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“I’m building a honey empire.”
Summer and Kam Johnson didn’t want their son, Zach, to be reliant on the steroids doctors prescribed him to ease his severe seasonal allergies. It was 2015. Zach was 6, small for his age, and had been struggling with airborne allergies since infancy. Throughout years of asthma attacks and bouts in the emergency room, his parents searched feverishly for remedies that caused fewer side effects—but were equally effective.
When a friend recommended Zach eat raw honey to ease his symptoms, Summer and Kam were skeptical, but they read and researched it anyway. And when the family, including their oldest daughter, Zoë, moved from suburban Montclair to a more rural area in central New Jersey, Kam figured he’d experiment. He started beekeeping in the backyard. And to his surprise, the hive yielded honey during its first season. They kept the harvested honey on Zach’s nightstand and fed him a spoonful once, sometimes twice, per day.
“Honey can introduce the body to natural allergens,” Kam explains, as long as it’s local, ideally “within a 90-mile radius.” The honey that bees produce contains traces of the pollen from local plants and crops. By consuming it, people who live in the area are essentially desensitizing themselves with small amounts of the allergy-causing pollen.
“You’re building up your tolerance,” explains Cascya Charlot, MD, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of Brooklyn. When it comes to allergies, she stresses medical immunotherapy, such as allergy shots, as a more effective way to get relief. But if the pollen you’re allergic to is the one your local bees are collecting, and if the honey contains an effective concentration of pollen, she doesn’t discourage the practice.
In Zach’s case, all of the elements worked in his favor. By the following spring, he displayed none of the symptoms his family had come to associate with him and warmer weather, he no longer needed to take prescription medication.
Being witness to honey’s healing properties firsthand sparked a business idea for the Johnsons: infusing their raw local honey with superfoods. They’d be giving their children a taste of professional responsibility and giving their honey an edge. They launched hiking, camping, fishing, let alone keeping bees.
But the Johnsons represent part of the increasingly visible number of Black beekeepers existing in nature on their own terms. They, along with their honeybees, have found means to thrive. And all in a country where dispossession of Black-owned land continues in force.
Black farmland ownership peaked in 1910. The US Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture reports Black people at the time owned between 16 to 19 million acres.
But by 1997, the census reports that Black farmers owned just 1.5 million acres. In 2017, of the approximately 897 million acres of farmland in the U.S., Black-operated farms represented 4.7 million acres—just 0.5 percent.
Of the 3.4 million farmers reported in 2017, 95 percent are white and 1.4 percent are Black.
Black landowners retain less than half of the farmland they did more than a century ago and that’s by design. In fact, most of the reasons for such substantial land dispossession are cruel, explains Danielle Purifoy, PhD, assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following the Civil War, Black farmers were systematically denied private credit, loans, and were often tenants on land owned by white farmers rather than landowners themselves.
And when Black people did own land, whether farmland or residential, intentional discriminatory practices led to an inability to keep the land they’d acquired, says Purifoy. “Significant parts of the Great Migration occurred because of people being violently forced off of land that they had title to,” she explains.
But she also faults a kind of lesser-known “legal trickery” of heirs’ property laws that disproportionately target minority families. These laws make it difficult for people to bequeath land to multiple familial successors when the original owners die without a will naming a single inheritor, she explains. Historically, Black landowners were wary of the government and of the courts, so many opted out of wills. But without a will, the land, by default, is divided among any and all living descendants. And with each generation, ancestral land gets split more and more.
Though family members will equally own shares of the land, laws have made it nearly impossible to keep it. The property isn’t eligible for loans or mortgages, nor is it supported by the government for disaster relief. And if one co-owner of an heirs’ property attempts to sell their share without consenting other beneficiaries, the court has the right to force the sale of the entire plot at auction against other co-owners’ will. The USDA reports that since 1910, 80 percent of Black-owned land has been lost due to “heirs’ property,” or the “informal” passing of land from generation to generation with no will, and calls heirs’ property “the leading cause of African American involuntary land loss.”
Ironic, since the USDA itself played a large role in creating barriers between Black people and agricultural land. In 1997, Timothy Pigford filed a class-action lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman) on behalf of hundreds of other Black farmers whose formal complaints to the USDA about years of discriminatory practices went ignored between 1981 and 1997. For years, they’d been denied loans and other government aid routinely offered to white farmers.
In fact, when Ronald Reagan shuttered the USDA Civil Rights office—responsible for investigating discrimination in the farming industry—in 1983 as part of budget cuts, USDA officials reported having thrown the steady stream of discrimination complaints in the garbage, according to the congressional record. (The office was later reinstated in 1996.) By April 1999, the Pigford case was settled, and the USDA had to pay $1.06 billion in relief to Black farmers in what was the largest civil rights settlement to date.
However, because a significant number of Black farmers missed the first filing deadline, a new case called Pigford II prompted a second settlement. The federal government during the George W. Bush presidency spent $12 million disputing these claims. But in 2010, the government was again held responsible for paying an additional $1.25 billion to the farmers.
Though the outdoors is free, public, and technically for us all, historical discrimination woven into law and system has pushed Black people off the land and forced them to play catch up to generations of white counterparts thriving in agriculture. With only a fraction of the acreage as white people, their incomes and hopes of generational wealth are slashed too. But still, Black people and the beekeepers among them endure.
“Representation is a powerful thing.”
The most recent count of beekeepers in the United States is as many as 125,000, in 2021 according to the AGMRC (the USDA’s agricultural marketing resource). However, if farmland statistics are any indication, it’s likely safe to assume minority groups don’t make up any kind of majority in this field.
When Samantha Foxx Winship walked into her first beekeeper’s association meeting in Forsyth County, North Carolina, she was shocked by the lack of diversity. She expected a majority white roster but didn’t expect to be the only Black person in the room of 25 people. The people in her class wearing confederate flag jackets and rebel flags was enough to make her wary.
But she saw a space she could fill for other people who look like her, so she kept going back. “Representation is a powerful thing. So, at the end of the day, if I got into beekeeping and other people decided to join who are Black or Latina or people of color, that would have been joyous to me alone after seeing how it really was in that community.”
Foxx Winship is now a certified beekeeper and founder of Mother’s Finest Urban Farms, a farm she runs on a five-acre property that hosts her primary apiary. Her company produces honey, tonics, and syrups she distributes to stores in North Carolina, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. On a newly leased 10-acre plot near her home, Foxx plans to host an artistic learning center she and her husband will use as a homeschooling hub for their own children and others in the area. She’ll keep her secondary apiary on this plot of land, too, which she’ll dedicate to her newest business.
Foxx Winship recently landed her first major distribution deal to produce scotch bonnet-infused mead—an ancient alcoholic drink made from fermented honey and water. It was popular during medieval times but is actually much older than that. Mead production, says Foxx Winship, is yet another avenue in which Black people can take up space as it rises in popularity again.
“I wanted to get people talking about mead again and educated on the ancestral process of it,” she says. “And really make an imprint with supporting North Carolina beekeepers associated with alcoholic products and add some diversity.”
Much of Black history hasn’t been preserved. And by educating Black people about this ancient beverage, Foxx Winship is excited to do her part to uphold history and keep traditions and preservation methods alive. For Foxx Winship, there’s no end in sight to her business ventures. It’s a family affair she’ll turn legacy—“a honey empire,” she’s calling it.
Back in New Jersey, mom of three Tameeka Chang tends to the hives that help maintain Holland Homestead. “I haven’t always had a green thumb,” she explains. “What really got me into growing my own food is having an autistic son.” The apples, watermelons, corn, and green beans he was partial to were racking up quite the bill. “I was like, ‘You know, I could probably start growing my own stuff.’”
In 2014, when Chang realized that bees weren’t drawn to her farm, hindering her harvest, she began researching. During the process, she learned about colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees will abandon the hive and queen often because of disease, human management, environmental toxins, and the varroa mite which feeds on honey bees. She felt an obligation to protect the bees.
That year, she joined her local bee club, the New Jersey Beekeepers Association’s Northwest Chapter, to learn more. Now, she’s second vice president of her chapter and, with more than three years of experience under her belt, she was eligible for enrollment in Cornell’s 15-month Master Beekeeper Program.
“I definitely got a lot of stares,” recalls Chang. She describes the field as largely white, elderly, and male. She can sense in certain moments when she isn’t being taken as seriously as her counterparts, but “the majority of my encounters have been extremely positive, especially with my chapter of the Beekeepers Association,” she adds.
Given the industry’s homogeny, beekeeping while Black could be a lonely pursuit, but for The Johnsons, Chang, Foxx Winship, and Timothy Paule Jackson and fiancée Nicole Lindsey it’s been largely welcoming.
Paule Jackson says he’s had angels looking out for him. Before any stores in his area agreed to sell his honey, a shop in Troy, Michigan who’d heard about his product reached out to him. “We didn’t have to call nobody. We didn’t have to submit any inquiries. That door was just available and open to us,” says Paule Jackson. “You have some people who know what’s going on and try to advocate for you and some people that try to block you too.”
And he’s had his fair share of blockers (including the instructor at his first-ever beekeeping course who called him a threat with no explanation), but he and Lindsey have developed a tough skin. “It’s never good to dwell or distress because you can worry yourself out,” he says. “We try to focus on our mission. We try to stay optimistic.”
Lindsey and Paule Jackson are co-founders of Detroit Hives which hosts apiaries on some of the city’s vacant lots. In a 2016 newspaper clipping, they discovered the city had more than 90,000 vacant lots, mostly in low-income areas. The pair considered buying lots for nonprofit peacock farms and community gardens, but when Paule Jackson fell ill with a cough he couldn’t shake for months, raw local honey, as it was for the Johnsons, was the remedy. Amazed by versatile honey’s multitude of properties—Paule Jackson likens the stuff to a Swiss Army knife—they knew honey bees were the answer.
For too long they’d observed Downton Detroit rebounding and expanding, all while the inner-city remained mostly unchanged. Detroit Hives aims to help beautify the area for its residents and make these communities attractive to investors too. “[Beekeeping] gives us a responsibility to give back to our community, our environment and ourselves,” says Paule Jackson.
Healing the land (and themselves) in the process.
For Summer, working with honey bees has made her more aware of her family’s place in history. “When we bought our property eight years ago, I didn’t know it was such a big deal,” she says. But she’s confident more Black people will reap the benefits of the land once again. A hunger for profit, she says, has bred racism. But change is on its way.
“Everyone has the right to own what they worked for, no matter what color they are,” she says. “For those Black people who have been forced out, I say, keep pressing in.”
She sees a future in which the question of whether Black people and nature belong to each other is inarguable: “It’s going to come back to Black people naturally if we continue to work for it…too much of our blood, sweat, and tears in the land.”
There’s healing in working with the land and with bees, says Foxx Winship. By maintaining their farm, she and her family are able to give back to their community and local economy—something that’s felt more honorable during the pandemic: “These small acts take back some of the power in our own health and wellness.”
Beekeeping is more of a spiritual process for Chang. And her homestead’s success, symbolic of an amelioration with nature her ancestors never had. She’s ready to forge a new path. “That I can carry on traditions from my family and teach my children about living off of your land and beekeeping is a testament to the progress that we have made in this country,” she says, though there’s still a long way to go.
Working with honey bees has changed her perspective on family. She praises them for always putting the good of the hive first. “How cool is that?” she asks. “The more I think I know about beekeeping, something comes along and makes me realize how vast this world is and how much more I can learn.”
While heavy, the burden of representation isn’t something these Black beekeepers take lightly: Chang hosts bee-related speaking engagements, Lindsey and Paule Jackson attend and speak at national conferences, Kam and Summer Johnson give talks at schools, and Foxx Winship will soon offer children’s classes on her property.
Whenever a person of color questions his interest in bees and conservation efforts as a Black person, Paule Jackson reminds them of the Black people who came before him. He mentions Booker T. Washington who, in 1881, made beekeeping a mandatory part of the curriculum at Tuskegee Institute because it would help instill discipline in students. George Washington Carver worked to introduce Black farmers to beekeeping, Dr. Charles Henry Turner discovered bees could detect color and pattern, and famed mathematician Benjamin Banneker was also an apiarist. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate degree from MIT, first studied bee patterns. And Philip Emeagwali of Nigeria was inspired by the honeycomb in developing the world’s fastest computing network and forerunner to the Internet.
Nature has always been ours and Black people have always belonged to it. “You don’t gotta be a beekeeper,” Paule Jackson will tell them. “We want you to just do something great and be inspired by the outdoors.”