From Georgia to Azania
Earlier this year, I brought my students to the Community Movement Builders (CMB) house in the Pittsburgh neighborhood for a discussion on land and its importance to Black communities. After listening intently in class for about an hour, one student spoke to the class about how, when they were a child, their mother never had to go to the store for fresh vegetables. The same went for most in their community. Back then, folks grew most of what they needed on the land in Pittsburgh, and what they could not get there, a network of Black farmers existed outside of the city limits to be relied upon. My student is in their sixties although Black don’t crack, so they appear much younger. This puts their recollections of childhood to the late 1960s towards the 1980s. After spending years away from home, they recently returned to the Pittsburgh community and are shocked by the numerous changes.
Their analysis was prompted by the class discussion of the painful reality of gentrification and land dispossession in the Pittsburgh community. Rents and utilities are rising at levels we haven’t seen in decades. The cost of living has increased as well but jobs are hard to get and those employed are underpaid for their labor. In the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), in addition to backing the construction of Cop City, has funded or purchased land) and developed houses in Pittsburgh and other surrounding communities for police officers at rates lower than what most in the neighborhoods pay. Furthermore, they can be placed on rent to own plans which are denied for most of our residences. This current reality of land dispossession through gentrification in Pittsburgh and the wider city of Atlanta has a deep history in Atlanta and the wider state of Georgia, and is directly tied to the ongoing expansion of a police state.
As the Union army under William T. Sherman completed its march across Georgia in 1864– burning, pillaging and draining resources, and incidentally providing shelter and support for liberated Africans fleeing and rebelling on plantations –a meeting was held just outside of Savannah with around 20 Black leaders around the question of land. From these discussions, it was clear that Black people wanted not only land, but land separate and mostly autonomous from the larger white community that had aggrieved them so much during slavery. From this meeting, Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which in part stated, ‘which confiscated as Federal property a strip of coastal land extending about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic and stretching from Charleston, South Carolina 245 miles south to Jacksonville, Florida. The order gave most of the roughly 400,000 acres to newly emancipated slaves in forty-acre sections.1
In return for the land, Black people from the Carolinas down to the northern parts of Florida agreed to fight with the Union against the Confederacy, which was rapidly falling. Thousands of fathers, husbands, sons, uncles, daughters, mothers, sisters and wives went off to war, never to return, or even if they did, never the same. As the Civil War came to an end, primarily because of Black participation in the war, a brief opportunity existed for Black land ownership, self-governance, armed self-defense, cultural regeneration, and even national governance. However, after the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, promises made in times of war were abandoned and gradual land dispossession took place under Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, and the breaking of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The little land promises and loopholes in the law of the new United States began to erode.
Still, in southern states like Georgia, particularly by the coast and on islands like Sapelo, there were Blacks who resisted. Many Black communities were able to acquire land and keep it for decades after the ending of the civil war. Black communities who were able to band together quickly and use the law and guerrilla methods to maintain power against white supremacist violence usually were the most successful. However, between 1910-1997, about 90% of the farmland of Black folks was lost. Even those who followed the law, kept meticulous records of wills, deeds and tax payments, have had their land illegally taken. Very few have found justice, and.many Black families carry these stories with them.
In Harris Neck, Georgia located about seven miles east of South Newport, Black people in and around the Harris Neck Land Trust have been fighting against the dispossession of their land by the US army since 1942. From the end of the Civil War to World War II, Harris Neck was home to about 75 Black families. They hunted, fished, farmed, lived, died, and built a community on that land decades after the Civil War ended. Life was hard, but it was their life, one they had fought for and were proud of. In 1942, things changed when the army forced people to move to build an airstrip. In 1961, the area was taken over by the Federal government and made into a wildlife park, not returned to the people who were living there. Their fight continues to this day with frequent arrests, civil rights marches, court challenges, and other forms of direct action.2
Closer to Atlanta, the Livsey family in Gwinnett County are engaged in a fight with the local government around eminent domain, a law used by the state often to dispossess Black people of their legally owned land. In 1920, the plantation entitled Promised Land was purchased by the Livsey family, one of the few who found ways to save money and pool resources to buy land from willing white farmers. Over the past decade, if not more, local government officials have begun selling parts of their land to developers and speculators without the full consent of the Livsey family. While this family recently won a court case blocking these illegal sales, this gives another example of how Black people’s land has come under heavy assault by the state unless communities unite to protect what is theirs.3
Access and control of land is a diasporic struggle for Black people. Similar fights exist currently in Azania, what others call South Africa. While legal segregation officially fell in 1994, the cities and rural areas still continue relationships of power and inequality along the lines of race, gender, and poverty. Currently, the white population in South Africa (Azania) is less than 10% of the population, however, they still own over 70% of the land.4 Government, currently under the leadership of the former liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), owns a bit over 10 and slowly buys back more; but much of what the ANC already has is leased or rented to private entities. Currently, groups like the Amadiba Crisis Committee in Xolobeni, Pondoland, located in what is now the Eastern Cape, have emerged as leaders in the fight against big corporations dispossessing people of what little land we do have. The Committee was formed in 2007 when the government granted the Xolobeni Mine Sands Project permission to mine for titanium, a valuable mineral on the global market controlled by white folks, which would require the displacement of 70 families in a 13.6-mile area. The community was not consulted in this decision and decided to organize itself to resist. Despite threats, regular harassment, murder, torture, and even legal arrest as the government backs corporate interests, the people continue to fight and have experienced losses and victories.5
There is a long history of struggle here in Georgia and across the world for land and houses. The Pittsburgh community is not alone in their fight for dignity, homes, self-respect, and autonomy. Earlier in July, activists from across Georgia came together under the leadership of the Housing Justice League (HJL) and Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) – Atlanta. Organizers from Albany, GA, spoke about utility bills increasing in the wake of COVID-19 to over $400. Others from Valdosta, GA discussed how monthly rents have risen towards $2000 while most people can only work at Starbucks or in day-care for minimum wage. Both organizers and their communities are still fighting. As are the working people of Pittsburgh, Tembisa and Pondoland, and spaces in-between.
A Luta Continua (the struggle continues)
Free the Land!
- https://www.gwinnettdailypost.com/content/tncms/live/ ; https://www.atlantanewsfirst.com/2023/04/06/family-fights-keep-former-plantation-land-gwinnett-co/