Turning a KKK Bombing Ground Into an Urban Farm
A black-led cooperative movement grows pumpkins and community in Birmingham.
BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — The lot doesn’t look like much: Short stacks of tires line a small rectangle of flattened cardboard boxes, all interspersed with bright green vines of invasive kudzu.
To Rev. Majadi Baruti, however, it’s a pumpkin patch and future urban farm. The tires are planters for young Sugar Baby pumpkins, the cardboard will keep weeds down and attract worms to fertilize the soil, and the kudzu will work wonders for compost because of its nitrogen content. Two patches of what looks like empty soil will soon sprout flowers, which will then “bring bees and butterf lies,” says Baruti.
The pumpkins are the first sign of growth for the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust. The trust, founded in 2015 by Baruti’s partner, Susan Diane Mitchell, has adopted 2.5 acres across eight empty lots in the historically black neighborhood named after the dozens of Ku Klux Klan bombings there in the mid-1900s. The first bombing took place on one of the adopted plots, Baruti says. “What we’re doing is trying to resurrect and sit inside of that ancestral spirit.”
The land trust initially received support from Magic City Agriculture Project (MCAP), which has a 10-year strategic plan to create an autonomous cooperative economy in Birmingham.
“We want to design a set of institutions tailored to low-income, oppressed people,” explains MCAP co-founder Zac Henson, a self-proclaimed “redneck” activist with a Berkeley Ph.D. in environmental science, policy and management.
The Birmingham organizers view themselves as heirs of the civil rights movement and the black-run cooperatives in the South. MCAP is a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a network established by a group of 22 co-ops in 1967. They’re also part of a resurging co-op movement in small cities across the United States, including Richmond, Calif. and Jackson, Miss.
In MCAP’s plan, labor would be managed through workerowned co-ops, capital through credit unions focused on microlending to small, local businesses, and land through trusts for the public benefit, like the one in Dynamite Hill.
Baruti dodges red anthills as he weaves through the pumpkin plants, checking each one. “We had children do some of the seeding, so you see some are huge and some are little,” Baruti says. The seeds had not been planted at uniform depth, affecting their growth. “But it’s cute.”
Mitchell’s vision for the land trust includes persistently affordable housing and regenerative urban agriculture — all of it owned and operated cooperatively.
“We are going to make sure that you and your family are taken care of, and you keep your house,” Baruti explains. In a predominantly black city characterized by predominantly white land and business ownership— and which faces mounting gentrification — the trust is both an economic necessity and a political statement.
In 2017, mayoral candidate Randall Woodfin promised support for land trusts. After he was elected, his transition team’s social justice committee recommended that the city allocate around $300,000 over two years to help the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield land trust get on its feet. The trust adopted the Dynamite Hill lots from the Birmingham land bank authority, but still needs funds to purchase them. It also needs office space, an executive director and resources to get the lots ready for housing.
But the budget proposed by Woodfin’s transition team has yet to materialize. “If [the city] would just fulfill the little bitty money that we asked for, we could get a good start,” Baruti says. “We just want to be propped up a bit and for the city to behave with us as it behaves with other corporations and non-profits.”
Instead, the new mayor kicked off his term by asking the city council to pay $90 million for a downtown stadium. “I can’t eat a football,” Baruti says. “My kids can’t eat a damn football.”
Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.