Kitchen to Classroom: Eating in the Archives, Part I

Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

Kitchen to Classroom is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. We’ll miss Jill when she moves on next month—she has accepted a position as an assistant professor of history at Minnesota State University-Mankato. We look forward to welcoming our 2013–2014 postdoctoral fellow, Zac Henson, at the end of the summer.

Eating in the archives? Well, no, everyone knows you can’t eat in the archives. Archivists are understandably prickly about protecting the historical documents, rare books, and other delicate material under their care. So you won’t find any actual food, but you will find loads of information about food in the archives. From personal papers to government documents to old cookbooks, historical repositories tell the story of our foodways.

Recently, I went to New Orleans to research at the Amistad Research Center on the campus of Tulane University. As the country’s largest independent archive specializing in African American history, the Amistad Research Center might be the region’s best-kept secret as a repository of the history of black foodways. My research focused on the personal papers of civil rights activist and Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977). Hamer is best known as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker who fought for the voting rights of black Mississippians. She came to national attention during the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when she tried to convince the credentials committee to seat a biracial delegation to represent Mississippi instead of the all-white group nominated by state party officials.

After SNCC’s decline, Hamer advocated on behalf of the region’s poor. Her papers reveal efforts to ameliorate food insecurity for Mississippi farm families. In 1969, Hamer founded Freedom Farm, a cooperative designed to feed hungry farmers in her native Sunflower County. Her best-known project was a “pig bank,” whereby Freedom Farm loaned hogs to needy farm families in exchange for the farmer’s promise to return two of the hog’s offspring to pig bank. Freedom Farm also grew okra, peas, butter beans, corn, cucumbers, and snap beans for the sustenance of disadvantaged families. Freedom Farm served more than 850 poor families. Proceeds from cotton and soybean cultivation helped finance Freedom Farm’s land notes. Despite these efforts—including a fundraising campaign led by the singer and actor Harry Belafonte—Hamer’s papers reveal that Freedom Farm had a difficult time financing its operations and holding onto its land. Sadly, this was a common story for African American farmers.

In addition to feeding the hungry, Hamer served as an ambassador for the extreme deprivation hidden from most Americans in the 1960s. Her papers include the script for a film entitled Hunger: American Style, which aired in February 1968 on public television. Hamer appeared in this documentary describing the struggles many Mississippi Delta families experienced obtaining healthy food. In the script, Dr. Aaron Shirley, a pediatrician and activist in the Delta, describes problems associated with a food desert long before anyone coined the term. “We see people who are not under weight because they get enough calories,” Dr. Shirley says in the film, “but they don’t get green vegetables; they don’t get fruits; and they don’t get some of the minerals and vitamins that they need.” Hamer’s personal papers remind us that food insecurity is not a recent problem and that it has historically had a disproportional effect on black families in our region.
Note: A finding aid for the Fannie Lou Hamer manuscript collection is available at the Amistad Research Center’s online finding aid database. This post is the first in a three-part series on locating our food history in the archives.

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