I was trying to capture was the essence of who they are, what their lives are like and I saw this very much in those kinds of humanistic terms.
Ficara chronicles the life of 91-year-old Rosa Murphy and her husband Eddie. A few years ago he suffered a stroke that left him blind. Rosa cares for him and spends the entire day working in the fields.
They bought their farm in 1938, and now years later, Rosa's determination is the only thing that keeps the farm going. She doesn't make any money and worries, now that her 12 children have moved away, she will die owing money and the farm she spent he life working will be sold for taxes.
"The daughter of sharecroppers, Rosa Murphy grew up on a working plantation with her parents. Today she continues to do light work," reads a schoolgirl. Rosa Murphy's story and those of other black farmers creates curiosity among these children who want to learn about their history.
The photos are on display at the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition, called Distant Echoes, gives people -- especially youngsters -- a glimpse into the plight of black farmers.
"They are disappearing. They are really disappearing right before your eyes,” imparts a tour guide at the museum. “So these people are still holding on to what they got but once they go their children may not want to do the hard work. So they may lose the existence of the farm. But we want you to know about it while you can see it so you will know it was a part of your history."
By the turn of the 20th Century there were nearly one million black farmers in the United States. Today, there are fewer than 16,000.
For generations farming provided a strong sense of freedom, justice and equality for black people after slavery ended in 1865. The ability to work for themselves and own land was the most important aspiration for the newly freed slave.
But racial discrimination against black farmers lingered and many say it prevented them from securing loans necessary to pay for things such as fertilizer, seeds and farming equipment. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled a 20 years old racial discrimination lawsuit agreeing to pay black farmers more than two billion dollars in damages. The payments have been slow in coming and many think they will never see the money they deserve.
Photographer John Ficara says the farmers' struggles could mean black agriculture in the United States will vanish over the next few decades.
"Those farms that are actually doing well -- the family children are more likely to take over the farm and continue that farm. Whereas those farms that are struggling and really just kind of hanging in there, the children are less likely to continuing farming and look for other work off the farm."
As the longtime traditions of black farming fades from the landscape, Ficara says his pictures will be a visual resource for younger generations to learn about the rich history of African-American farmers.