A propane tank painted to look like a watermelon sits in front of a produce stand on Highway 150 in Fayette County, Iowa. Its long-time owner, Atrus (Attie) Stepp, who was Black, launched Fayette’s annual Watermelon Days festival in 1976.
“Everybody’s got good things to say about Attie,” said Charles Downs, who runs the stand now.
Downs, who is white, bought the stand from Stepp’s daughter, ending the family’s long legacy.
“Conservatively, I’d say it’s been here 80 years, at least, and it’s probably... maybe a hundred,” Downs said.
Stepp’s family farmed in Fayette County for more than 100 years, beginning before the Civil War, when his ancestors were among a small group of African American and mixed race families – they are sometimes referred to as the “Fayette mulattos” – who bought land and set about farming it.
“These Black farmers, they left their white neighbors alone and their white neighbors eventually left them alone,” said David Brodnax Sr., a Trinity Christian College history professor.
By 1900, Iowa had about 300 African American farm families in various parts of the state. But in 1970, the number had dropped to about 175 families.
Some scholars have suggested that farming, especially in the Great Plains, functioned as one step on a path toward economic independence that would allow future generations to thrive in other places, with the land passing out of the family as everyone migrated to urban or suburban places.
That theory might help explain why some of the homesteader “colonies,” such as Nicodemus, Kansas and DeWitty, Nebraska, ceased to exist.
“There’s definitely disagreement within the Black community about the importance of land as economic power, and the importance of farming,” Brodnax said. “There’s definitely a strong sense among some African Americans that we need land, we need economic power and in this country, land is power.
“Now, you could also look at that and say, well, you get yourself some land, and send your kids to school, and then you have even more economic power. So in that sense, you don’t necessarily need to hold onto that land.”
Valerie Grim, a professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, says Black landowners, particularly in the South but likely elsewhere, too, wanted ownership to root their families in a homeland.
“It wasn’t perceived from my research as something that you purchase in order to get you and your kids to a place where then you go somewhere else,” Grim said. “That’s not my experience in talking to Black landowners at all. It was always property that you kept to protect your family, so if your kids went north, they got in trouble, they could come back home.”
During the 20th century, Grim says Black farmers faced more challenges than their white neighbors. For example, seed dealers and other businesses treated them unfairly or refused to work with them. The segregated Black land grant universities struggled to get adequate funding. The role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grew so much that to succeed in farming practically required engagement with at least some of the department’s agencies and programs. But Black farmers repeatedly faced discrimination that prevented them from getting appropriate loans and being able to keep up with the pace of modernization.
Grim says the historical record shows “all kinds of stories about systemic discrimination around Blacks’ engagement with the USDA, for example, really since the 1860s.”
Until the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit, though, she says outside of the circle of African Americans engaged in agriculture and their allies, few people knew the depths of the problem.
“When we get to the 1990s, we’re talking about 130 years of a documented dialog that just wasn’t taken seriously by anybody,” Grim said. And while the settlement money is important, she says it’s not enough. An ongoing fund that offered money for African Americans getting started in agriculture would be another important step.
“That would make a difference,” she said. “It wouldn’t make up for 400 years of domination, oppression and discrimination, but certainly it would increase the percentage of Blacks involved in farming.”
For the Stepp family and others, something else contributed to the end of their time as Black farmers: assimilation.
After Attie Stepp died, Jeff Schimek, Cheryl Peterson and Brian Stepp, all of whom identify as white, started researching the small cemetery where their grandfather is buried, just down the road from the melon stand . They learned that generations ago, the white residents of Fayette wouldn’t allow the Black farm families to bury their deceased in the town cemetery. A land-owning family outside town allowed them to use two acres.
“They donated the land there to be a cemetery for people that couldn’t be buried in town,” Schimek said, “and that’s why that is a Black cemetery.”
But the cousins say their grandfather didn’t talk much about his ancestry. Growing up, they didn’t know about his African American roots.
“There was quite a bit more talk about our Indian heritage than there was about being Black,” Schimek said. As an adult, Schimek talked with a man who also has relatives buried in the small cemetery outside town.
“He said, ‘Well, some members of the community just wanted to act as white as they could and assimilate into the whites as best they could,’ and he says, ‘Your grandad was that way,’” Schimek recalled. And he remembers feeling a little discomfited by the remarks, but doesn’t dispute them. He says Stepp’s children married lighter-skinned partners.
Peterson and Brian Stepp were among the three grandchildren who spent the most time farming with their grandfather. The others, they say, raced to town as quickly as they could.
“I’m sure Grandpa would have loved if one of us took over the business,” Peterson said, “but the business is a risky one to begin with, and you have to put up a lot of money to start.”
Brian Stepp began working for his grandfather full time at the age of 16, but didn’t follow through on his advice.
“‘Brian, you put a thousand dollars into this place every year, and you’ll have something when I die,’” he remembers his grandfather saying. “I ain’t have no thousand dollars every year.”
Attie Stepp died in 1993 at the age of 97. It was about a dozen years ago that his daughter, Vera Stepp Splinter, sold the melon stand and the small farm it sits on to Charles Downs. Splinter, the last of her generation, is in her 80s and suffering from dementia.
Peterson says Splinter will be the last person buried in the “Black cemetery” in Fayette. Peterson and her brother take care of the cemetery and are looking into funding for its long term upkeep.
Even if one of Attie Stepp’s grandchildren had taken over the family farm, it’s unlikely that would have changed the fact that the 2012 and 2017 Census of Agriculture showed no farmers who self-identified as Black or African American in Fayette County. Still, in that time the statewide number did increase in both Iowa and Illinois, though the tallies declined in Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Urban counties, including Cook in Illinois and Polk in Iowa, account for much of the increase, consistent with the notion that row crop farming has not seen any uptick. (The National Black Growers Council knows of only one row crop farmer in Illinois, and he is retired but still owns his land. The council doesn’t count any in Iowa.) But African Americans, including recent immigrants from Africa, are becoming engaged at the local foods and direct-to-consumer level.
Lutheran Services in Iowa, for example, offers a farm apprenticeship program for immigrants and some of its graduates go on to start their own small farms. In 2017, 17 of the 23 program alumni who were farming in the Des Moines area were from Africa. Polk County had 26 Black or African American farmers that year. In other nearby states, both officials and entrepreneurs have launched efforts to recruit and support more African Americans in agriculture.
But Brodnax, the historian, says amid renewed calls for economic empowerment, farmland ownership hasn’t risen to the same level as supporting Black businesses.
“What I haven’t seen is that being addressed from a perspective of farming and land ownership,” he said. “Not saying that no one has said that, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be a big part of the conversation in 2020.”
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