HOMECOMING...Sometimes I am Haunted by Memories of Red Dirt and Clay is one of those rare films that breathes life into history by looking at one family's struggle. Charlene Gilbert, a storyteller in the best Southern tradition, begins in a voice that lures and commands attention, "This is the story of my family, this is the story of black farmers in the 20th century, this is the story of land and love." In 1920 there were nearly one million black farmers in America; in 1999 there are less than 18,000. The filmmaker travels to present day Georgia, the place she calls home, where her cousin, Warren James proudly continues to farm the family's land. Gilbert tells the compelling and epic tale of her family while she investigates the social and political implications of African-American land loss in the South.
Charlene Gilbert and family
Photo: Vickie A. Smith
HOMECOMING draws on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, which is intertwined with the history of black farmers. Inspired by Malcolm X's contention that "Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality," Gilbert documents the tradition and decline of black farming, and explores the bittersweet legacy of the land, a symbol of both struggle and survival.
Using rare archival photographs, and analysis by scholars and land reform activists, HOMECOMING paints a picture of the courageous journey of black farmers who started as freed slaves after the Civil War. By 1910, there were 200,000 African-American farmers who had bought land, a staggering number considering the poverty and discrimination they faced. Professor Marsha Darling remarks, "This process of black people working to acquire this equity base is one of the greatest economic achievements of the early 20th century. All the more because by 1910 almost every single southern state had politically disenfranchised black male voters who had been given the right to vote with the 15th amendment." Gilbert's grandfather Fred Mathis purchased a small farm through the Farm Security Administration's short-lived tenant purchase program in 1937. Gilbert's mother, Earlene, who teaches her urban daughter how to tend a community garden, grew up on that farm.
HOMECOMING shows how the Supreme Court's 1954 decision on Brown v. Board of Education polarized the whole country. Its impact in the South went far beyond the educational world; many farmers who needed credit found they suddenly couldn't get it. According to historian Pete Daniels, "These were the people who only belonged to the NAACP, or they tried to register to vote or signed a petition so that their children could go to integrated schools." Gilbert's Uncle LeRoy recalls going to the bank in the mid-1950s to borrow money for his brother Lynmore to go to college at Tuskegee Institute. The banker's response was, "College, hell, ain't no damn nigger got no business in no college."
Gilbert unearths footage of U.S. government farm bureaucrats paying lip service to black farmers. A 1964 study of the Department of Agriculture under the Johnson administration found that there had been discrimination against African-Americans in every level of the agency, and that there had never been an African-American elected to a county agricultural committee. Responding to this wall of intolerance, Robert Browne, founder of the Emergency Land Fund (ELF), ran an ad in the New York Times in the '70s addressing land issues. The Emergency Land Fund reported that black land ownership had been at its peak in 1915, and that by 1969 it had declined to about six million acres. The ELF found that black farmers often lost their farms because of chicanery and de facto discrimination. Often, when black farmers left a farm to several relatives a small share would be sold to a white person who would then demand that the whole property be put up for sale.