Rural Black Life in the US

Tintype Freeman Vines' road

Of course there were some John-Brown bad places up North, too,
so my uncle said.
He said folks down here tell lies.
They come home and tell lies.
“I didn’t know nothing about slavery.”
He said,
“Bro, it’s a damn lie.
Slavery went on everywhere.
Everybody needed somebody to work.”
It’s about power over another human being.

— Freeman Vines

“It would do you good to get in the country even if you do have to rough it.
You can sit right here and look right at the sky and you can almost feel the Earth turning.”

— Freeman Vines

In 1900, 90% of all African Americans lived in the South. Four out of five of them lived in rural areas.

This changed between 1910 and 1970 as waves of African Americans moved to northern and western cities as part of the Great Migration. Nevertheless, even at the height of the migration, over half of the black population remained in the South, with significant portions in rural areas.

African Americans who remained in the rural South after World War II lived with recent memories of lynch mobs (such as the one that killed Oliver Moore) and faced direct threats from the white supremacist organizations whose membership ballooned during the Civil Rights Era.

Tobacco farmers in the rural south, 2018, Tim Duffy

They also faced officially sanctioned discrimination. Even as Civil Rights reforms began to break the hold of Jim Crow laws, federal organizations like the USDA routinely discriminated against rural African Americans. Black farmers were repeatedly denied loans, access to programs, and basic information. Decades of these oppressive practices were documented in the 1999 class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, which resulted in some retributive payments for black farmers.

Recent sociological research has examined how a daily reality characterized by terrorist threats and prejudice resulted in collective trauma for rural African Americans. The effects of this trauma linger into the present as this population is disproportionately affected by mental and physical health issues. These issues are compounded by the lack of access to high quality health care that is a fact of life for much of the rural population in the US.

Today, African Americans make up about 12% of the national population, but they represent about 14% of the population in the rural South. Despite all of the challenges they have faced and continue to face, their culture remains vibrant. The music, dance, food, and religious practices of rural African Americans continue to indelibly shape the life and identity of America as a whole.

Freeman Vines’ work is just one example of this vibrant culture. His hanging tree guitars take wood that embodies both the Eastern North Carolina land and the traumatic history of the black people who inhabited this land and shape into something that speaks out defiantly against this legacy of trauma.

Exhibit commentary written by Dr. Will Boone, Lecturer of Music, NC State University

Explore more about these issues in American life