Piney Woods, N.C., is one of those small, quiet, rural communities you might pass on a drive up North. Blocks of lush grass, farmland, and forests are bisected by a single asphalt road; it’s not uncommon to find a tortoise or two lazing on the empty street, unafraid of potential traffic.
These untouched stretches of green are an underrealized beauty. At one point known as Free Union, Piney Woods was founded well before the Civil War by Black folk and Croatan and Tuscarora Indigenous peoples. The area is known for its 300-year legacy as a historically triracial, economically independent, and free community. It is perhaps one of the oldest examples of uninterrupted land ownership by Black people in North Carolina and maybe the entire American South.
At least that’s what William J. Barber III believes. Piney Woods is Barber III’s ancestral homeland. He holds a connection to this place stretching back several generations into his Tuscarora ancestry. His grandfather, William J. Barber Sr., grew up in the area. He documented the family’s legacy as well as the regional history of Black land cultivation and faith in his book The Disciple Assemblies of Eastern North Carolina. Barber III’s father, Bishop William J. Barber II, grew up tending to the tobacco fields alongside numerous cousins and extended family. Now Barber III has returned home to Piney Woods to ensure that this long-standing family legacy remains intact.
“[Piney Woods] always felt like a place of home, you know. It felt like a place of belonging, felt like my own personal piece of history, and a source of pride,” Barber III said.
Piney Woods serves as a counterfactual to modern Black land ownership in this country; it exemplifies what Black wealth and connection to land could have been in the United States had Black landowners been allowed to thrive. This type of multigenerational land retention is rare, and the pervasiveness of Black land loss in the United States is well documented. At the peak of Black land ownership in 1910, Black farmers made up approximately 14.5 percent of all US farmers. According to a recent agricultural census, Black farmers account for a little over 1 percent of all American farmers. The subsequent decline can be attributed to many things: inequitable New Deal policies, corporate agricultural monopolization, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). One study of the US Census of Agriculture data found a 98 percent decline in Black farm ownership from 1900 to 1997, a drop that was partly caused by a deliberate effort to deny loans to Black farmers.
The narrative surrounding Black-owned land loss often points to discriminatory lending practices and familial property disputes. These two factors worked together to strip Black people of their wealth. In North Carolina, however, both industry land grabbing and farm consolidation play equal parts in the story of the loss of land.
This Interactive Map Shows Every Permitted Animal Feeding Operation In North Carolina
Barber III attributes his community’s ability to retain its land to its relative seclusion and its inherent racial diversity. “The reality is that Piney Woods Free Union was a bastion of prosperous existence and resistance to some of the white supremacy that was pervasive throughout the region because it was out of the way. It was a hidden gem,” Barber III said. In addition to its cultural and agricultural standing, the Piney Woods community has historically served as the “mother church” for a conclave of Black Christians spread across the tidewater region of the state. They sought religious freedom as much as they did bodily liberty, autonomy, and land ownership. The faith leadership of Piney Woods would go on to head grand battles for civil rights through the decades.
Barber Sr. helped integrate the local school systems around Piney Woods to ensure that Black children in Martin and Washington Counties received a proper education. Bishop William Barber II is a faith and civil rights leader as cochair of the National Poor People’s Campaign and pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ Church in Goldsboro, N.C. Each new Barber generation has been called upon to incite change and serve a greater purpose as warriors at the helm of a battle for equity and human rights.
As chief consultant of environmental justice at the Coalition for Green Capital, Barber III has committed his life and career to uplifting communities most affected by environmental harms including industry pollution, the climate crisis, and systemic disenfranchisement and disinvestment. A graduate of North Carolina Central University and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill with degrees in environmental physics and energy and environmental law respectively, his passion for environmental justice and community building is inspired by the resilience he’s seen in Piney Woods and Black communities like it across the eastern part of the state:
“Free Union Piney Woods is a place where you had free people of color, never enslaved, never sharecropping. They showcased the prosperity and the resilience that could be built even without the level of financial investment other areas have seen. The fact that Piney Woods has been so resilient without those investments, both challenges the notion of what is not possible in rural communities of color but also expands the imagination of what is possible if we have a movement to address systems of Black land loss.”
Barber III created the Rural Beacon Initiative, a for-profit small business focused on climate investment, such as regenerative agriculture and renewable energy development, in underserved communities throughout the region and the US South. He now follows in the footsteps of his forebears and is bringing his passion for environmental justice back home to serve the Piney Woods community through this initiative. His hope is to keep the legacy of the place alive in the face of land loss and climate change.
The timing is critical. Piney Woods is beginning to show signs of succumbing to the same encroachment Black landowners across the state have faced over the past century. In recent years, more residents have received notices or inquiries from businesses (primarily CAFOs and logging companies) to purchase their land with the promise of a quick financial return. Barber III said that those targeted have been aging landowners of intergenerational land without proper heirs.
Barber III believes the quiet existence of Piney Woods Free Union is a double-edged sword in this new age of industry encroachment. The story of Piney Woods is not widely known, despite the prominence of the Barber family. Now, the forces that have harmed Black and Indigenous communities across the state—the same forces Piney Woods has historically evaded—have become a dangerous reality. Telling the region’s story has become a necessary part of keeping its history and culture alive:
“This story needs to be told so people cannot say that these types of communities did not exist; so that people cannot say that there were never unadulterated Black homesteaders, landowners, and farmers who were not simply sharecroppers or not simply oppressed by the land. There were African American communities, multiracial communities that owned land outright,” Barber III said. “We have to move as quickly as possible and as urgently as possible to resist this encroachment, to preserve this community of Free Union, and to tell this story of a lost history: a history of Black, Indigenous, and white fusion existence, of deep commitment to stewardship and one another, and of self-determination south of the Mason Dixon Line.”
Land ownership is about so much more than farming. Land is wealth in this country. But historical land grabbing, with the help of political and financial disenfranchisement, has left Black people in this country either without land or with undesirable land.
There is a direct correlation between the racial wealth gap in this country and the pushing out of Black landowners. A 2022 study estimated that Black land loss has resulted in a loss of as much as $359 billion worth of land and wealth in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, farming and landownership across the country contributed to a prosperous Black middle class much like that of Piney Woods; it allowed people to keep their children in school longer and gave them independence in the form of food, water, and a consistent income. Starting with the New Deal in the 1930s and continuing in the postwar period through policies enacted by the US Department of Agriculture and state legislatures, white-owned farms were provided with significant advantages that allowed the operations to grow while leaving small, primarily Black-owned farms without similar financial support. This investment contributed to farm consolidation over time. The consolidation process encouraged growth of industrial agriculture and pushed small farmers out of business.
Later, through the early 1970s, the US agriculture sector began shifting from small family farms to the massive corporate farms that comprise modern-day agribusiness. The USDA secretary, Earl Butz, was among the most prominent voices pushing a “get big or get out” mentality, an attitude that led to farm consolidation. A study by a nonprofit advocacy group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that states with higher rates of farm consolidation saw significant declines in the number of Black farmers between 1978 and 2017. North Carolina, a state with a historically high proportion of Black farmers, was cited as one of the states with the highest rates of farm consolidation. Decades of discrimination, farm consolidation, and government investments are working to increase white wealth at the expense of Black wealth.
Historically, government- and industry-perpetuated land encroachment has forced landowners to choose between two options: leave or stay. Fortunately, the people of Piney Woods have so rarely had to face this lose-lose dichotomy, but Barber III has noticed that it has gotten harder to keep this issue away from the community.
Like the Barber family, many Black American families have family stories of their ancestors’ land in the South. April Jones was a Black farmer and nonprofit consultant based in South Carolina and a member of a Black women farmers collective. Jones shared her family’s story of land loss in Georgia during the Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, the mass migration of Black folks out of the American South is often touted as a movement for prosperity. It is reported as a movement of Black families striking out in search of new opportunities in the more tolerant and industrial North and West. This perspective often omits that many families took part in the Great Migration unwillingly, seeking refuge from racial violence.
“My great grandfather had land that was quite valuable; it was very fertile, very lush, very giving land,” Jones said. “And the [white] people in his community wanted his land. They said, ‘You’re going to give us your land, or we’re going to take your life.’ And so, he packed up his family in the middle of the night and left his land to go up North and struggle and start over. It was devastating for him.”
This sort of land grabbing continues today in the form of eminent domain, preemption, condemnation, and industry land purchases spurred by deed-of-title confusion. These policies have allowed companies to run pipelines through predominantly Black and Indigenous communities. They have also allowed cities to build highways in the middle of Black neighborhoods and CAFOs to set up shop on or right next to Black- and Indigenous-owned homes. Previous physical violence has now been replaced by methods to cause indirect harm (e.g., industries setting up next door to communities of color, polluting the area, and making it difficult to live comfortably or autonomously).
A little over two hours from Piney Woods, Ellis Tatum, a former board member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, has lived in Sampson County for most of his life. His father built a home and legacy for him and his six siblings in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Snow Hill. However, Tatum is having trouble convincing his own children of the importance of their property; they’re too caught up in the smell of nearby industry. Sampson is the second-largest pork-producing county in the country, the largest producer of turkey in the state, and home to the largest landfill in North Carolina. The county also hosts a pork processing plant, scores of hog and poultry farms, and a wood pellet plant. Where Tatum lives, hog farms have long sprayed pig feces into the air, and residents contend with a seemingly endless stream of garbage trucks headed to the Sampson County landfill every day.
There used to be an entire community that lived, played, picnicked, and worked together where the landfill and surrounding CAFOs now stand. “I was born here, and I was raised here,” Tatum said. “We used to run free on the weekends. We played basketball. We found a water hole in the woods, and it was safe there. We would fish; you could find plums, wild strawberries and dewberries and walnuts. Now the smell is so bad from the landfill and the hog farms. There are buzzards going in people’s houses. I’ve got trash all over my yard. It’s not right.”
Many landowners believe their best option is to leave and sell their land to the nearby industry at a price far below its true value. Meanwhile, young people have yet to see sustainable economic opportunities in their communities where industrial plants have set up shop. This is what Barber III refers to as the “brain drain” that causes the next generation to divest their interests and leave their communities. This can strip families of any chance to establish generational wealth.
For many in eastern North Carolina, choosing to stay can mean more than bad smells or a lost connection to place. It can result in a physical burden on one’s health and loss of agency over one’s land. “Oftentimes, what we see are families who have had land passed down generation to generation, but who have been shut out of the process of accessing the profitability that is produced through the land,” explained Barber III.
In the floodplains of eastern North Carolina, a little under two hours from Piney Woods, sits the land that James McGowan has been unable to profit from for decades. Around the time farm consolidation rocked the country, he purchased a 20-acre plot of farmland in Kenansville, N.C., to raise free-range pigs. When industrial-scale animal operations took center stage in North Carolina, he was pushed out of the hog business. His father farmed this land before him. Now at the age of 87, McGowan was unable to turn a profit on the land his family has farmed for more than 60 years. That was the case until his son-in-law, Ron Simmons, purchased the property in 2010.
This trend of pushing small farmers out of business has taken place primarily in the consolidation of hog farms to CAFOs. The swine industry remains one of the most powerful industries in the state with ties to the North Carolina legislature. Hog producers like former state senator Wendell Murphy, founder of Murphy Family Farmers, the country’s second largest hog-producing company until it was sold to Smithfield Foods in the late ’90s, took positions within the legislature and passed legislation that protected the swine empires that had taken hold within the state’s most flood-prone, primarily Black and Indigenous areas. Communities across the southeastern part of the state are forced into a difficult position where they must rely on the industry for income but are harmed by the industry’s “smell of money.”
A different trend making it difficult for landowners to utilize their properties because of pollution can be seen about 30 minutes from Kenansville on Elsie Herring’s property. Herring’s land is in the largest hog-producing county in the country, Duplin County. As one of the primary plaintiffs in a set of lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the country, Herring is a staunch advocate for better waste management practices on swine farms. The subsequent victories in court, and eventual settlement, were vindication to Herring who alleged that Smithfield was negligent in addressing the waste pollution they had caused, negatively impacting resident’s physical health and leading to a deterioration of property values in predominantly Black and brown communities.
Herring’s grandfather purchased a 15-acre tract of land in 1891 along what is now Beulah Herring Lane. He was enslaved on this land. Despite gaining his freedom, he elected to stay in Duplin County out of a deep connection to the place. In the years following, the Herring family expanded and built lives for themselves on their land. Herring’s mother was born on this property. She lived off and worked the land with her husband while raising 15 children including Elsie. Her mother lived a long life, passing at the age of 99.
In her 2019 testimony before the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Herring described the power that came with landownership for a Black family in the mid-20th century. Her family grew strawberries, cucumbers, and tobacco. They raised chickens and free-range pigs and canned and cured fresh vegetables and meats for winter. The Herrings lived off the land, truly independent.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first CAFO moved onto a plot of land that the Herrings believed belonged to their family. Herring and her family started paying for county water out of fear that their well water was contaminated with hog waste. Her family used to hunt and fish on land they owned near Rockfish Creek, but the hog farm blocked access to the creek and hunting grounds. The Herring family could no longer make full use of their property.
In May 2021, Herring passed away. Prior to her passing, she shared her personal land ownership history and why the hog industry’s blatant disregard for her land, life, and well-being was such “a slap in the face.” “We’re forced to live with these animals and their waste, whether they’re located on someone’s personal property or not,” she said.
To Resist and Reclaim
Although many Black families have been caught between the decision to stay or leave, the work and legacy of Elsie Herring and countless other Black landowners show us there’s hope in a third option: to resist and reclaim.
Roughly three years ago, April Jones founded the Pinehurst Farmers Market and Pinehurst Consulting to help communities in North Carolina and across the country develop sovereign food systems while instituting sustainable agricultural practices. She also uses her voice—writing about community farming in her blog and for national outlets—to support Black farmers, especially Black women in eastern North Carolina, as they look to make sustainable, organic, and regenerative transitions.
“I really love being part of this movement, this work, because I feel as if I’m really continuing my own family history,” Jones said.
In the past 12 years, Ron Simmons has transformed his father-in-law’s land into a source of intergenerational wealth through Master Blend Family Farms, a sustainably raised, free-range pork business. Master Blend Family Farms raises 2,800 to 3,200 hogs per year on an open pasture parcel of land and a laissez-faire style of hog management. For comparison, a traditional swine CAFO contains at least 2,500 hogs being raised for a few months before they are ready for slaughter. CAFO-raised hogs are lined up in large hog houses with little room to move or sit. The hogs at Master Blend spend their days walking around and playing in the mud. Although this farming method may be slower than industrial facilities, it is healthier for the pigs and the planet. The pigs are run on a land rotation, moved from one plot to the next to allow the pasture time to replenish. The hogs’ waste aids in that process by naturally tilling into the soil as fertilizer. This is much less invasive than spraying their feces on fields or dumping it into waste lagoons like the industrial facilities do.
In 2020, Simmons purchased an additional 54 acres from his father-in-law, a parcel that had been in McGowan’s family for generations. He plans to renovate the new parcel, not only scaling up the business but also creating an office space, studio, and culture center for community education. “We’ll be able to bring in students from all cultures and show them a business model of a heritage farm that hopefully benefits them in their career paths,” Simmons said. He considers his work a tribute to his father-in-law and his ancestors, the people whose sacrifices and losses paved the way for Master Blend’s mission and vision.
The Free Union Farms Hub aligns with this tradition of resistance and reclamation as it hopes to build wealth, pay homage, and work sustainably. William Barber III’s project seeks to employ 52 acres of the original Vera Brown family land to combat the gradual loss of access to economic opportunities in the community. Through the creation of a low-carbon, self-sustaining, regenerative food system, the project will work to address food access in the region while marking a historical site for the legacy of Piney Woods.
In the same way that Piney Woods has historically flourished as an interracial coalition, the Free Union Farms Hub plans to work with local Indigenous landowners and at least one Indigenous seed-saver organization to build a more inclusive system for wealth generation. If successful, the Free Union Farms Hub can serve as a model for the cultural and environmental preservation of Black rural communities across eastern North Carolina and the American South.
Tatum and Herring’s legacies, Pinehurst Farmers Market, Master Blend Family Farms, and the Free Union Farms Hub are just some of the many initiatives that are attempting to bridge the racial wealth gap through the cultivation of land and just agricultural systems.
“We’ve had millions, literally millions of acres of land lost [or stolen] from our Black community.… We are in urgent and desperate need of solutions of scale and historically communities like Free Union have been some of the greatest and most effective stewards of the land. We must have models like this that have the people connected to these communities in the decision-making seats,” Barber III said. “It’s about self-determination.”