Historically, African Americans played a central role in the nation’s agriculture system, and, through their labor and know-how on farms and plantations, in the very building of the American economy—particularly in the South. Of course, black people did much of that work in bondage, over more than two hundred years, followed by a century of sharecropping and tenant farming. Remarkably, in the early 20th century, black families owned 15 million acres, one-seventh of the nation’s farmland. Today, though, black farm ownership is down to about one million acres, and only one in 100 American farm families is black.
This episode of Gravy is a sound portrait of an African American farm couple in North Carolina, Eddie and Dorothy Wise. For twenty years, they operated a small hog operation near the town of Rocky Mount, in North Carolina’s rolling Piedmont region. Producer John Biewen, host of the Scene on Radio podcast, visited the Wises many times in 2008 and 2009, and recorded Eddie and Dorothy as they went about their days and as Eddie worked with their herd of hogs. John assembled this documentary, which is mostly narrated by the Wises themselves.
Update: In early 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture foreclosed on the Wises’ farm loan and evicted them from their land. The Wises accuse the USDA of systematic discrimination over more than two decades, saying that government officials set them up to fail and went out of their way to drive the Wises off. John Biewen tells that story in an investigative documentary, Losing Ground, produced in collaboration with Reveal and available on the Scene on Radio podcast.
In September 2017, Dorothy Wise passed away from complications of diabetes.