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Samantha Foxx is concerned that she can't seem to find historic information about Black beekeepers. A cursory glance on Google for relevant terms reveals that the internet appears deeply concerned about whether bees should be considered "enslaved," but turns up little to no information about whether enslaved people were beekeepers themselves.
"It's never made sense to me. We know slaves were farming. We know there was honey, so who was beekeeping?" Foxx asked. "White people were having Black people do their farming, so chances are white people were having Black people do beekeeping too. They beat people to death to do their work, but you're telling me white people were jumping for joy to do beekeeping? I don't buy it. This is a whole chapter that is lost."
In Forsyth County, there are more than 500 farms, only 6 of which are owned by African Americans.
Foxx is a beekeeper and urban farmer in Forsyth County, North Carolina. She was born in the state, but moved to Chicago as a teenager. There, she studied cosmetology and worked doing hair and makeup until her early thirties when she returned to North Carolina. In the years since, the mother of three has forged her own path as a Master Beekeeper, Master Gardener, and owner of Mother's Finest—a catchall for the honey, tonics, elderberry syrup, and community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes she produces from her urban family farm. She's a distinctive site around town—and not just because of her bold lipstick, fly eyewear, and impeccable style. She is almost always the only Black beekeeper and farmer at local events.
Much like the question about Southern food and who owns it, a similar conversation sprouts up perennially around agriculture. Why is the face of farming in America white when throughout history, enslaved people, sharecroppers, and African American farmers have kept the country fed? Foxx explained that there is her origin story—as in, what influenced her interest in beekeeping and farming—and there is the origin story: The agricultural history, farming practices, and culinary traditions of African Americans routinely erased despite fundamentally shaping U.S. foodways.
There are more than 500 farms in Forsyth County, only 6 of which are owned by African Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, African Americans make up less than 2 percent of the country's 3.4 million farmers, or about 50,000 farmers nationwide. One-hundred years ago, America had more than a million Black farmers.
Michael Banner, pictured here with his family, is a farmer, co-founder of Urban Farm School at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, and a candidate for Winston-Salem city council. Courtesy photo.
Attempting to address some of these disparities in Forsyth County is the Cooperative Extension Service, the outreach arm of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at North Carolina State University and the School of Agriculture at the historically Black North Carolina A&T State University. The Cooperative Extension offers free and low-cost classes and programs, including an urban farming class and Beekeepers Association class, both of which Foxx has taken. The extension also works directly with urban farmers like Michael Banner, a community activist running for Winston-Salem City Council on a platform that pushes for initiatives that teach entrepreneurship through farming and agriculture.
Banner says the Cooperative Extension has given him important tools to use as an urban farmer in East Winston, the historically Black area of Winston-Salem in the middle of Forsyth County, where both Foxx and Banner call home. Through community organizing, Banner and others helped establish an urban farm ordinance in Winston-Salem, allowing urban farmers to identify vacant city lots to use for farming and community gardens. He was also instrumental in helping to establish The Forsyth Cooperative Extension Urban Farm School, and he's in the midst of building a co-op with graduates who came out of the program to address food disparities and teach people in the community farming skills.
"We piloted the school with an inner city lot in the middle of a very oppressed, highly-stressed community," Banner said. "We weren't just talking theory, we put the farming into practice and it was the first time people got to see what urban farming is. It was a great thing. Now I want to work on land trusts. I want to establish land inside our communities that can be farmed in perpetuity."
"My thinking is why do we keep trying to roll out the red carpet for these places that don't want us?"
Agriculture clearly remains an important part of life in Forsyth County, where a younger generation is turning their passion for farming, preserving, fermenting, and baking into a thriving food scene, launching small food businesses, creating pop-up restaurants and bakeries, and organizing local food festivals. Winston-Salem is at the center of the action. It's a city that fancies itself progressive, but calls to support small artisanal food businesses, local restaurants, and family farms are mostly insular among the white food entrepreneurs who essentially own downtown. There is almost no crossover. Despite being just a few miles from downtown's white-owned breweries, bakeshops, and "urban markets" that boast farm-to-table ingredients, few if any of these business owners are building bridges with Winston-Salem's African American food entrepreneurs. Banner said few outside of his community have expressed interest in the "agri-hoods" he's been hard at work building in East Winston for years.
Every member of Foxx's family has a role on the farm. One of her younger sons shadows her on the farm, planting and beekeeping. Photo by Christine Rucker Photography.
"I feel more confident than ever that we are building our own scene," Banner said, noting that he and other urban farmers have worked with the Healthy Corner Store initiative, which provides produce to convenience stores to address food disparities. Banner has also helped set up multiple farmers' markets around East Winston and he provides produce to the Downtown Bodega, one of just a handful of Black-owned businesses that exist downtown.
While few efforts are made by white food entrepreneurs to engage Black farmers like Foxx and Banner, it hasn't stopped them from making their presence known. Before Foxx recently became a full time vendor at Winston-Salem's popular Cobblestone Farmers' Market, there wasn't a single other vendor of color. Banner has long refused to sell his produce at the farmers' market across town, operating at the site of what was until very recently called the "Dixie" fairgrounds. He said the name of the fairgrounds told many Black people in the community "all they needed to know." To be fair, the weekly market at the fairgrounds is supported by many Black bakers and farmers—including Foxx, who spent many Saturdays at the location with her husband and children, selling her popular wellness tonics made with homegrown scotch bonnet peppers.
But it's important to note that neither Banner nor Foxx are particularly concerned with being accepted by Winston-Salem's food scene. They have found their footing on their own and are investing their energy into their families, their communities, and their many endeavors.
Foxx is also clear, however, that "shit has to change," and that it's not farmers like her who have to do that work.
Banner with Mary Jac Brennan from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. He works consistently with Cooperative Extension to provide programming to attract more Black folks and people of color to farming. Courtesy photo.
"You hear whispers of people saying, 'Shhh, the Cobblestone Farmers' Market is really white. They don't want us there.' My thinking is: why do we keep trying to roll out the red carpet for these places that don't want us? They might take the Black dollar, but they don't want us there," Foxx said. "You know, we've always been making it happen for ourselves. This is a very white scene, but I don't care. I've forced myself in because it's good for my business. I'm all for having Black-owned everything, but I also know that shouldn't be the only path. The answer isn't always for us to build our own thing and go our own way. Change needs to happen; these spaces need to be more diverse."
For Banner, his primary motivator for becoming a farmer was utilitarian. He was becoming a father for the first time and as he and his wife prepared their home for their daughter, Banner found himself staring out at the yard and wondering how he would feed his family.
"I'm not trying to be picturesque. This is really what happened. My wife gave birth to our daughter at home and I caught her in my hands. After we cut the cord, I went outside and just looked up at the sky. I saw the moon and then looked down at the earth and I was just inspired to reach down and put my hands in the dirt and just grab handfuls of it," Banner said. "That's when I made up my mind: I was going to be a farmer and grow food for my family."
"It's challenging making this all run, but I love a challenge."
Now, Banner's focus is teaching his children how to farm, and ideally making it to the city council so that he can continue advocating for his East Winston community. But he also has other irons in the fire. His community organization, Island CultureZ, will continue its fight for increased land ownership for Black urban farmers. Last year, the organization won a grant to address transportation issues for youth working at urban and rural farms.
Like Banner, it's also important to Foxx that her children know where their food comes from and that they learn to grow their own food. Foxx has three sons, the youngest of which is seven years old. Already he's expressed a deep interest in beekeeping and farming. He teaches right alongside her, helps maintain the hives on a daily basis, and is generally her shadow on their family farm. But everyone in the family has a role in Mother's Finest. The kids help pack up orders. Foxx's husband, a graphic designer, created her logo and handles all of the marketing.
"Everyone in the family is building skills daily and they can develop new skills wherever their interests lie. It's challenging making this all run, but I love a challenge," Foxx said. "I know that for people in the community, for other Black women, for my children, I'm modeling something they might not have ever seen before. I want to use my platform to teach people and engage different communities. Some people might not like how I do it. That's okay. I'm just going to keep doing my thing."
This story was made possible by the contributions to the Denise Franklin Memorial Fund. Denise Franklin was a news anchor at WXII-TV and later the general manager at WFDD-FM, both in Winston-Salem. She was posthumously awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by Governor Roy Cooper for her exemplary service to the people of North Carolina.