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Reparations and restitution through land donation: an interview with Duron Chavis and Callie Walker

Host Angie Miles is sitting with her hands overlapping at a clear desk. She is smiling and wearing a pink sweater as she listens to the guests respond.
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VPM News Focal Point
Angie Miles listens to In Focus guests Duron Chavis and Callie Walker

During the 20th century, Black Americans lost 90 percent of their land across the U.S. because of factors including lack of access to legal and banking systems and racial discrimination.

Duron Chavis is Chairman of the Board of the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons - a non-profit that focuses on putting land back into the hands of black farmers. He is also a community leader, an urban farmer, and an educator.

Callie Walker is a Methodist minister in rural Amelia county. She believes that reparations and restitution can take many forms. She also serves on the board of the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons and works closely with Chavis.

This video transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ANGIE MILES: During the 20th century, Black Americans lost 90% of their land across the United States because of factors including lack of access to legal and banking systems, and racial discrimination. Duron Chavis is the chairman of the board of the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, a nonprofit that focuses on putting land back into the hands of Black farmers. He's also a community leader, an urban farmer, and an educator. Callie Walker is a Methodist minister in rural Amelia County and a board member of the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons and works closely with Chavis. Walker recently donated 75 acres of her family farmland to the Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons to allow farmers of color to set up homes and agrarian businesses.

ANGIE MILES: I'd like to hear a little bit about your background. I'm sure that our viewers would like that as well. Duron we'll start with you. How did you come to farming?

DURON CHAVIS: I've been a community activist focused on Black Liberation strategies for the last two decades. As a result of that work, I was introduced to African American farmers early in the 2000s, through our Happily Natural Festival. Their relationship with me took me to the world of access to healthy food, and food justice. In the early stages, we collaborated with those farmers selling produce in formerly redlined neighborhoods. I sat with them on weekends, selling produce in food desert neighborhoods and that relationship evolved into the transformation of the built environment. We started developing community green spaces about 10 years ago. And that work has evolved into the development of urban farms, community vineyards, and orchards throughout the Richmond region as a result of this, I guess, mentorship from African American farmers.

ANGIE MILES: I heard you mentioned a couple of key phrases, redlining, also food deserts. I want to pause on that for a moment, but I'd like to get back to it. I think most people understand those concepts now, but maybe not everyone. And so let's hear from you. Callie, you have done a very generous thing with granting land that has been in your possession in Amelia County. Would you describe what you did and why you did it?

CALLIE WALKER: I have been doing some kind of work, service work, church service work, since I finished college. So almost simultaneous to that, my father started asking, “What are you going to do with this land when I'm gone?” Early on I thought, “I'm gonna collect a bunch of religious do-gooders and we're just gonna serve the county...By the early 2000's, I thought that had narrowed in a little bit, yes, still do-gooders, definitely, but do-gooders who really are into growing food in ways that nourish the soil, help the soil better instead of getting depleted. And then, by the time I made this land donation, I had encountered the Agrarian Trust, and I had heard their presentation on the loss of land owned by Black folks in the United States during the 1900's and the injustices built into those losses. And I thought, hey, here are my husband and I with no kids. There's no one we have to leave this to. We just kind of dilly dally around, we will accidentally pass it on to fellow white folks probably like happens very often. But we didn't want to do that. We said we're perfect position to donate this land to Black people.

ANGIE MILES: To kind of help restore some of what was taken. So let's talk a little bit about that, what was taken and how it was taken. Redlining, that's one concept that people are increasingly becoming familiar with. But Duron, could you just describe that a little bit for us historically, what is redlining? What has it meant for Black families, Black people, Black wealth?

DURON CHAVIS: Well, at the rise of the New Deal, the idea was that American citizens could build wealth through homeownership, and communities of color, were discriminated against and denied access to those programs for mortgages and financing in their communities. The term redlining comes from the assessors who went through communities across the country, assessing communities, drawing red lines around neighborhoods that were predominantly Black and Brown, and essentially grading them as unbankable and preventing them from accessing financing that was being allowed to the rest of the American citizens.

DURON CHAVIS: And so redlining essentially, is one point that we describe as a discriminatory policy that has scarred the built environment as well as help increase the gap of wealth and in our country. And the maps that we look at when we say redlining, also demarcate a host of other historical inequities, such as access to healthy food, the areas that are hotter, when we talk about neighborhoods that have lack of tree canopy and heavy amounts of impervious surface. These are also areas that have more recently targeted with subprime lending. These are neighborhoods that have high concentrations of poverty to this day. So, I say, redlining as a kind of reduction of areas where black and brown people have lived, and have faced systemic oppression.

ANGIE MILES: So, the denials of the past don't just stay in the past. They continue. Right. The sacrifices and the injustices that started and reverberate into the future, especially if there's no intervention to try to make a difference. There are other ways that black people have lost land, not just from being denied opportunities to get loans and buy houses, in urban communities, but in rural communities, and it's too complicated to go into all the details here. But generally speaking, Black land ownership was a major accomplishment in Reconstruction and immediately after, and then almost systematically, or seemingly, systematically, a lot of that land was lost, was taken away from people. And Callie, it sounds like you studied this, both of you have. Either of you, would you speak a little bit about some of the ways Black people have lost land.

DURON CHAVIS: Certainly, I can just chime in and say that synonymous with redlining, the same program, or the same policies that affected urban communities where the same discrimination took place on rural communities. At the same time that the New Deal created the FHA or Federal Housing Administration, it also created the FSA or the Farm Service Agency. And in rural communities, the programs that were a lot, rural communities were denied African Americans. So, when we think about access to loans for your farm, and other programs to help mechanize and improve your farming systems, in rural communities, African Americans were denied those access to those programs. In tandem with that, we also have the civil rights movement and its work to increase voter participation amongst African American communities, the racial terrorism, or blowback that occurred throughout the south also reflected paper terrorism, city officials, county officials, using legal means to steal land from African Americans.

DURON CHAVIS: In tandem with redlining. In rural communities, African Americans also face discrimination. The same programs are the same type of discrimination that occurred in cities, occurred in rural communities where African Americans were denied access to programs that would help increase their efficacy in terms of farming and agriculture, and county officials were very explicit in stealing land using legal means to change up property lines and when people passed away using heirs using the law around heirs property to snatch land from Black and Brown communities.

ANGIE MILES: Again, there's a long list of specifics, but I think that most people, if they read those specifics, will find them fairly appalling. It sounds like that maybe is maybe what happened with you, Callie, that you learned more about these practices that have gone on in the past. Talk about what prompted you to work with the Agrarian Commons, to make your land available for Black farmers.

CALLIE WALKER: I would say that story started for me with a United Methodist training program for pastors in Eastern Pennsylvania. That is where I lived when I became a pastor. And there,  all incoming pastors where required to participate in Healing the Wounds of Racism training. It started out as a full day retreat, a lot of history, turned out a lot of that history was Virginia history. And I was one of the ones who wanted to continue doing that work. I went to the follow up retreat and participated in a group called Dismantling White Privilege. I felt like this is an injustice of the duration and time and intensity, that it's the kind that cries out to God for relief. And that's something someone from my perspective, my religious perspective does not want to be on the wrong side of. I take the biblical perspective that God hears the cries of the oppressed. That's not something I want to stand against, that's something I want to find ways to stand with.

ANGIE MILES: That's a very interesting answer. And I would invite you to expand on it a little bit. We have a lot of discussion going on these days about restitution, reparations for Black people, for descendants of those who were enslaved. And there are a lot of opinions. I think it's fair to say that Native people have received some reparations that Japanese Americans have received some reparations. Black people have not. there was an apology in 2008, bm no wealth to go with it.  And so you personally didn't enslave anyone, or oppress anyone. And this is one of the arguments we hear you personally did not. Why did you feel compelled to give to try to right some of what was wrong?

CALLIE WALKER: That I think is a good way of phrasing the question. To me when I hear the word reparations, I do hear the word repair in that. I think a whole lot of things in the history of this country came together to make it possible for my father to purchase land when did and get it paid off. And then I inherited it. I didn't buy it. I didn't pay for it, I didn't earn it. I was just allowed to inherit it. And not only to inherit a little bit, but to inherit over 100 acres. So more than one person could ever take care of in a way that nourishes the soil. That is what I would call sustainable farming or food production, or sustainable land management. I've been much persuaded by reports coming out of the United Nations that the best food production for the most people is every household growing some food, and that the average size of a farm on the planet is only a half an acre. So that just makes me want to see more and more people ... land as big as what I inherited.

ANGIE MILES: That's definitely the answer to my question. You clearly spent a lot of time reflecting on this. So, so talk me to me a little bit about how the handoff went? How did you go about? Did you contact Duron directly? Did you call someone and say, 'Hey, I'd like to contribute land and have it benefit Black farmers?' And what is the plan from this point? What's going to happen with this land?

CALLIE WALKER: I knew of Duron Chavis through the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers, where he occasionally has led workshops over the years. But I did not contact him directly. It was through the same conference, the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers that I encountered Agrarian Trust, my husband and I, and listened to their workshop and said 'Oh, we don't want to just be looking for environmentalists' passion to live more simply that others may simply live, we want to be looking for African American environmentalists with a passion to live more simply, that others may simply live. And so then we began with the presenters at that conference from Agrarian Trust, whom Duron was also in contact with and talking to, and they put us and some other people together and over six or eight months of conversations, then we decided we would form the Board of Directors and start the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, which we started in December of 2014. And then, we went through the zoning investigations in Amelia to figure out what those parcels we wanted to end up with and what the possibilities were there. And that process took well more than a year. And once we finally made up our minds and got the surveys done, and if anybody needs to know, getting surveys done takes a long time too, once we had all that in place in the land was in its individual parcels, Ben and I made a donation to the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons in September.

ANGIE MILES: We have just a couple of harmonious moments. But I have a couple of quick questions I need answered. First of all Iran, what are you going to do on this land? Tell us in a short answer, if you can, what's going to happen?

DURON CHAVIS: So, the 75 acres or so that Callie Walker has donated will be part of a system of rural and urban land that is being redistributed to Black and Brown farmers or slash food system stakeholders to increase their ability to farm and develop supply chains, and food systems. So, our original, our initial plan is the development of some form of income generation for folks that aspire to farm on the Amelia property. Where we're landing at is the development of a retreat center slash bed and breakfast that will allow individuals who aspire to farm on a property to have long term stay capacity on the land, and they'll be able to run programs that allow folks to come on the land. We also have five acres that we recently acquired in Petersburg, Virginia, that will serve as an incubator farm, where individuals who are aspiring to farm can begin their farm enterprise and refine their skills with the aspiration of being able to graduate to a larger pool of land in Amelia County.

ANGIE MILES: It sounds exciting. And my last question for you both is, if people are interested if they'd like to participate in what you're doing in Amelia, or in Petersburg, or if people have land, and they'd like to see it used for a purpose like this, can they call you? I mean, how can they best find out more or reach out?

CALLIE WALKER: People can absolutely call us, reach out to us through Facebook. Talk to us about it. Yeah, we want to talk, but we're enjoying that. I would love to talk to people who are trying to decide what to do with their family farm out, keep it in farms, I want to make a great use of it. I would love to talk.


DURON CHAVIS: Yeah, I was gonna reiterate that, they can definitely contact us. We're at the stage now where we're trying to hold space for a wide variety of individuals who are interested in black liberation strategies that sent her land. And so we're welcoming, more dialogue from activist community members farmers post that aspire to farm, but lack the capital to make land purchases. That is really a target audience for us at this moment, looking for folks that maybe didn't grow up farming, but want to enter farming as a vocation. Right, and that this land can be a alternative land ownership strategy that will allow them to enter into that work without incurring debt.

ANGIE MILES:  All right. Very good. Well, I want to thank you both for being with us today. Duron Chavis, Callie Walker with the Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, talking about a form of restitution, reparations, not compelled but just motivated. You're just motivated to want to make repairs to hopefully make a situation of former injustice. Thank you both for joining us.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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