Food & Water featured

Black Growing Traditions

September 15, 2023

Black Americans have a complex relationship with North American lands. From toiling over the soil under the bondage of chattel enslavement, to later acquiring and working 16 million acres of land between 1865 and 1910, the African diasporic experience in the United States has largely centered on cultivation.

Today, there is a growing movement to redefine the historical Black experience with land ownership and raising crops. These farmers are working to reclaim and recontextualize that history through self-determination, manifested in sovereign food production for their local communities and families.

Shanelle Donaldson West
Co-Founder and Board Member, Percussion Farms

Growing up in Seattle, Shanelle Donaldson West found gardening to be a “really white space.” “I never really got to see people like me growing food, even though restaurants were starting to put collard greens and okra and things that I grew up eating on the menus. It started to really bug me,” Donaldson West says.

To add insult to injury, her community was often priced out of these very restaurants. This marginalization inspired her to think of how she could redefine what gardening and locally grown produce looked like in Seattle. She was invited to visit Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, an Afro-Indigenous farm that bridges sustainability, food sovereignty, and anti-racism. “That was a completely life-changing experience,” says Donaldson West. Not only did it feel like an act of personal independence and agency, but also one of engagement in community. “Being around Black and Brown people who had the same calling for working in agriculture … it was beautiful and affirming.”

She has since reinvested her newly acquired knowledge into her home community, recruiting more nonwhite farmers to begin growing their own food with Percussion Farms, named for a Soul Fire activity where farmers drummed, sang, and danced while others tended to the land. Today, Percussion Farms lives up to its namesake, acting as the “heartbeat” of local Seattle communities.

Donaldson West’s work at Percussion Farms and a nearby rooftop food-bank farm is a testament to how she sees food as more than physical nourishment. It’s a form of cultural expression and empowerment. By sharing growing knowledge, as well as harvests, she helps others celebrate and practice their cultural heritage.

She also passes on the traditions of growing food to young, unhoused, and food-insecure individuals via Bloom, a 10-week internship program. “I can do this as revolution,” says Donaldson West. “I can use this land that was never meant for us, and I can grow food, and teach people how to sustain themselves and their own families.”

Jonathón Savage
Farm Manager, Gather New Haven

Jonathón Savage was introduced to growing at an early age. “Probably, at the age of 3, I was in the dirt,” Savage recalls. His exposure to cultivation was shaped by a Southern heritage, intertwined with a New England upbringing, and rooted in Connecticut, where Savage was raised.

Savage’s family supported him in sourcing his own sustenance, as opposed to relying solely on the grocery store. His grandparents, originally from Georgia and North Carolina, “were phenomenal growers and provided for the whole family with the food that came out of their yards.”

Since childhood, Savage has found ways of incorporating his love for growing into every facet of his life. From cultivating and selling collard greens in high school to experimenting with hydroponic vs. organic methods for growing strawberries with his math students at the alternative high school where he used to teach, plant-rearing has served as a vessel of social connection and collective wonderment in his life.

Today, reciprocity between Savage and his teachers takes the front seat at Gather New Haven, his organization created from the merging of New Haven Land Trust and New Haven Farms, which promotes health, equity, and justice for people and the environment. Gather New Haven provides a unique opportunity to connect Savage’s past and present with his community’s future. He recalls his time at the Hazel Street community garden, where he once gleaned knowledge from elders, now under the purview of his program at Gather and his cousin’s management: “So now the people who supported some of my knowledge in growing … are now the people that I’m going back and supporting.” The Hazel Street garden and others like it stand as centers of intergenerational, knowledge-sharing hubs of community connection and restoration.

Given the land’s role as an “overarching connector,” these green spaces are even helping to connect individuals across generations. Savage hopes that these spaces continue to build a sense of unity and self-reliance in local Connecticut neighborhoods and beyond. “Hopefully, in the future, urban agriculture starts chipping away at commercial agriculture, and we can start bringing some of these resources back into our cities and distributing them within our cities.”

Vetiveah Harrison 
Kitchen Incubation Coordinator, CitySeed

Vetiveah Harrison points to her youth in Chicago as the beginning of her farming journey. Harrison, who was homeschooled from fifth through 12th grades, was exposed to many different career paths. She didn’t gravitate toward typical fast food or retail summer jobs that define many urban youths’ adolescent and teen years. Instead, her heart was drawn to the land.

The skincare company her family ran incorporated herbs, essential oils, and aromatherapy—so, an urban farming apprenticeship was a natural next step. “That concept, ‘urban farming,’ was not even a thing in my mind,” Harrison recalls about that time. “This urban farm was a beautiful oasis. It was on three acres of land, which was originally an illegal dump site [in a] very, very disenfranchised neighborhood of Chicago.” Harrison likens the plot of land to a local “Garden of Eden,” saying that the apprenticeship changed her life’s trajectory. “Sign me up. I can do this forever,” she remembers feeling.

The farm introduced her to the concepts of food justice and food apartheid. Her advancing socioeconomic awareness challenged her to pursue equity through growing as a career. After beginning her journey into urban farming 10 years ago in Chicago, Harrison traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, to study nutrition. This path ultimately led her to CitySeed, an organization dedicated to engaging the community in equitable, local food systems for economic development and sustainability.

Through the years, she saw food as a link between identity and wellness. “It brings that cultural relevance and connection … from your food traditions to just basic good health.” Economic self-sufficiency in Black neighborhoods has been achieved before, Harrison notes, though it has been repeatedly attacked, such as when a white mob razed Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known for its “Black Wall Street,” in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Still, she sees Black people persisting in sharing their cultural knowledge of growing, using the very practices that fueled the country’s development to now liberate their communities.

“[If] we all have this collective mindset that we’re growing to connect food [to] our cultural heritage and our traditions … we will be on top of this world.”

Jasmin “Sunny” Murphy

JAZMIN “SUNNY” MURPHY is a researcher and writer with a special interest in U.S.-based Indigenous and African diasporic peoples’ connections to land and their influence on, and contributions to, individual and collective agency and self-determination. Learn more about her and her science writing and reporting work at her website.

Tags: black farmers, black history, Building resilient food and farming systems, cultural heritage