What freedom looks like on a homestead

8 mins read

Black homesteaders use sovereignty for safety in a hostile US climate. 

Two calamities happened to form a perfect storm: a global pandemic followed by a surge of nationwide protests in response to anti-Black police killings. While people were sheltering in place and others scrambled through the stress of being essential workers, JamiQuan Saenz and Phillip Rudd intensified a yearlong virtual courtship.

When all seemed ill-timed on the surface, Saenz, who lived in California’s Bay Area, booked a weekend ticket to Virginia to finally meet Phillip Rudd in person. Saenz flew in on a Friday. Met his parents on Saturday. By Monday, he proposed. 

With the engagement, they made arrangements for a partnership in spirit and soil. Alongside her fiancé, she bought land. Now, their 50-plus acres sealed the merging of two passions. His—to teach a rural community how to live off of the land again. Hers—to implement effective programs that stimulate a local economy in a forgotten Black town—all through a model homestead. This is their extraordinary love story. 

. . . .

On the eve of Independence Day, Saenz strolls through her 50-plus acres of property in Warfield, Virginia. It is high noon, hot and sticky in bucolic Brunswick County. Yet and still, the Oakland native moves with fluidity over rich southern soil under unforgiving sun. 

For her, the heat is a non-factor. Added to that, she is nonplussed about the US holiday, though, her birthday falls on the national day of observance. Her freedom is focused on living off of land she recently purchased. 

“I grew up in a food desert. [Phillip] grew up in a food desert in a rural, Black community. We both wanted to farm our own land, especially at this time when we have Black children,” says Saenz who has two sons and one daughter. 

Saenz, a social worker, enters into a blended family with Rudd who has two daughters and one son. “I want to be able to have something, to leave something for our children so they don’t have to be in survival mode. They can just thrive,” she adds.

Fresh from accepting Rudd’s marriage proposal, Saenz also just buried her mother three weeks before. Although she says she “is processing the first” solar return without her mom, she moves with an adage often heard growing up. “My aunt always told me, ‘You’ve got to be ready to go,’” says Saenz. So that’s what she did. She went.

. . . .

Prior to meeting Rudd, Saenz pursued urban gardening for 15 years. “I always wanted to own land and have a large farm, but when my mother got sick, I had to put that dream aside and make do with what I had. But, I still just kept chipping away at my dream.”

That “chipping away” meant reading up on USDA programs that fund farming. During her spare time, she also prepared paperwork for a traditional farm. More importantly, Saenz tapped into a growing ecosystem of Black farmers. 

From the inception of the American colonies, Blacks participated in agriculture. Following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1868 passage of the 14th Amendment that made former slaves and free Blacks, US citizens, African Americans made up a significant part of the country’s agrarian community. But, that declined rapidly. 

Over a century of discriminatory laws provided a climate for violent attacks against Black farmers. In this hostile terrain, farmers and their families were maimed and murdered. An oft-practice of stealing Black-owned land happened a number of nefarious ways. After generations of dispossession of land, millions of acres were lost. However, those who held on faced insurmountable odds, even with the USDA, a federal agency designed to help farmers. After years of mistreatment based on race, a class action lawsuit, Pigford versus Glickman, by farmers was filed against the government in 1991.

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. . . .

Once farmers reactivated their advocacy, in 1995, Virginia farmer and activist, John W. Boyd launched the Black Farmer’s Association to galvanize growers. Since, organizations have sprung up to meet the needs of a small, but diverse sector of the industry. Over the last 15 years, new waves of Black farmers began to use the digital landscape to connect and share resources.

Saenz says that being “on a bunch of online Black farmer groups,” is where she met Rudd. Soon they discovered they wanted to farm land with a deeper purpose.

“We’re showing people how to live off of the land from the ground up. From clearing the land, to farming, to sourcing local grocery stores,” says Saenz.

Right now, Saenz and Rudd live like all their neighbors in a community that is 86 percent Black, and whose ancestors once fueled a wealthy slave economy. “The closest grocery store is 28 miles away, so what do people eat?” asks Saenz. 

“There’s a Dollar General store down the road and some fast food restaurants as the only options for food. As a result, there’s high blood pressure, diabetes in this community, and all those issues related to having limited options to eat.” 

While for some, homesteads are hobbies or even tax write offs, its an imperative for Rudd’s community. “[Black] people used to farm this land,” Saenz says. “This homestead returns them back to sustainability.”

Rudd started his process of a homestead by getting vocational training. When he decided to go back to school, he enlisted in equestrian instruction. Once he learned how to raise horses and run a stable, he started his own project. Gradually, he began to clear his land, while documenting every phase for three years. 

“Everybody wants to be a farmer until you’ve got to get up and feed the goats,” regularly says Rudd.

Phillip Rudd instructs by the duck pond. Photo credit JamiQuan Saenz

Now having Saenz as a business and life partner, they created a simple system. He works the land. She develops the educational and cultural programs. “With coronavirus, we’re asking ourselves, What does social distancing look like in a rural community?” Puts forth Saenz.

Farming, horses and technology are some of Saenz and Rudd’s initial answers. Eventually, the couple plans to launch a cultural center that will also serve as a location to train community members.

As Saenz details plans for the homestead while trekking through her property, she points to baby chicks, waddling ducks and pots of young succulents—all signs of newness and etchings of a family farm. During her walk, she shows cleared land and acreage still full of foliage. In mid-sentence while describing plans for services that the homestead will provide for youth, she laughs when she sees the kid goat just two days old that had been hiding all morning.

In thinking about how she came to the conclusions that she wanted to homestead, Saenz turns to walk on an uncultivated parcel of soil. She pauses then says:

When people want to live, you know get a career, they go out and look for a job. When they get an interview, they go buy new clothes and get their hair done to look nice for a job they may not get. Or, if they do get it, they might work for a boss who doesn’t like them, and do it for less than what they’re worth. That used to be me. 

Now I am committed to sweating and getting up early to clear this out here and plant this over there to manifest my family’s dreams on my land.

The homestead Saenze and Rudd are building, operates from what they call five pillars of sovereignty: Freedom of housing; land ownership; growing food; freedom of power and movement; and lastly, freedom of income. Unlike the tradition of US homesteading, the couple anchors their mission to stabilize Black communities like Rudd’s that have been uprooted and ignored.

Exodusters 2.0

Homesteading traces back to 1862. At the tail end of the Civil War, the US faced a severely crippled economy and a destroyed infrastructure. As a way to recover, the Abraham Lincoln Administration strategized on ways to secure more land. Consequently, Lincoln signed into law an act encouraging settlers to move more into the western frontier. 

Mostly, newly arrived, poor European immigrants, the promise of the act was to grant settlers full ownership of up to 160 acres of land they “found” and cultivated after five years. Although the act said the western front was “public land,” Native nations lived there for thousands of years, but had been rapidly massacred and forced off. Those who remained either fought for their survival, sequestered themselves or moved onto government sanctioned reservations.

Initially, a handful of free Blacks participated in the Homestead Act of 1862. After the Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the newly minted Americans joined in droves to get away from the slave dwellings they lived in. Rather than receive support and protections from federal or local governments, African American enterprising by Exodusters were thwarted.

Journalist Shomari Willis who penned, Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires, writes on how Blacks were systematically killed or run off land, or out of towns built and sustained by industrious crafts persons and agriculturalists fresh from chattel slavery. In an interview with C-SPAN, he further explained, “The fact that African Americans, no matter what their resources were during the period, still had to deal with the society they were living in.”

While European immigrants received the opportunity to receive the full benefits and security of a US citizen, Blacks were consistently disenfranchised after the short period of Reconstruction and on. Those impacted included homesteaders. Willis’ research details Black homesteaders killed or run off land by violent whites and sometimes Native groups. Even with communities like the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, nicknamed Black Wall Street because it boasted a number of wealthy African Americans, their residential area was bombed.

Though today’s Black homesteaders do not face the circumstances that led to the destruction of Black Wall Street, the current state of the nation drove Saenz and Rudd to live off of the grid. “I couldn’t afford a farm in Oakland. It was just too expensive,” tells Saenz.

Oakland was once a strong enclave for African Americans. Even San Francisco was at one point, predominantly Black. Yet, waves of gentrification since the 1960s have gradually pushed people out of the area.

On the other hand, Rudd purchased land in the Warfield, Virginia community, not far from where he was raised in Chesterfield County. What he soon realized, Warfield, which is in Brunswick County, was a ghost town.Upon his return from the military, “a desolate community” welcomed him in his homecoming. 

Land acquisition or maintaining land has been a serial issue for African Americans. With historical documents showing various forms of discriminatory tactics in buying property, mortgage lending, banking, and landing employment to get a house, African Americans have been experiencing chronic land dispossession since the Reconstruction period.

Saenz said a nearby white man owns 1,000 acres of land that’s been in his family for generations. “He has houses for his daughter, and other people in his family. Do you know how much money you save when you don’t have to buy a house?”

Regardless of the challenges, the couple regularly revisit their plans to build. But before anything, they pray. “This isn’t easy work, Imma be for real,” says Saenz. “But I love my man. When you pray with someone you get to see the manifestation of what’s their heart.”

The Brunswick Agriculture and Cultural Model Homesteading & Equestrian Center aims to open Juneteenth 2021.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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