HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — The history of slavery bares an uncomfortable past for many African Americans, and the decades that followed presented many struggles.

However, farming — something all Americans benefit from — helped Black folks in Burgess thrive, and now the only living farm museum there, Freewoods Farm, shares the story of its survival.

News 13’s Annette Peagler talked to O’Neal Smalls, president of the Freewoods Foundation, about the community that tells the story of what African Americans did during the first century of freedom from 1865 to 1960.

“At the end of the Civil War, when Sherman started marching through the South, Black people started leaving those plantations, and by the end of the war they were all free to leave those plantations, and a lot of them left,” Smalls said. “Very few stayed.”

Smalls said a lot of them became farmers, most of them sharecroppers, but a few, including his great-grandfather, were able to own their own land.  Freewoods Farm is a 40-acre property inherited by Smalls.

“One of the proposals major in that period was to give each family 40 acres and a mule, and Black people became attached to that notion,” Smalls said. “They wanted the 40 acres and a mule. They didn’t get it. We represent that 40 acres the newly freed slaves did not get.”

The original group of farmers in Freewoods came from Longwoods Plantation, a couple of miles from Freewoods Farm. Smalls’ great-grandfather was part of the first generation of more than a dozen Black families in this area. His father was a World War I veteran.  

“They all put a major role in helping us develop Freewoods farm, providing a lot of background,” Smalls said.

African Americans relied on one another and turned to agriculture to survive.

“During that first century that we’re talking about, cotton was the cash crop for most of those farmers,” Smalls said. “They helped to develop the greatest agriculture industry in the world. I think everyone agrees that the agricultural industry is second to none.”

Black families built their own churches and their own schools.

“You have some that were built primarily by those farmers,” Smalls explained. “Morris College for example; Tuskegee, for example.”

Present-day Freewoods Farm is still an active farm in the Burgess community. It also serves as an educational opportunity, highlighting what the land stood for and its history.

“We grow string beans and butter beans and sweet corn and sweet potatoes,” Smalls said.

Some of the original houses where Smalls’ ancestors lived are still standing tall. During the turn of the century, Freewoods Farm became a museum with the goal of educating people who live and visit along the Grand Strand.

 “They can come for tours, and they can help us,” Smalls said. “We rent out this building for weddings and family reunions and conferences, and it helps to support the farm.”

Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable to hear the history of slavery and the century afterward, but Smalls hopes Freewoods Farm will continue to educate so the hard work of his ancestors is never forgotten.

“And no one can deny that Black people played a major role in helping to develop that agricultural industry,” he said. “They helped to develop the greatest agricultural industry of the world.”

Freewoods Farm is open Monday through Friday. If you’d like to help its mission, click here.

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Annette Peagler is an evening anchor at News13. Annette is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She joined the News13 team in December 2020. Annette is an Emmy-nominated journalist and has won journalism awards in Mississippi and Tennessee. Follow Annette on Twitter and read more of her work here.