By T’arie Todman and Frank Taylor

When my dad and I were asked to write this blog, we couldn’t help but think of our family history and how our family is like so many others here in Winston County, Mississippi and throughout the South. Our story, like theirs, is one of perseverance in the face of injustice. That’s why we are both committed to the Winston County Self Help Cooperative’s mission of saving rural America.

We see supporting African American landowners as critical to saving rural America and honoring the memories of our ancestors who worked so hard for the chance to become landowners while facing racism and discrimination embodied in Black Codes and Jim Crow. The Winston County Self Help Cooperative is an anchor site of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network (SFLR). The Cooperative formed the Black Century Landowners’ Recognition Program in 2018 to recognize and honor Black American families who have overcome the many challenges they faced and passed down their land legacy for at least 100 years.

Our family legacy starts with Jack Miller, who was born into slavery, and his wife Ellen. They had a vision in 1877 to start their family land legacy when Jack purchased his first 40-acre parcel and then a second 40 acres a year later. We’re very proud that our family deed is in the first county record book. Today, our family of tree farmers not only owns the original 80 acres – purchased for a total of $250 – but we’ve added about 320 more acres.

We see tree farming as an important way for Black Landowners to help save rural America because our forests are a sustainable resource that support environmental benefits and sustainable local economies. We are very much concerned about being stewards of Mother Earth—keeping forests as forests supports that. These forests provide so many environmental benefits like conserving important habitats, cleaning our water, and mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon.

Tree farming and other sustainable forestry activities are at the heart of the Cooperative’s Forestry Outreach Program, which we deliver with funding from SFLR. The program involves activities like supporting land surveys, timber cruises (measuring the volume and quality of standing and down timber before it has been harvested), and a delinquent tax program.

As a result of our delinquent tax program, we informed a family that they owned land in Winston County. They had no idea they were landowners because their father and mother died without telling their daughters about the land. Our team determined the name of the landowner was that of a Black man. It was odd for a Black person to own land in that part of the county. In January 2020, six months after we contacted the family, family members drove from Chicago and Texas to pay the land taxes that were in arrears. They are planning to use the land for herbal therapies in the future.

Since 2017, we have assisted over 130 families with their land through education, estate planning, land surveys, timber cruises, timber bids, reforestation, and other services like field days on our property to help explain the environmental and economic benefits of a forest management plan. These plans help landowners see their forest as a sustainable resource that can form a legacy that benefits multiple generations. The plans are very practical and easy to follow. They also include technical advice from a professional forester, which is extremely beneficial.

While spreading the word and encouraging sustainable forestry is central to our work, the Cooperative offers other support to the community. Today, we offer programs and supports relating to finance, health, housing, and youth engagement.

The Winston County Self Help Cooperative began as an organization to help small farmers purchase and sell in bulk with a goal of creating sustainability in rural communities by connecting with the US Department of Agriculture and other organizations to provide services in a timely manner.

We are proud of where we are today and what we plan for the future. Of course, we don’t know exactly what our ancestors would make of the work of the Winston County Self Help Cooperative, but we sure do hope they would see it as carrying on their proud legacy of community engagement and Black landownership.

T’arie Todman is a Community Outreach Specialist and Frank Taylor is Team Leader at the Winston County Self Help Cooperative, which is an anchor site of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network (SFLR).