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CoastLine: "Our ancestors were slaves." But this NC farming family learned how to thrive and they're passing those lessons on to the next generation

Ms. Cecile Keaton Bryant and Ms. Earnestine Keaton on their family farm.
Rachel Keith
Ms. Cecile Keaton Bryant and Ms. Earnestine Keaton on their family farm.

It’s hard enough to keep a small family farm going. But add to that the challenges of systemic and environmental racism -- and the Keatons’ accomplishment becomes even less likely. But it’s their commitment to keeping their land, farming it, and teaching the next generation that has protected their family legacy.

Less than 30 miles inland from the coast, in rural, southeastern North Carolina, there sits a 40-acre tract of land that has been in the Keaton family for generations. The ancestral connection goes back more than a century, to a time when their great-great-grandparents left slavery behind.

Not long after the Civil War ended, the Keaton family was acquiring land, farming it, running businesses, and forging their family legacy.

It’s hard enough to keep a small family farm going, as we’ll learn. But add to that the challenges of systemic and environmental racism, and the Keatons’ accomplishment becomes even less likely. But it’s their commitment to keeping their land, farming it, and teaching the next generation that has protected their family legacy.

On this special edition of CoastLine, News Producer Rachel Keith and CoastLine Host Rachel Lewis Hilburn head out on Highway 74, where Bladen County meets Columbus, two of the poorest counties in the state, to find out just how the Keatons are opening the way for the next generation of farmers.

[cars driving by, honking…]

Cecile Keaton Bryant: You see how people going by, blowing, that’s the kind of neighborhood right in here we live in.

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Do you know who that was?

CKB: That just blew by? No. They know who we are.

Cecile Keaton Bryant lives in one of nine houses on about forty acres near the Bladen / Columbus County line.

CKB: And they’re all siblings, for the most part, or the grandchildren.

It’s sort of like a family compound.

CKB & Earnestine Keaton: Yes, absolutely... We need a cup of sugar and you're not home, we go in and get a cup of sugar. If you’re not home and I need some flour…

Her younger sister, Earnestine, lives next door.

EK: This is where my mom and dad -- where they got to the place where they could have a new house, this is the second house here.

It’s a warm spring day, and we look at tidy houses on both sides of the road. They’re surrounded by neatly trimmed lawns and massive live oak trees -- older than any one of us. There’s a waterway the Keatons call The Branch that trickles around and through their property. And under some of the especially sprawling live oaks, there are chairs -- an invitation to enjoy the shade.

We gather under a massive live oak in the front yard of Cecile’s home.

While we’re talking with Earnestine Keaton about the family history, a cat is rudely pushing her feet, insisting on attention. Ms. Keaton explained how the cat came to live on the family compound.

“Yes, I call her Stormy. She came here one night. I guess it was a storm. It was a kitten. These people put kittens out. So they put her out, and she made her way to the back door and I started feeding her. That was about five years ago...Well, right after she came a few days later, the brother came. Yes, and so we took him in, and we call him Easy."

Earnestine and Stormy on the family farm.
Rachel Keith
Earnestine and Stormy on the family farm.

Because he never bothers anybody, said Ms. Keaton. Not like Stormy.

A few minutes later, Ms. Keaton is explaining the Keaton family history, and a pack of Shih Tzus charges our picnic table.

"They’re from next door," said Ms. Keaton, with a tinge of irritation. "Those are my sisters’ who was here; those are hers. They’re practically useless... Get away! Go! Go! Go! Go go go home!!"

The dogs belong to Cecile’s grandson. Ms. Keaton is not a fan of dogs in the house or dogs that don’t work.

The pack of Shih Tzus running up during Earnestine's interview.
Rachel Keith
The pack of Shih Tzus running up during Earnestine's interview.

She is one of twelve children. They’ve divided themselves into what they call the A, B, and C Groups. That’s because they span such a broad period of time that they’re actually different generations.

"Yeah, 1939 to 1968. I’m in the B group [...]," said Ms. Keaton. "Each group had their own time and chores and what they had to do and what they had to do it with."

For those in the first group or the A Group, "This was nothing. It was woods," said Ms. Keaton. "And of course, the timber was cut but there was no place for farming, a house. So that group pretty much were the ones that had to work the hardest.

“They were born in late 1939 to 1944... Because they’re in that group, they get a lot of respect from the other two groups. And it’s because they didn’t have washing machines, electricity, heat; you know, they had two wood stoves; you had to cut wood. You had big wash pots. You had to fire them up, you know, to wash clothes. And that was my older sisters. We didn’t have to do that. We may have watched as kids and told to ‘get away’...”

The A group farmed with a mule. The Bs and Cs, well, they had a tractor.

Randolph Keaton, now 60, is a relative youngster. He’s in the C group -- the tenth of the twelve Keaton siblings. Mr. Keaton explained a covered structure we're facing.

"We are looking at what we call a high tunnel. And a high tunnel is -- it's sort of like a souped-up greenhouse, which allows us to extend our growing season. So we can plant a little earlier, like right now it's too, you know, still too cool to plant," said Mr. Keaton. "So we have maybe some spring, summer type of vegetables here, like tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers, you know, they won’t grow when it frosts on them. It’ll kill them."

Rachel Lewis Hilburn talking with Randolph Keaton at the high tunnel where they're growing crops.
Rachel Keith
Rachel Lewis Hilburn talking with Randolph Keaton at the high tunnel where they're growing crops.

Randolph Keaton returned to the family farm after a few decades away -- a stint in the military, a career as a staffer at the Wilmington Housing Authority.

In this chapter of his life, he’s trying to build the next generation of not just farmer -- but landowner. Part of his work through a community nonprofit includes growing produce on the family’s land.

Where does the produce go?

Mr. Keaton said, "It's a combination of things, I must say…We have a farmers' market we could take it to -- several farmer's markets we could take it to. We also have a program called Vacation Vittles. Um, that's where we take our produce to the beaches. And, um, we also give away produce... We've always done that. Our parents taught us to look after other people."

He is Executive Director of a nonprofit that serves three local counties: Bladen, Columbus, and Brunswick. He said about 70 kids have come through his doors. One of those kids is 18-year-old T’Miracle Banks.

"He tries to call me uncle now," Mr. Keaton said. "But I’ve known T’Miracle since he was a little boy... T’Miracle -- he latched onto us and we latched on to him.”

T’Miracle is with us today helping Randolph show off the high tunnel protecting the delicate spring crops.

"I’ve been knowing him since I was a little kid through different people and from my parents," said T'Miracle. "And so when I was about 11 or 12, [Randolph Keaton] called my grandmother one day and told him to take me to the facility. And we had a meeting about the program, and ever since then I’ve been hanging on.

"My job is the farm manager and I'm also a leader in the youth ambassador program. And I basically coordinate when we go do the gardens, when we do farm visits and who gets what…"

He coordinates sponsors and partners, too. That Vacation Vittles program gives tourists renting beach condos or cottages the chance to purchase a box of fresh produce that T’Miracle and his team deliver to the door.

T'Miracle said, "Vacationers from, like, different places, they come down to the beaches in Brunswick County on a Friday. We'll pack up the produce and we bring it down there to the beach on Saturday morning."

He wasn’t always so clear about his path. Most of the kids here either grow up and leave or get into some kind of trouble. There just isn’t a lot of opportunity.

The problems facing this community in rural southeastern North Carolina are complicated. They’re issues like climate change, the loss of farmland, particularly among Black farmers, a trend replicated around the country. While kids like T’Miracle want to work on these problems, it’s hard to do that and make a living.

Randolph Keaton said there just aren’t that many jobs and very few good ones.

“So you can be enthusiastic about wanting to live here, ‘cause you know what are the possibilities, I think. And it takes them going away to build up some level of wealth to take care of themselves before they can look back into the community," said Mr. Keaton. "So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do -- help ‘em with different things -- like, now, scholarships, go off to college, come back, intern during the summer, do what you can.

“T’Miracle said he wants to become an elected official… because he talks to the Mayor and the Councilmen about what it is. In other cases, we don’t have young people who even know who their mayor is. If you asked them right now, ‘who’s your mayor?’, if they’re not affiliated with the program, even some of the kids in the program won’t know," said Mr. Keaton. “So these are things that we have conversations about, but it goes back to the same reason my sister and them left: opportunity.”

It’s a pattern. The Keatons did it -- left their hometown for more promising careers. Earnestine Keaton worked for Verizon in New York City before retiring back in Sandyfield.

This part of North Carolina, rural, high poverty rate, is also plagued by environmental nuisances.

"Now you do have some companies that have big industries that cause a lot of waste. They have to have somewhere to do that. And rural communities are those dumping grounds. And I just think they're not going to really do better. I think local government, because of the taxes that they bring in and some of the folks who benefit from what they do, will say, you know, we need that company here," said Mr. Keaton.

In the small Town of Sandyfield, located in Columbus County, close to one in five people live in poverty and a majority of the population is Black. Randolph Keaton, a town council member, said he won his seat by a coin toss.

 T'Miracle Banks and Randolph Keaton at the high tunnel.
Rachel Keith
T'Miracle Banks and Randolph Keaton at the high tunnel.

Near Sandyfield, there’s a paper mill and at least one hog farm. The smell from the paper mill is detectable on some days 30 miles away in the City of Wilmington where residents often describe it as akin to cat piss.

Living much closer to the mill, though, is more than just unpleasant.

"At one point it was just really atrocious -- the smell," said Mr. Keaton. "And I do think that management at the mill has tried to be conscious of that because there was a lot of people just dying young after having worked there, you know, don't even get to retirement and dying of cancer and those kinds of things. So we know that there's a correlation but people may not call it that."

To be clear, no one has officially linked the output of the paper mill to those cancer cases.

"But they've gotten a lot better with working on how to be cleaner and reducing that smell," said Mr. Keaton. "Cause everybody would say, you know, when they pass through here, they’d say, ‘What's that horrible smell?’ We would say, ‘That's the smell of money.’”

The paper mill continues to be one of the largest employers in the region. But it’s not the only environmental issue. There’s a nearby hog farm.

T’Miracle said, “For me, I ain’t have no problem with it. But for, like, my mother, she couldn’t really spend time with us at the park or anything because of the smell. So we couldn’t really go outside.”

"You will get the smell," said Mr. Keaton, "and we have some youth and adults who can't be outside."

That’s because the hog farms in North Carolina are allowed to spray their waste on crop fields when the lagoons get full. It’s called effluent – and while it’s permitted by the state, those small poop particles travel.

"There's this little pink mist and it's waste and you can, it'll be on your car," said Mr. Keaton. "Our town, the Town of Sandyfield, we actually got organized and became incorporated because that hog farm came here. And then we said, okay, we want to control that. So they became incorporated. But of course, they're not in the town, don't pay any taxes to the town and that was politics."

Randolph talking to Rachel Lewis Hilburn.
Rachel Keith
Randolph talking to Rachel Lewis Hilburn.

Some of that effluent runs into the Branch – that small waterway near the Keaton family farm. The Branch eventually drains into the Cape Fear River which is the primary drinking water source for southeastern North Carolina.

“In certain parts of it; it’s like a little creek, and it flows all the way to my road, the road I live on," said T'Miracle. "And that water goes to the next road by the Ransom Community Center. And then from there, goes across Highway 11 and then flows into the Cape Fear River.”

Randolph Keaton said those polluting industries, which pay taxes and employ local people, do other things for the community.

"So there are some companies, they do, you know, giveaways, they give away food," said Mr. Keaton. "They give backpacks out to the kids, but they're still poisoning us. You know what I mean?"

The pollution is just one reason the next generation is leaving Bladen and Columbus County.

"A lot of folks who grew up on the farm find opportunities, other places. So they build their lives other places. And so they're not here in our rural communities. And they would like to stay, a lot of them," said Mr. Keaton. "And so when they spend 25 years up North somewhere, or in another place, it's not the same when they come back. Either land has been lost through, you know, it becomes heirs’ property. It's all mixed up or is some family members who just sell it off because they are not connected with the land anymore."

The Keatons’ approach to carefully titling their land is a strategy that has helped them preserve ownership over generations. Randolph Keaton's parents taught their kids how important succession plans are for the next generation.

"They died, and before they died," said Mr. Keaton, "they made sure they divided the land up, and we had a plan. And that’s the other thing that we don’t do. We don’t plan well enough. And I just think we need to do that. Folks don’t like to deal with death."

Which might be part of the reason other families haven’t been so lucky.

Zoe Willingham is a research associate for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. They study farmers – specifically Black farmers in the U.S.

"A lot of land has been passed within black families without any sort of formal title or formal will. This land is vulnerable to forced sales," said Willingham. "It's called heirs’ property. Heirs’ property is vulnerable to a couple of different types of exploitation. The most common one is called a forced partition sale. That is when a private developer, real estate investor, or other buyer propositions one of the heirs to sell the land to them."

If there’s disagreement among the heirs, Willingham said it goes to court. And that’s where the question comes before a judge who has the power to determine whether the farm will be put up for sale. That’s a forced partition sale.

Willingham said, "Now this is problematic for lots of reasons, but one really important point is in the cases of forced partition sales: the value of the land is often evaluated far below market price because it's not actually put up on the public real estate market when those sales are decreed in the court. Basically, the private investor who seeks to buy the property gets first dibs and they make their offer. And that's ultimately what gets approved."

Black farmers have lost land across this country at an astonishing rate beginning in the early 20th century.

"The first major blow to black farming in the United States," said Willingham, "came in the form of the Agricultural Adjustment Act during the Great Depression. A key part of this bill was the reduction of planting in order to stabilize the prices of agricultural commodities. So the federal government paid farmers, specifically landowners, to reduce their acreage."

Those landowners at the time were mostly white. Their sharecroppers – mostly Black. There wasn’t enough work to go around, and so the white landowners evicted many of their Black sharecroppers.

Willingham said, "That ended up displacing a lot of African Americans who lost their livelihoods and eventually had to leave the South altogether for other economic opportunities."

But there are more recent instances of structural and systemic racism delivering different kinds of blows to Black farmers.

Willingham points to the case of Timothy Pigford, who filed a class action lawsuit in 1997.

" …on behalf of all black farmers who shared his experience of being consistently discriminated against in his attempts to access USDA loans and other programs," said Willingham. "So he filed this lawsuit in order to receive monetary damages that resulted from this discrimination. The federal government did end up settling this case for a historic payout. Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors, including communication difficulties, a lot of people who qualified under the class action lawsuit did not actually receive their payouts before the deadline."

Wind Tunnel, Produce Trucks on Keaton Family Farm
Rachel Keith
Wind Tunnel, Produce Trucks on Keaton Family Farm

And so then Pigford 2.

"During the Obama administration, like more than a decade after the initial lawsuit, President Obama's administration authorized another billion-dollar payout," explained Willingham, "but unfortunately that was too little too late for a lot of farmers. More than a decade after the case was filed, a lot of the people that qualified under the original lawsuit and were part of it were already deceased, or lost their farms because that aid simply did not reach them in time."

The U.S. Agriculture Census, a count of farms in the nation and the people who operate them, shows racial discrimination has taken its toll -- evident in a dramatic shrinking of not only the number of Black farmers, but in the amount of land Black farmers own.

John Boyd is President of the National Black Farmers Association, a nonprofit that advocates for Black farmers. He lobbied to get the Pigford case re-opened in 2008. Then he lobbied to get Congress to allocate funds for the billion-dollar award.

In 2014, he spoke with PBS North Carolina about how the long fight affected him and other Black farmers.

"We had some victorious moments," said Boyd, "and we had a whole lot of downtime when we were simply being told, ‘No.’ That hurt. And it caused the Black farmers to have a bad taste with the Federal Government.

"We lost millions of acres of land during this struggle. And for me, the fight was about the land. And if the government had came to me when I filed my discrimination case and said, ‘Mr. Boyd, we’re going to let you stay on your farm,’ I never would have founded the National Black Farmers Association because I was just as happy and content as I could be farming. All I ever wanted to be was a farmer."

"When I faced discrimination at the hands of the United States Department of Agriculture and its county supervisor, the person that makes decisions on farm lending, spat on me, spit on me – whatever word you want to use, I think that was the lowest moment of my life. Because I knew if I had reacted back to this county supervisor, I would have been in federal penitentiary," said Boyd.

The Keatons know the Pigford case well. They weren’t part of the lawsuit, but they consider Cumberland County farmer and plaintiff Timothy Pigford a member of their community.

Randolph Keaton said, "And so there was some justice done there, but of course there could be more, more could be done."

The continuing discrimination, said Mr. Keaton, is part of the reason his family understands so well the power of land ownership.

"My first step," he said, "was to go to farm services and get my, you know, my farm number. And then I got registered and then once I got registered, I could get an operations loan or an equipment loan which wasn't afforded to my parents. Right. So I'm utilizing some resources that my parents didn't have available to them. It was there, but they didn't know about them."

It's why Keaton's nonprofit also teaches people about the available government resources for farmers. He calls it Men and Women United for Youth and Families.

Signs on the side of the truck that transports the produce.
Rachel Keith
Signs on the side of the truck that transports the produce.

"We serve Bladen, Columbus, and Brunswick Counties. We’re located in Delco, and we consider ourselves a hub of vital services," he said. "We can provide a service there such as job search and resume help, GED classes, computer classes, case management."

Randolph Keaton and his family focus on the positive, but they acknowledge the reality of racism.

“It sometimes doesn’t look intentional," said Mr. Keaton, "but that’s the systemic piece that we have to keep dealing with.”

And so the Keatons continue to tell their family story of empowerment – from slaves to free people.

Randolph and Earnestine at the high tunnel.
Rachel Keith
Randolph and Earnestine at the high tunnel.

“Fortunately for me, I'm connected with the land. Our history has been repeated to us over and over again: every family reunion, every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, it's almost like some will say, ‘Lord, I done heard that story a thousand times…,’” said Randolph Keaton.

The Keaton family traces their history back almost two centuries, when George W. Dickson went from slave to free man to farmer. The other family patriarch -- well, we’ll get to him in a moment.

“But it resonates with us like how my brothers, sisters struggled and saw my parents struggle to give us what we have,” said Mr. Keaton.

That Keaton family history, repeated at every family gathering, lived on as oral history until Earnestine Keaton decided she was going to map it out.

“It started with folks wanting to know their history. I think maybe that Roots, that story on TV, and people started having family reunions and we wanted to have one. So we asked elders in the community and the family about our history and thing about it was it turned into a bigger history than what it was, because our ancestors were slaves, and they were a part of a network that came out of slavery. And the things I saw my ancestors do were the things that we’re benefitting from now,” said Ms. Keaton.

Earnestine and Randolph’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Keaton, on their father’s side, wasn’t a farmer. He was a pastor.

Born a free man in Bibb County, Alabama in 1825, Richard Keaton grew up mainly near the David Lloyd plantation in Columbus, Mississippi. And that’s where he started preaching. It’s also where he met his soon-to-be wife, Hannah Lloyd, Earnestine’s great-great-grandmother.

Ms. Earnestine Keaton said, “He met Hannah Lloyd. She was a Lloyd slave, and in 1846, they got married, and I have proof of that. And so he still continued to travel around, but she was his wife, and they had three children, I guess by 1853 or 1854, they had those three children.”

Ms. Keaton said the Lloyds didn’t allow Reverend Keaton to live with Hannah.

“He was still going, leaving and going to other places where he couldn’t stay there, but he had the freedom to come there and see his wife and children," she said.

And we know from the cruel history of slavery just because she was married didn’t mean she was safe from harm.

“If a white man asked you to do something, you go ahead and do it. And there might be a white man from another plantation or coming through that saw somebody he liked. And they would say they didn’t care that she had a husband, that was strange, they didn’t care if she had a husband, they would just take her, and bring her back,” said Ms. Keaton.

Yes. Rape of Black women by white men was common. But Earnestine doesn’t dwell on that. It’s another example of how the Keatons tell their story truthfully but without any apparent rancor.

“I know slavery is inhumane and it was bad. Being a historian, the good, the bad, the ugly, I have to have some of the things like they were able to get married, they had church, somebody mistreated them, the slavemaster sent them away, sold them, but overall I tend to look at history this way," said Ms. Keaton, "It’s mine. I’m not going to use somebody else’s history to color my life and how I approach things because along the way, I have my own memories and what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, so that’s it."

Sometime in the early 1850s, plantation owner Daniel Lloyd died. He left his son Salter Lloyd two plantations, one in Mississippi and the other in North Carolina.

Salter decided to move all the Mississippi slaves to their plantation on the northwest Cape Fear River, in Columbus County, North Carolina. So Hannah, still a slave, and her husband, Richard, still a free man and pastor, moved east, traveling 19 days by ox cart.

Earnestine Keaton said it’s likely Salter allowed Reverend Keaton to travel around the Cape Fear because it benefited slave owners like him.

“You had to look at how important it was for slave owners to be Christians, and to have the preachers preach to their members about being good servants, you know, serve your master. I don’t know," she said, "if Reverend Richard Keaton preached like that. I think he had enough freedom to get them all together in some place and have a service.”

Earnestine Keaton doesn't think he was a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher: “The only thing is the style, the style I think at that time was maybe more emotional, especially once you got out of slavery [...], but I don’t think Reverend Richard Keaton preached you were going to hell, knowing you just got out of hell. No, I think it was a different type of preaching.”

After the Civil War, Reverend Keaton continued to travel and preach to former slaves throughout the Cape Fear region.

“He organized them into their own church, and every community had their own Baptist church, and they are thriving today,” said Ms. Keaton.

To this day, Ms. Keaton is a member of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, one of the 18 churches Reverend Keaton established in his lifetime. This one dates back to 1871.

 Earnestine Keaton walking around her family home, farm.
Rachel Keith
Earnestine Keaton walking around her family home, farm.

“He was the first pastor of that church. And the family continued to go there. You can say, well, my great-great-grandfather founded this church. That means something to me,” said Ms. Keaton.

Ms. Keaton is also able to trace her family back to her great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side: George W. Dickson, born a slave in 1830.

The first Dickson was a cooper, a tradesman who made barrels.

“When the war was over in this area, in 1865 when Wilmington fell, they started right away. They got busy. They were already working in the turpentine industry, and they were skilled,” said Ms. Keaton.

She describes where George W. first made a living as a free man: “There was a road that went right to the Cape Fear River, and they had merchants coming up the river to buy goods, and instead of him selling his goods to the merchants that came from Wilmington, what he did was he bought passage on the boat for himself and his barrels. And he sold them in Wilmington. And it’s like his great-granddaughter said, Aunt Chance, she said, ‘Yea, grandpa did that, he cut out the middleman.'”

Ms. Keaton is proud of his achievements. “I perceive my ancestors as being smart and businessmen to do that. And with that money," she said, "he bought the first home place for the Dicksons, and it was 25 acres.”

He had saved enough money to buy those acres only five years after the end of the Civil War.

And then he had a son, George P. Dickson, Earnestine and Randolph’s great-grandfather. He also became a skilled tradesman.

But his son traveled along what’s called the ‘piney woods belt’ to states like Georgia and Florida to log and tap trees for turpentine. And the fruits of that labor gave him the means to buy swaths of land.

“By 1915, he had 282 acres in Columbus County where we are, and 350 acres in Bladen County, which is across the line in East Arcadia. And so that was a part of community building. You bought this land, you had people who lived in slave cabins, you let them stay there until they were able to purchase the land. So he made everybody promise, farm this land, keep it in the family [...],” said Ms. Keaton.

And don’t sell it. Don’t sell it: the message the Keatons still carry to the next generation in their own family and in their broader community.

“George P. Dickson understood that if he was going to accumulate wealth, he could not pass it out along the way. I have his books; I have his papers and he’s got a ledger and everybody is named in there. His children's names are in there and their children. Even my daddy, he lived in the community, his mama and him had a page in there where they worked in tobacco or digging sweet potatoes or whatever. And my grandmother Miami, she and my mother and my mother’s siblings had a page. And he would pay them. Maybe they might make 20 cents a day or less, and he would have it all documented. And if you needed to borrow a dollar, he would have to subtract that,” said Ms. Keaton.

There was one white man, the sheriff, who, Ms. Keaton said, harassed George P. about his finances and his land. She said, “He just couldn’t abide the fact that grandpa George was smart enough to know that if he didn’t pay his taxes on this particular date, this guy could come and sell his land at the courthouse. Never, he bought other people’s land that was in foreclosure, so...”

And during his lifetime, George P. Dickson kept the land he earned. If family members wanted some of it, they had to buy it.

“He did not relinquish any control; when he died, all his stuff was in order, his children had purchased land on their own,” said Ms. Keaton.

After his death, his descendants did carve up his estate. They got about sixteen acres each. His daughter, Miami - that’s Earnestine’s grandmother - carried on the farming tradition.

Part of the Keaton Family Farm
Rachel Keith
Part of the Keaton Family Farm

“And her husband, Papa Kenley, that’s what I call him," said Ms. Keaton, "He wasn’t the farmer like she was, so my mother was like that. She inherited that. And what they did was, they understood the cash crop, the cash crop was tobacco. Everyone had an allotment, and our land over here, we got a tobacco allotment, and that was our cash crop. And my mother, she was so happy working in the fields and we all followed her in the fields."

Miami’s daughter, Mildred, Earnestine’s mom, passed her love of farming on to her 12 sons and daughters.

“My older brother Bubba, that was the oldest one, he and my mother would teamwork. You know, they would get out in the field and plow and she would be out there with him. And so they had this bond, the two of them, her oldest son,” said Ms. Keaton.

The Keatons’ bond with farming comes from these connections their ancestors had with the land. Ms. Keaton continues to tell their story to different generations of Keatons and Dicksons.

Randolph Keaton, her brother, knows how important she is in keeping the family’s history alive in the community.

"That's why Ms. Earnestine is so relevant because if we don't have anybody to pass that knowledge on to us," he said. "Now we're going to sit back and people will teach us the history for the way they see it. But my family's history, seeing what my great-great-grandfather did back in those times is amazing to me. And it gives me hope. So they can't, you know, folks can't say, you know, you were given something. No, no, no, no. What we have, we earned it. And that's what we want to be a model [to show] everybody else that we earn it. And we worked for it and my parents worked for it.”

Mr. Keaton continues to uphold his family’s legacy, as a steward of his farmland and through his non-profit, providing a support system for the next generation of Black farmers.

Earnestine Keaton's garden; she's planted her sweet potatoes across the street.
Rachel Keith
Earnestine Keaton's garden; she's planted her sweet potatoes across the street.

In rural Bladen and Columbus County, people have to leave town and head to larger cities to find work. The Keatons, who can trace their roots back to slavery, live comfortably on a 40-acre tract of land that holds nine separate houses, a high tunnel, which is a kind of greenhouse, and a host of different crops. They sell and give away their produce, and they are intent on teaching the lessons their forefathers taught them: hold on to your land, learn how to farm it, and if you do decide to sell, sell to someone who looks like you.

One of the ways they’re teaching these lessons is through a nonprofit that serves the surrounding rural counties.

Randolph Keaton is the Executive Director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families. He said he has about 30 active kids in his youth program. He’s careful to teach empowerment -- not victimhood -- to his kids who are in middle school.

“These guys are naturally curious and want answers to things, like me," he said. "They didn’t know that history, right? Until you got older, then you learn your history, more about, what, I mean, your history is. And I did that. I got off to college to learn my history. So kids are aware now earlier about their history. And I just think they get to see up close what systemic racism might look like to them.”

The idea of reparations in 21st century America is deeply controversial but gaining traction in some sectors. In Washington, D.C., a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations for slavery, H.R. 40, was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. There are many steps before such a bill could pass, and Randolph Keaton just isn’t sure there’s broad support.

“The idea of reparations, some folks are with that,” he said. But, “Folks don’t really want reparations. They don’t want to be given stuff. That’s why I like growing produce and the guys doing it, selling it cause they get to make money off of it. And we’re part of the economy.”

He is very conscious of the fact that he’s a public figure and director of a nonprofit.

“You know, I have to be politically correct," said Mr. Keaton. "In some cases, there's some things I can say and I can't say. But I just gotta be mindful that the very folks that are watching me say what I say might take on, they don't -- they might not be old enough to understand this. So that's why we have to be mindful and kind of look at what's good out here.”

There’s no denying the wrongs committed against his ancestors and family, said Mr. Keaton, and there might be a place for reparations.

“The folks who don’t mean us any good anyway is going to argue against that," he said. "But the folks who want to see things better will come up with a way to make that word sound better.”

He sees positive change, steps forward with allies, but there is a long way to go -- especially in the Cape Fear region.

"The very people who are working with you on equity could be the very ones causing the inequity," said Mr. Keaton. "They don't realize it. And so Wilmington has a lot of work to do, and we'll throw that out there."

“And I have a lot of good friends who are not my color who believe in what I do. And I have some dear friends who are my color and believe in what I do. And so what we try to do... is work together on solutions. And that’s the best way to deal with things, solutions. Yes, Ma’am.”

But he’s hoping the conversations surrounding race and the best ways to help Black farmers like him will continue.

Vincent Smith, a professor at Minnesota State University, specializes in Agricultural Economics. He’s also a Visiting Scholar at the right-leaning think tank, American Enterprise Institute. Learning how to farm and sell produce are valuable skills for a young person, he said, but in adult life, the American farm economy really only rewards large farmers.

Part of the Keaton Family Farm
Rachel Keith
Part of the Keaton Family Farm

"There's no economic efficiency case, productivity-based case, for providing lots of resources to relatively small farms, whether they're organic farms owned by PhDs from the University of California, Berkeley, or whether they’re farms that make a really important contribution to the family income for low-income socially disadvantaged families, Black families, American Indian families on reservations and so on...," said Dr. Smith. "There is a need-based case to help those families have higher incomes, whether we want to do that through providing them with revenues linked to their farm production or whether we want to provide the incomes to them, because they need more money and they're genuinely poor, for whatever reason. That's a debate that is an important debate. It's obviously controversial."

During the Obama years, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared that the U.S. was seeing a resurgence of Black farmers, discrimination complaints were down, a trend toward more equitable distribution of resources was showing up. But Zoe Willingham of The Center for American Progress said that assessment isn’t totally accurate, partly because the way the USDA analyzes its data has changed.

"Unfortunately, investigative journalism since then has found that the change in weighting from the U.S. Census of Agriculture is responsible for much of that reported uptick," said Willingham. "Currently the U.S. Census of Agriculture is looking for comments on how to improve their data collection for the 2022 census of agriculture."

Willingham said they’d like to see the USDA increase transparency around how they weight and report their data. They’d also like to see improved collection of land ownership data.

Vincent Smith of AEI, along with colleague Eric Glasgow, recently analyzed payments to American farmers from the Federal Government. They looked at payments based on how much the farm sold and the size of the farm by acre. And while they don’t have data on ethnicity or race of the farmers, they can make some educated guesses.

"The data on the acreage are very helpful in giving some insights, although not complete insights, about the sorts of payments that Black farmers on average are likely to have received," said Dr. Smith. "USDA has reported that the average size of a farm being managed and farmed by a Black operator is about 100 acres."

Smith and Glasgow looked at four programs, including the long-standing Federal Crop Insurance Program. The other three were what they call “ad hoc” or one-off programs.

The first, the Federal Crop Insurance Program, reveals a consistent pattern -- and one that shows up even in the more recent one-off payments, as Smith calls them.

"The largest farms were averaging $42,000 per program," said Smith. "The huge farms that are in that program, by the way, the top 0.1% were getting upwards of three-quarters of a million to well over a million dollars out of that program."

"Again, the basis for these payments, as Secretary Vilsack pointed out a few weeks ago, is the quantity of product and the value of that product that you produce."

Smith and Glasgow also analyzed COVID relief money for farmers, a one-time payment.

"If we look at the COVID payments, we see a very similar pattern," said Smith. "We see that the largest farms, farms in the top 1% were getting considerably more payments per farm than farms in the 40 to 50% range. Farms in the top 1% of sales were averaging… $234,000 a farm."

The Keatons' 40-acre farm netted them $800 in Covid relief, according to Randolph Keaton.

Another one-time payment, allocated during the Trump Administration, was designed to compensate farmers for Trump’s trade wars.

"There is evidence that on a per-acre basis," said Smith, "all farmers large or small, were probably overpaid for the losses they incurred because of the Trump trade wars."

Those overpayments reveal the same pattern, according to Smith: they benefited the larger farmers -- most of whom are probably white.

Randolph Keaton sees the systemic issues but spends his energy talking about and teaching solutions. He also lets the possibility of the future drive his outlook.

“We’re getting things like a refrigerated truck, like that trailer right there is ours. We’re in the process of getting -- purchasing… a resiliency hub which will serve our regular job center, but then also we’re going to work with farmers," he said. "And the farmers are going to have space. Hopefully, they’re going to have a refrigerated walk-in cooler and a place to store their food, short-term, and those kinds of things. So you can’t speak to me negatively and blaming vs. history, which is a teacher."

T’Miracle Banks is graduating early and Randolph said he has grown so much through his time as farm manager and becoming a leader of their Youth Food Council.

“Then he’s shipping off to the military before they march in May," said Keaton. "And so he’s on a very short time frame now. But he’s a man now. He’s 18. We’re proud of him and there’s more T’Miracles.”

 T'Miracle is leaving for the military in the summer of 2021.
Rachel Keith
T'Miracle is leaving for the military in the spring of 2021.

T'Miracle said he's headed first to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for his basic training and then on to Fort Lee.

“Well, I plan on still being in the Army, but with the knowledge I know now I want to take it back," he said, "and apply it with the military and different places around different states.”

T’Miracle doesn’t care whether his farming knowledge, which he plans to pass on to others, gets figured into the federal government’s U.S. Agriculture Census or economic analysis.

His big dream?

“Have cleaner breathing air," said T'Miracle, "and allowing places where we can breathe without having to cough or stay inside.”

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.
Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR