The Place of Found Lost Things

By  |  June 12, 2018
“Dollbaby standing in the orchard at midday” (2015), by Allison Janae Hamilton, from the series Sweet milk in the badlands. Courtesy of the artist. “Allison Janae Hamilton: Pitch” is on view at MASS MoCA through February 2019 “Dollbaby standing in the orchard at midday” (2015), by Allison Janae Hamilton, from the series Sweet milk in the badlands. Courtesy of the artist. “Allison Janae Hamilton: Pitch” is on view at MASS MoCA through February 2019

E

ven after a lifetime of watching open landscapes evolve into centers of commerce, I still fail to see the potential in raw terrain. By “potential” I mean the moneymaking schemes that turn acres of trees, hills, creeks, and flat countryside into profit-earning endeavors. I would have made a shitty pioneer. Sweeping, unobstructed land leaves me with one of several impressions—it is a thing to be left unmussed out of respect or intimidation, it is a treasure to protect, or it is a place to grieve our collective memory. I wonder about our manmade atrocities simmering beneath the earth. But as countless before me have determined, under the right historical circumstances, with the proper paperwork in order, land can offer a means to stack bills. It is access to capital, to a better way of life. 

On a muggy, cloudy day in February, I was driving over the speed limit on a state road through a dense and forest-like landscape approaching Brooksville, what felt to me like an unknown territory, the place that Big Florida forgot. Brooksville is the center of Hernando County, inland and north of Tampa by an hour. I’d driven ninety minutes that morning from Gainesville through intermittent blinding rain to meet Howard Gunn, the Florida chapter president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. Gunn would be my guide for a ride-through tour of BAERS, the thirty-eight-hundred-acre Brooksville Agricultural Environmental Research Station that Florida A&M University acquired in fall 2015.

Florida A&M (FAMU), the iconic historically black school located two hundred miles north in Tallahassee, received the land through a transfer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was one of the largest single transactions of its kind in the history of land-grant institutions designated in 1890. After the move, headlines cited the potential outcome for FAMU (pronounced “fam-you”) students and Hernando County citizens, especially local farmers and ranchers needing training, investment, and physical resources: those new to agriculture, the small-business minded, and people of color. The idea was more land, more jobs, more money. 

During the drive, I recalled my conversation with FAMU’s then-interim vice president Dr. Patricia Green-Powell (now interim associate dean at the College of Education). Nine months prior, around the time I first read about the transfer, we’d met in her office in Tallahassee. She explained that the land would help honor the school’s deep agricultural roots. She told me BAERS would allow FAMU to provide development programs, practice biotechnological advancements, and monetize organic farming. Thanks to the subtropical climate, the station could support testing of fruits and animals with regions like Central and South America and the Caribbean in mind. The future of BAERS sounded bright. Lucrative.

So when I saw the marker at the entrance of Chinsegut Hill Road, on which the main BAERS office is situated, which states that in 1842 a South Carolina colonel named Bird Pearson “staked a claim” on one hundred sixty acres here and called the sugar plantation Mount Airy, I stood in front of it and sighed. This was the collective grief. Farther up the road and off to the right, a white manor sat atop the hill. It’s not the original Pearson residence, but a later owner’s twentieth-century restoration, a lodging site and event space that hosts lunches and weddings. Its wrap-around porch looks over BAERS property and beyond, a stretch of seemingly endless green, yellow, and brown grounds. Two and a half years after the USDA’s transfer, a fleeting glance from the hilltop left me with no impression of what had transpired since. The vastness reminded me that before American land can make money, it takes it, and then it takes some more. I was left with another impression: Land can be an albatross, too.


 

When I first contacted Howard Gunn to arrange a tour, he was so affable he asked me where I lived, assuming that I needed a ride to BAERS from my halfway point of Ocala, where he resides. (He was ready to oblige.) In fact, our vehicles met at the bottom of the hill, a few seconds’ drive past the historical marker, in front of a locked gate accessible by keypad. Minutes before, I had turned too soon and ended up at the Chinsegut Hill Manor House physically unnerved; I am wary of repurposed historic homes on former plantations and the one-sided impressions they leave about what happened there. After barreling back down the side road to the locked gate, I’d phoned Gunn to confirm I was in the right place. And then a beige American sedan rolled up, a man waving from the driver’s seat. Gunn hopped out of his car to greet me with a friendly handshake, and he pointed straight up the road to show me our route.

The gate unlocked, Gunn escorted me caravan style along the private road marked with leafy trees. The road led to the hill’s plateau, where it mimicked the shape of a lollipop, circling back down. At the top, we veered right and parked in the designated lot. We had arrived at BAERS.

Gunn is thin, skin deep-hued, hair cropped short, his voice rich and gravelly as though he had once made a habit of tobacco. He moves and speaks with deliberate urgency, but he doesn’t make you feel hurried or anxious. He taught agriculture in middle school for twenty-five years but retired when he was promoted to an administrative position. “I was caught in the room,” he said. “Whereas in agriculture, I was in the cattle show, the horse shows, the fairs. Kids could grow their pigs.” He describes himself as a state-level lobbyist for the agricultural community. He has an active pasture. He sells Thoroughbreds to Ocala Breeders’ Sales, and he’s chairman of the Ocala Housing Authority. He said he contributes to strawberry research at the University of Florida, testing for the biggest, sweetest strawberry with the best storage-life, a potential goldmine for big-box retailers and distributors who sometimes fund such efforts. He acts as a liaison between area farmers and FAMU, bridging his personal and political experience with institutional knowledge. He’s collaborated often with “FAM,” he told me, as the school is known even more colloquially, where they’ve offered educational workshops to up-and-coming farmers.

The BAERS office building is nondescript compared to the redbrick masonry that defines the main campus at FAMU. It’s strip-mall flat, about what you’d expect at a suburban dentist’s office—manicured flower beds out front, a neutral-toned façade. Muted décor with fluorescent lighting envelops the tiny entrance. I was told to sign my name at a clipboard that rests in front of an unattended check-in desk. The building was quiet for a working weekday. A hallway led farther into the building. “Office space,” a man said, answering my silent question. He was Godfrey Nurse, the site’s farm manager, tall and broad shouldered, in a sweatshirt and jeans.

Gunn and Nurse invited me back outside, where we posted up in chairs tucked alongside the front entrance. Nurse’s winning smile shone from his face. He had an accent I couldn’t yet place—maybe West Indies? Guyana, I learned later. He studied agriculture at university there and continued his studies in the U.S. before landing at FAMU just over two decades ago. He worked at its site in Quincy, retired, then recently returned to help launch the station.

For an hour we three sat and talked, staring past the parking area into cloudy sky, the ag land tucked on the lower side of the hill, out of view. Gunn told stories about his upbringing in Mississippi, where he learned to love farm life. He attended Tuskegee University at the encouragement of his father, a Korean War veteran and Purple Heart honoree. Gunn was supposed to be a heralded Tuskegee Airman, but he abandoned the ROTC and his military future—“too restrictive, too racist”—in favor of working with animals and being outdoors. It’s always been personal for him, to work and advocate on behalf of the black farmer. Africans, African Americans, were not on this land first. But this country’s commercial agriculture efforts, the backbone of the colonial economy, the foundation of our global market import, would not exist without that free—free!—arduous labor and the devastating social codes attached to skin color that came with it. Work that has still never been paid for, nearly four hundred years since the trade of enslaved persons shaped the path we still walk on. Work that in another place or time would have been acknowledged as deep agricultural knowledge and expertise. So much work, historically undermined, readily dismissed.

Early in the twentieth century, there were over nine hundred thousand black-owned farms, which represented about fourteen percent of all U.S. farms. Today, less than two percent of American farms are black owned. Much impacts these numbers. The USDA’s systemically discriminatory lending policies, which earned it “the last plantation” moniker among some African Americans in the industry. An increasingly industrialized economy. Predatory developers. Intimidation, threat of death, and dehumanizing living conditions in the agricultural South, evidenced in part by the Great Migration. 

The National Black Farmers Association (different from the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association) helped to bring a landmark discrimination case against the USDA in 1997, Pigford v. Glickman, on behalf of black farmers who’d been mistreated in the eighties and nineties. It was settled in 1999, then expanded in 2008 as more prospective claimants cited instances of USDA offices unfairly denying loans, or approving loans too late in the season, all to irreparable financial harm. Time magazine reported that for Shirley Sherrod, one such claimant as well as the USDA’s former director of rural development in Georgia, these practices resulted in the loss of her farming collective’s six thousand acres in the 1980s. A white businessman eventually bought the land and turned it into subdivisions. The thread of systemic racism is long: In July 2010, the USDA swiftly fired Sherrod from her position after a white conservative blogger published select clips of her speech at an NAACP event. The assembled video implied she was biased against a white farmer who’d asked for governmental assistance. After footage of the full speech surfaced, showing a nuanced narrative in which Sherrod did indeed help the man, the USDA apologized and offered her a new job. She declined, and later sued the blogger who posted the incriminating footage. (The case was eventually settled.)

In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed off on a settlement that brought the total funding for claimants to $1.15 billion. The moment was huge, the amount unprecedented. Also, “there was controversy,” Gunn recalled. Critics of the historic civil rights case questioned who was entitled to recoup monies or retire debts, who had documents to support their claims. Gunn told me that some claimants died before the settlement came through, that there were accusations of fraud leveled toward people who lacked sufficient evidence of being discriminated against. After recounting this story, Gunn leaned back in his chair. Nurse tucked his chin. The past can leave a person subdued. 

“You’re always fighting,” Gunn told me, to help rural farmers better negotiate the system, better cope with the burden of their land. “You always have to fight in these rural areas because no one shares information unless you know information.” 

He described helping farmers learn what questions to ask and of whom—about cross-fencing for their cattle, irrigation tips, or finding grants. There is so much work to be done, more people to reach. We gazed out across the landscape.

Can we take a ride? I asked. Nurse jangled his keys.

 

 

In my meeting with Dr. Green-Powell the previous spring, she had pulled up a live feed of BAERS sites on her computer, warning that there wasn’t much to see—just open fields, scattered structures. Gunn had said much the same thing when I told him I wanted to come down.

There had been some action on the site since the 2015 transfer, Green-Powell told me during our office chat. Gunn had linked farmers with the school to produce hay, facilitating an arrangement in which the farmers keep seventy percent of the proceeds, with the rest staying with the university. There was a STEM conference for local K-12 schools to encourage young people’s participation in agri-STEM programs. FAMU faculty hosted workshops on how to eradicate grass infestations, how to deal with feral hogs. But, Green-Powell told me, when FAMU got the land, it didn’t come with funding. That is part of the current conundrum, finding money to make money. She told me the university developed a $1.3 million budget for consideration by the Florida legislature; it received $202,000. The cost of heavy machinery used for row crops and hay making can run upwards of $400,000 for a single purchase. 

When I met with Green-Powell, she’d handed me a binder outlining FAMU’s strategic plan. By 2018, a coalition of stakeholders, educational programs, and “market opportunities” was supposed to be in development. As far as I can tell, it still is. A new executive director had been appointed, but he wasn’t on site the day I visited and I was unable to reach him for an interview later. Maybe the train is running on schedule. But I couldn’t ignore the strained voices, the heavy exhalations that marked all of my conversations about this place. Even with the forward movement, everyone seems to be wishing, but politely not saying, the same thing: Faster. Sooner. Now

I want to know what’s happening here, I said to Gunn and Nurse, to understand the future of all this land. Nurse, hands placed pensively in his sweatshirt pockets, responded with a question: “How do you use this place to address the problems of the farmer—how do you use this place to move them up?” He made a point about developing mixed production systems that generate cash throughout the year. He gave a hypothetical scenario about raising cattle, maybe thirty, rattling off inherent costs like fertilizers and pesticides, and the requisite near-year of no income while the animals gestate, the risk farmers endure if they don’t also have a system in place to sell vegetables. Right now, they were in writing mode, Nurse said. Documenting models they wanted to test, considering grants to apply for. Someone was coming to prep a demonstration with the grapes; he muttered something about the citrus. Was BAERS meant to be grounds for teaching? Research? Will the university lease land to farmers? “It’s in the works,” Nurse said.

Four sites comprise the thirty-eight hundred acres and multiple buildings, but we only had time to drive through three. From the passenger side of Nurse’s pickup truck, I saw open grassy fields that blurred into each other. There is reported lab space of more than twenty-eight hundred square feet, a total of nineteen buildings among the multiple sites. Nurse pointed out fields where he’d like to have goats, other places where activity would increase when the cold weather ended and growth rebounded. 

“You got to get all the people on board; you can’t have prophets of doom,” he said. I laughed at his phrase, imagining a tribunal of cloaked administrators, red pens in hand with bespectacled, furrowed brows. He gave me a knowing look. “The word I hate in the work is no. Because when you say no, guess what?—you get to go home and sleep. When you say yes, there’s work to be done.” He turned the truck down another dirt pathway where we quietly eyed structures that once housed livestock, or held grain. Maybe they will again soon.

 

 

Try to learn what group inhabited this land first, and you’ll find it’s hard to locate definitive sources. I’ve read that in the early 1500s, when the Spanish were busy “discovering” native land, thousands of people from hundreds of tribes were already living in today’s Florida, all members of the Maskókî linguistic family. War between natives and the enlarging U.S. population resulted in mass extermination and displacement of these indigenous people. At some point, Seminoles are believed to have lived and grown food here, on this land surrounding Chinsegut Hill. I presume that includes the neighboring BAERS property. 

In 2014, the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute began a survey around the manor. The organization Friends of Chinsegut Hill was reportedly awarded $1.5 million to restore the home and pay for the dig, which yielded a boon—fifty-seven thousand artifacts. Among the findings, archaeologists collected remnants of glass liquor bottles, buttons with iron backings, and dishware with floral motifs. The reporting from the Hernando Sun, the Tampa Bay Times, and Chinsegut Hill’s official history weaves a revealing narrative. 

Colonel Pearson received his one hundred sixty acres as part of the Armed Occupation Act—legislation passed in 1842 to incentivize arms-bearing (white) men to populate Florida. Such men—who could quickly form an army lest the native people resist—were given those acres, so long as they built homes, lived there for five years, and cultivated five acres. If that’s not social assistance, I don’t know what is. The reporting says Pearson was cited in an 1850 census as owning twenty-six enslaved people on land worth $5,000, which tells me that the humans he owned were his most valuable assets.

Pearson sold Mount Airy to Francis Ederington in 1851; by 1860, Ederington owned seventeen hundred sixty acres (an $8,000 value) and thirty-two enslaved people whose value was $20,000. Ederington’s daughter Charlotte inherited the land, and in 1871, she married Joseph Snow. In 1899, following a destructive tornado (and Charlotte’s death and a deep frost prior to that), Snow left the property vacant. Five years later, siblings Raymond and Elizabeth Robins purchased it, and as a wedding gift to her brother, Elizabeth released her ownership to Raymond and his new wife, Margaret. Raymond Robins had prospected for gold in the Alaskan frontier, another native land. The story goes that he’d learned an Inuit word, “chinsegut,” which supposedly means “the spirit of lost things regained.” The Robinses named the property Chinsegut Hill. Whatever nostalgia Ray may have felt for the property—whatever significance the term might have held—a lack of cash overpowered it. To satisfy a tax debt around the time of the Great Depression, the Robinses signed over most of their land to the USDA. It served as an outpost of the department’s Agricultural Research Service, where scientists studied cattle until the station closed in 2012. A casualty of budget tightening.

In a 2015 press release from the USDA, former FAMU president Elmira Mangum thanked the USDA for “entrusting us with this land.” The article mentioned how the university would expand its organic farming, how relationships with the community might help provide transitional programs for veterans. The message struck me as hopeful. 

Gunn and Nurse, FAMU administration—they see something here. I do, too. I imagine a bustling site that hosts researching students, community farmers with a vested interest in whatever testing happens there, robust crops, and healthy animals. I see an office building humming with operational support. I daydream about what they could do with the right type of funding from multiple sources. What possibility. 

I don’t know what parts of the BAERS property may have at one point belonged to Pearson, Ederington, or Robins. I’m not sure I care. The part of BAERS that shares a hill with Chinsegut abuts the same psychic place for me—the taking of land, the displacement of people, the using up of resources, and the hope attached to change. I want FAMU to win here; I want these black folks to win. I want them to make this land work for all interested parties, but most especially for the people who need BAERS to work the most. In our collective memory, this land made it possible to take from so many. Now, I want it to give something back. If any lost spirits remain here, I hope they sense a new order. 

During my visit, I was heartened by Gunn’s and Nurse’s optimism. “It can be done,” Nurse said to me, pulling his truck back up to the office, referring to the large ambitions for the site. I sensed he was also saying it to himself. 

The wide, endless openness of the land deafened me with its want. Even as I drove home, I felt the strain, the weight of it. The land loomed, waiting to be tilled, the way ripe, fleshy fruit unabashedly seeks attention. When you ignore it, it falls heavily, bruised and fading into the ground, a vanished thing that may never appear again.


This piece has been supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit devoted to covering inequality in America.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

Osayi Endolyn’s work has appeared in Garden & Gun, Eater, Bitter Southerner, The Cut, and elsewhere. She is deputy editor of Gravy at the Southern Foodways Alliance, where her column received the 2018 James Beard Award.

More from Osayi Endolyn