The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is celebrating Black History Month by sharing about the lives, contributions, and accomplishments of African Americans in the areas of agriculture, education and science. This is the last in a series of four blog posts we shared this month. Go here to view them all.
“I know what the pain of hunger is about...My family was some of the poorest people that was in the state of Mississippi…we were sharecroppers.” – Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Townshend Hamer (1917-1977) was a voting rights activist, community organizer, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement who is most likely best known for her work to organize Mississippi's Freedom Summer in 1964 along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, her work for civil rights and community organization extended to working to help the poor, rural community she was born into through the creation of an agricultural cooperative.
Born in 1917 in Mississippi to sharecropper parents, Hamer grew up in poverty, working in cotton fields with her family as young as the age of 6. Sharecropping was an arrangement where land owners rented land to farmers in exchange for a portion of the crop. It was an arrangement that usually favored the landowner and made it difficult for the sharecropper working the land to work their way up to land ownership. African Americans made up a large portion of sharecroppers in the decades after the Civil War.
A sharecropping family in White Plains, Georgia, 1941.
Hamer left school at age 12 to work full time. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer, and the two worked on a Mississippi plantation together. Fannie Lou Hamer was one of very few workers who could read or write so she also served as plantation timekeeper.
Hamer’s civil rights activism began after she fell victim to a “Mississippi appendectomy,” a practice of forced sterilization that was commonly done to black women in Mississippi at the time, where a doctor conducted a hysterectomy without a woman’s permission or knowledge while performing surgery for other reasons. In 1962, Hamer also joined some of her neighbors in attempting to register to vote. She was ultimately denied and her employer fired her for trying.
These experiences led Hamer to become more involved in the Civil Rights Movement and she was soon made a leader for the movement. She was one of the leaders involved in starting Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, a large-scale voter registration project in 1964.
While Hamer believed in the political, legal, and social efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, she also believed that economic stability was key to improving life for African Americans and advancing civil rights. Beyond her civil rights activism in the political arena, Hamer also used her community organizing skills to aid those in poverty through agricultural cooperation.
Hamer said, “Poverty and poor health form an unbreakable circle, one which need[s] attention from the people who are supposed to represent us.” Hamer’s own experience with poverty and hunger fueled her efforts to stop the circle. She believed in the importance for poor and marginalized communities to be able to own their own land and feed themselves.
In 1967, Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in the Mississippi Delta. With the help of donors, Hamer purchased land that she could then distribute for Black families to own and farm collectively.
The FFC was a grassroots organization. Hamer made entry into the cooperative as easy as possible: “All the qualifications that you have to have to become part of the co-op is you have to be poor.” Membership technically cost $1 a month, but many families belonged to the Freedom Farm in name only. Members raised crops including soybeans and cotton, which were cash crops to help cover the expenses of the co-op, as well as vegetables and other produce, which was shared among the members of the co-op for sustenance. Many of the co-op’s members were African Americans who had been fired from agricultural jobs or evicted from tenant farming or sharecropping arrangements for trying to exercise their right to vote.
Sharecroppers who were evicted in 1936.
In 1968, Hamer started a “Pig Bank” with a donation of pigs from the National Council of Negro Women. The bank was meant to improve the diets of those in poverty in Hamer’s local community. Local families bred, raised, and slaughtered the pigs, improving their access to meat and their economic prospects. The families worked together to both replenish the bank and to keep some pigs for their own use as either meat or to sell.
The Freedom Farm Cooperative lasted until the mid-1970s. At one point it was one of the largest employers in Sunflower County, Mississippi. However, Hamer became unable to be involved in the day-to-day operations due to declining health and the FFC had to close in 1976. Hamer passed away of breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 59.
Fannie Lou Hamer left behind a legacy that inspires a modern food-justice movement committed to feeding the hungry, improving economic independence, and lifting up communities.
Check out the websites and articles below for more information on Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative.