Monica White uncovers the history of farming by Black Americans

White became the first Black female tenured professor in both the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Monica White with sunflowers
Photo by John Ficenec

When Monica White came to teach at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in fall 2012, she knew she had a book to write.

White had spent the previous few years teaching in the sociology department at Wayne State University. She had seen chain grocery stores leave Detroit and a movement rise in their wake. White grew close to the leaders of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Her students did a research project around the group’s D-Town Farm organic agriculture initiative. Urban agriculture was in ascendance.

That was a compelling story. But White, in the end, was after more. “I am one of those folks who thinks, ‘That’s interesting, but how can we explain it?’ ” she says. “Not just in its current manifestation, but what preceded that?”

White’s curiosity — and her willingness to tackle an ambitious project while on a tenure track timetable in Madison — led her south, to a century of Black agriculture history in America, a tradition being drawn on today in Detroit and other cities.

“Different pieces of this had been known,” says Jane Collins, a recently retired UW–Madison professor who mentored and befriended White. “But Monica put it together in a story and said, ‘This is the way communities achieve resilience.’”

White’s 2019 book “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement” links the present and past so successfully that it garnered rave reviews and two prestigious awards, one for books on race, the other for works on food and society.

In the process White became the first Black female tenured professor in both the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She has a joint appointment — an appointment, it might be noted, that almost didn’t happen.

White was born out east — her dad was a professor at the University of Maine — but the family soon returned to Detroit, where he received his doctorate at Wayne State.

Detroit is where White grew up. “My entire life,” she says, “everyone in my family grew food.” Her dad had a backyard garden, her sister grew corn and other produce and her grandmother raised tomatoes and other food indoors.

White attended Oakland University and then got a master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from Western Michigan University. She did postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then accepted a position at Wayne State University, partly to be near her aging parents.

White was already interested in urban agriculture and studying social movements when she met Malik Yakini, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Impressed, White attended group meetings, worked on a crew, led composting and other educational workshops and co-chaired the education and outreach committee.

“For two years I was totally immersed in the food movement without even interviewing folks,” she says. “I didn’t want to bug them until I was clear what I could contribute.”

Monica White sitting in a garden

Photo by John Ficenec

Eventually she began writing about the Detroit experience, which led to speaking engagements. Her work started causing a stir. There were job offers, including one from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she had history.

By the morning White was to interview in Madison, she had decided to go to Illinois. White phoned Jane Collins, who was leading the UW–Madison search committee, with her decision and to cancel her campus visit.

“We really wanted her,” Collins recalls. But she broke the news to Gregg Mitman at the Nelson Institute, also part of the search.

“Give me your cell,” Mitman said. He found White’s number on Collins’ phone, got White on the line and told her, “You get on a plane and come here right now!”

She did — and both sides couldn’t be happier that she accepted the UW–Madison offer.

White’s journey to the publication of “Freedom Farmers” was rewarding, but she felt a great responsibility to get the story right. She knew the present-day Detroit component, but there was daunting research to do on people like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and on the intellectual tradition of Black agriculture. White included an important chapter on Fannie Lou Hamer, who in the 1960s launched the antipoverty Freedom Farms Cooperative in the Mississippi Delta.

Black Southern farmers — some from farm families dating back three generations — welcomed and humbled White with their hard-earned wisdom. “You can free yourself when you can feed yourself,” the Rev. Wendell Paris told her, summing up how growing food informed the greater civil rights struggle.

It’s a Black agriculture story that has not often been told.

“The line between agriculture as oppression and agriculture as liberatory is a fine one,” White says. “It depends on what you choose to look at. Thinking about it as liberatory is a stretch and there wasn’t anything that talked about it that way when I was writing.”

The book’s reception — “a little overwhelming,” White says — is evidence she found the right path.

White has an apartment in Madison and a home in Milwaukee with her partner, Anthony J. Sprewer, an adviser at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

White is now working on a book about a particular Black family’s experiences staying in the South while so many others migrated. In her downtime, she likes to run, bike, camp, fish and cook — but not garden.

“I travel too much to keep up with it,” she says. “I’m embarrassed to say I don’t grow.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"