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Pete Daniel has spent a long and illustrious career as the leading public historian in the United States and one of the sharpest critics of the antidemocratic modernist state. Where the national liberal narrative has celebrated the power of the state as the primary force of democratic equality in the face of traditional hierarchy, much of Daniel’s previous scholarship has offered evidence for a less optimistic [End Page 155] story line. In this forensic study of the decline of black farm owners since the 1950s, he adds considerably to this indictment. Where some historians have argued that rural dislocation was unavoidable and driven by impersonal free-market forces, Daniel uncovers intentionality and agency (or more precisely government agencies) behind this supposedly inevitable process.
In Dispossession, Daniel simultaneously makes an essential contribution to the rural history of the civil rights movement and to the growing history of black farm ownership. Although nearly a quarter of all African American farmers owned their own land by the 1910s, the decades that followed led to a continual decline. In part, Daniel demonstrates, this declension is attributable to the advantages the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered wealthy, connected white planters and denied to black farmers. Local USDA administrators provided farming advice, loans, and notice of sales of staple-crop allotments primarily to whites. Even agents in the Negro Extension Service were marginalized from information about the federal aid that after World War II became critical to survival in a technologically and capital-intensive farming structure.
Daniel places the heart of his study in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement seemed to offer the hope of equality to African Americans. In chapters rich with evidence from archival and oral-history sources (most heavily from Georgia and Mississippi), Daniel reveals the adaptability of Southern planters to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although in 1964–65, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists attempted to remedy USDA corruption by organizing black farmers to vote their own representatives onto local agricultural boards, their efforts were largely frustrated by violence, fraud, and gerrymandering. Daniel’s retelling of the destruction of the talent, traditions, and institutions of the black extension service after the 1964 “integration” of the USDA makes particularly poignant reading.
And why did not the national USDA follow through on their frequent 1960s assertions that they would not tolerate racism in [End Page 156] their agency? The national administrators prioritized positive press coverage above actual fairness. So they denied complaints, falsified investigative reports, and focused attention on superficial evidence of sporadic compliance. Additionally, Daniel argues that the bureaucrats’ modernist obsession with promoting efficiency turned them into opponents of small farmers, both black and white, every bit as much as were the grasping planters who ultimately absorbed family farmers’ land. Even without the influence of actively racist administrators at every level, federal USDA officials were already funneling essential government loans and information toward farmers who most reflected their systematizing values and who could operate on a large scale. In the end, the agendas of liberal, Northern government bureaucrats and reactionary, white supremacist Southern planters dovetailed, as both conspired to suffocate small black farm owners.
Perhaps Daniel understates the broader cultural and economic forces that undermined traditional farming in the second half of the twentieth century. Oral histories of ex-farmers do extoll the agrarian traditions which Daniel and the farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry champion: personal dignity and communitarian values. But they also speak of their disillusionment with the discomforts, isolation, and drudgery of traditional rural life. Rural African American young people from this period seemed particularly to connect farm life with the humiliations of slavery and Jim Crow, and to seek alternate lives. At this point, historians can only guess how many small farmers would have chosen to remain on their land had their government offered aid equitably. However, Daniel clearly demonstrates that small farmers had very little choice in the matter. The old bridge of traditional farming did not simply...