Retired Doctor Holds on to Dwindling African American Farming Tradition

Aug 14, 2017

Dr. Thomas Cooper at his farm near Fulton, Missouri.
Credit Erin McKinstry

About 65 cattle roam Dr. Thomas Cooper’s 100-acre farm. Walnut trees and cow patties dot the pasture, which dips into a small lake in the middle. Off in the distance Interstate 70 and signs for a Motel 6 and an Arby’s provide a gentle reminder of the nearby town. But on Cooper’s farm, it’s easy to forget the traffic. Things feel older and quieter. Cars are replaced with the hum of a tractor. Cows come running when Cooper calls.

Black farmers operate less than 1% of all of Missouri’s farms, and the number of Blacks in agriculture nationwide has generally been on the decline since the 1920s. Many left positions as sharecroppers in the South and Missouri’s Bootheel to escape discrimination and chase opportunity in Northern cities. Others faced discrimination by the USDA and were unable to secure loans available to whites to purchase equipment or seed. At 70 years old, Dr. Thomas Cooper is one of only 324 Black farmers in Missouri. 

 


“I was born in a place called Haiti, Missouri in the Bootheel. But I really wasn't born in Haiti, I was born in a little area called Ingrims Ridge, whatever that means,” he says. 

“I think I'm fourth generation farmer. My great-great grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather was a farmer, my dad was a farmer and then I'm a farmer. There’s been farming in our blood forever.”

Twelve giant hay bales line the back wall of the barn where Dr. Cooper stands. He says when his granddaughters visit, they often scramble to the top of the pyramid of hay, which stacks all the way to the ceiling. While chewing on a blue tooth pick, Cooper explains how he came to own his cattle farm just outside of Fulton, Missouri.

“The one thing my father always told me, we grew up on a farm, he said farming is a way of life, it's not a living. And so that farming at that time wasn't an option for me,” Cooper says. “I didn't want to be a farmer. I went to school, at that time for Blacks most of the good jobs either you be a physician or you be a teacher.”

 

Cattle on Dr. Cooper's farm.
Credit Erin McKinstry

Cooper went to Lincoln University to study teaching and met his wife. Both joined the military, and while there he met lots of Black doctors that challenged him to go back to school and become a doctor himself. He got his medical degree from the University of Missouri and then moved to Fulton to practice family medicine. After about 10 years, he started working in the emergency room. 

“I did about 24 years of emergency room, went blind, and then I have been doing nothing but farming. I never quit farming. And I've been farming ever since,” he says.

Dr. Cooper describes the way he runs his cattle farm as a dying way of life. His operation is small, something he’s never made much money off of. His herd is a mixture of calves, cows and bulls.

Cooper and his family bought their farm a little over 30 years ago while he was still working as a doctor. He wanted to be sure that his four children learned how to farm. But, he says, when he tried to buy equipment, he couldn’t get a loan. 

“There was some things not available to me as a Black guy. Like I couldn't go down to the Farmer’s Home Administration and get land and borrow money,” Cooper says. 

Other members of his family also had a difficult time. “I can't speak for all Blacks, but I can tell you about I had brothers that farmed in southeast Missouri and family that farmed in southeast Missouri had a tough time getting stuff,” he said.

The USDA and Farm Service Agency have declined to comment on any pending or past litigation and didn't address requests for comment about the discrimination described in this story. However, a USDA representative responded by email, writing that the "USDA has been committed to a cultural transformation in an effort to ensure all customers who come to USDA for help are treated fairly, with dignity and respect."

 

Cooper says his grandfather was familiar with the old 40-acres-and-a-mule story. After the Civil War, many Black farmers in the South were given 40 acres and a mule from the government. But unlike White farmers, Black farmers were often denied their applications for loans for feed, seed and equipment. 

“You had a bunch of people, all they knew was farming,” Cooper says. “If they could’ve gotten a little bit of something, they could’ve done what needed to be done and to be survivors. That’s the way farming was with my father, my father was a survivor.”

Cooper’s grandfather moved to the Bootheel of Missouri from Mississippi. He became a sharecropper, and the man who owned the land he farmed wanted to sell it to him. But his grandfather hesitated. Back then, owning land in the South and in Missouri was dangerous. Blacks who owned land risked becoming victims of a lynching.

Although Cooper’s grandfather wouldn’t risk it, Cooper’s father took the chance. He became one of the first Black land owners to buy land in his county from the Farmer’s Home Administration.

“We never had any money. I had a brother tell me that he never thinks that my dad made $5000 a year in his life,” Cooper said. 

Cooper owns two more small farms in Missouri and still manages his father’s plot in the Bootheel.  

“Some people want to make a living out of farming, and I want to make a life out of farming. So, it’s a different approach,” he said.

He gets up every morning at four. He walks 10 to 12 miles a week at the YMCA. He checks on the farm mid-morning and does work every afternoon. 

“It just means so much to be in charge,” he says. “It’s not a thing for power. Any one of these animals anytime can run me over but you can coax them and you can teach them and you can do right by things, and they’ll treat you right too.”

Although none of his children took up farming, they all know how to run the equipment and work the land. His eight grandchildren often visit. He says one, who is 12, loves to ride the four-wheeler around the perimeter. Cooper taught him to drive all the equipment but the bull dozer. He thinks maybe, if he wants to, his grandchild could take over the farm when he passes on.