Beyond Fields and Factories: Black/Land in Flint

UPDATE: You can download a free copy of the final report of Beyond Fields and Factories on our Offerings page.

Everyone has a relationship to land and place. So why does understanding the particular relationships black people have to land matter?

Last week, community leaders in Flint, Michigan wrestled with just that question. Like many cities in the Great Lakes region, most black people over 50 in Flint came from the fields of the rural southseeking good factory wages during the 1970s. Like its sister cities, Flint became a majority black city at the same time as it faced economic and political  destabilization caused by deindustrialization and population loss. For those under fifty, economic and social poverty in Flint have been pervasive for their entire lifetime, and seems entwined with blackness itself.

Three things revealed themselves as central to our discussions:

  • Black relationships to land are shaped by 400 years of public policy, specifically laws designed to prevent blacks from owning, settling on, inheriting  or building economically sustainable communities;
  • In spite of such policy, black Americans successfully worked, settled, owned and created wealth through land, and recreated displaced communities through culturally unique patterns of resilience; and
  • Many elders in Flint are already quietly engaged in work to transcend historical trauma and begin to regenerate community.

Flintonians were eager to have this Black/Land Conversation. Flint ispreparing for its first municipal master land use planning process in 50 years, and they are determined for it to include everyone.

Observed by gilt-framed portraits of the Mott family, leaders from community service, nonprofit, faith and government groups gathered in the formal living room of the Applewood Estate, and continued their discussion for nearly two hours after the Conversations workshop closed.

On Saturday, a full workshop gathered at Foss Avenue Baptist Church. Everyone, from Flint Mayor Dayne Walling to neighbors who had just heard about the event on the radio that morning, came together to envision a future Flint. This workshop was challenging: while some participants brought new ideas and personal visions for how Flint’s historically black North Side could begin to thrive, others could only recount the history of municipal neglect of the North Side and couldn’t envision a future that looked different from that past.

This story from Flint is not unique. Black/Land Conversations are not about black history: they are about whether black people will be participants in shaping America’s present and future.

Are black people in your city engaged formal community planning processes?  Why or why not?  When engaged, do they bring dreams for the future of their community, or are they trapped in historical trauma and only able to recount injustices done in the past?