Tyrone Williams squinted into the sun as he looked toward the newly planted tract of loblolly pines on his 62-acre property in Enfield, NC.
The air was fragrant with the trees’ scent. He thought about his ancestors and how they surely stood in this very same spot. He hoped that someday his children would inherit the land and stand here too, feeling that long thread of ownership connecting the generations.
Oral history traces the Williams family land back to the late 1800s, but paper documentation of ownership dates only to the 1930s. Landownership was historically a struggle for African-Americans. Discrimination and exploitation were common, and many people lost their land when loved ones died without proper wills.
Tyrone, his wife Edna, and their three sons – Trevelyn, Tremaine, and Tyron – were fortunate enough to acquire this portion of the family farm. In 1994, they named it Fourtee Acres – a play on their names and the “40 acres and a mule” promised to African-Americans after the end of slavery. While the Williams family called Fourtee Acres home for many years, it wasn’t until he retired that Tyrone turned his full attention to the land.
He knew he wanted to restore the woodlands, use the property somehow as an income source, and ensure he could pass the land on to his sons. But like a lot of family landowners, Tyrone’s forestry knowledge was limited. He quickly recognized a need for expert guidance in what to do, when and how to do it, and how to afford all the work. Still, he was also wary about who to trust – many of those decades-old issues for African-American landowners are still present today, and he did not want to risk making irreversible mistakes.
Then, in 2013, Tyrone and Edna attended the Minority Landowner Farmers and Landowners Conference in South Carolina. They were shocked to meet so many others who had also inherited or bought land – some with forestry experience, but many with none.
Tyrone Williams (landowner, NC) with his family
During this event they met Alton Perry, from the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Project, a program that helps African-American landowners care for their forestland and pass it on to the next generation. Perry was helping people like the Williams’ navigate the complexities of forest management.
Tyrone and Edna, though interested, wanted time to think through all they had learned at the conference. Perry continued to follow up over the next several months, taking the time to listen to the Williams’ needs and vision and answer their questions. Perry knew he needed to reassure the Williams family and gain their trust for them to take the next step. It took nearly a year for Tyrone and Edna to join the program.
Finally ready to get started, the couple began meeting regularly with Perry, along with their county forester and other forestry professionals, to plan their restoration activities. They also contacted the Natural Resources Conservation Service to arrange financial help, and they met with a lawyer to set up a trust that will eventually transfer the land to their children. It was exactly the broad range of support the Williams’ needed to get started in forest stewardship.