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Elderly Brothers Continue Black-Owned Land Legacy of Feeding Community Through Historic Steele Farm Property

Known for its popular collard greens, the 31-acre Promised Land Farm in Port Wentworth, Georgia, is steeped in history. Local lore says at the end of the Civil War, the land was given to the enslaved Roderick Steele through the “40 acres and a mule” promise, made by Union General William T. Sherman through the general’s Special Field Order No. 15, although this is unconfirmed by Atlanta Black Star.

During the Civil War, Steele and other slaves brought water to Union and Confederate forces and helped their Confederate slave masters even more by helping save Savannah from destruction through prolonging Sherman’s march of destruction through Georgia to the coastal city, according to Georgia House Resolution 1780.

“Roderick Steele would haul water to General Sherman, and as a matter of fact, there’s a viaduct here that has posted the name, ‘Roderick Steele,’” said 74-year-old Robert Johnson, who co-owns the Promised Land Farm with his older brother, Willie Johnson.

In 1998, the Johnsons purchased the land from descendants of Steele.

Today, the owners continue the land’s rich heritage as one of the only Black-owned farms in the area. A 2017 Census of Agriculture county profile from the United States Department of Agriculture showed just six Black producers listed as growing in Chatham County.

Robert Johnson, co-owner of Promised Land Farm in Port Wentworth, Georgia. (Photo: Ashley Ford/Atlanta Black Star)

The Johnson brothers invite anyone to stop by their lush farmland just off Monteith Road, not far from I-95.

During the cooler months, visitors will find a vast selection of cabbage, kale, broccoli and collard greens, grown fresh from the healthy soil. They also make and sell their own pure cane syrup.

“When we go over into the fall season, collard greens are one of the biggest sales we got here, and the other thing behind that would be cabbage,” said 76-year-old co-owner Willie Johnson.

Purchasing the farm’s produce isn’t the only way to enjoy the Promised Land. Willie Johnson says that people are able to grow their own food on the farm, as well. They estimate that there are about 250 rows on the land rented by those in the community at a cost of $20 per row.

The brothers say they don’t use herbicides on their land, and that growers are welcome to grow organically if they wish.

“If the person wants to plant organic, we don’t have a problem with that, they can plant organic however they want, as long as what they plant is legal,” Willie Johnson said.

He and his brother began developing their green thumbs after Robert Johnson retired from the military in 1989. In 1998, they purchased what’s now known as the Promised Land Farm.

“One thing that’s special about it is, you know, we are Black and our families are Black, and we enjoy keeping it like that,” Willie Johnson said of the farm’s ownership.

They’ve continued the farm’s Black-owned legacy through the rewarding task of nurturing the land.

Willie Johnson says he enjoys being able to plant a crop and watching it grow to feed his community. “People are going to have to eat, and to have a farm in the city of Port Wentworth where people can come out and buy fresh stuff, that’s what I appreciate,” he said.

Willie Johnson, co-owner of Promised Land Farm in Port Wentworth, Georgia. (Photo: Ashley Ford/Atlanta Black Star)

Robert Johnson shared a similar sentiment, saying that it’s been a pleasure to work alongside his brother for more than 20 years.

“Without a farmer, what happens? People starve,” he said. “You know, everything started from a farm.”

The Johnson brothers say they appreciate their crucial role of providing nourishment for their neighbors, but they admit that field work gets tougher as they age.

“It’s hard to get people that are willing to come out here and work,” Willie Johnson said. Both brothers reveal that neither of their children have any interest in taking over the farm.

“They’re really not into farming,” Robert Johnson said.

The farm’s future remains unclear, but a younger generation with a budding love of the land offers a glimmer of hope.

A Savannah-based homeschool cooperative called A KnUW Way of Georgia is leasing space on the Promised Land Farm.

Founded in 2017 by Cory and Leza Chandler, the program provides social and educational experiences for the local homeschooling community.

“We want to prepare our children to take our place one day, so we give them all sorts of experiences and adventures,” said Leza Chandler, who serves as the cooperative’s program manager.

Those adventures include chopping trees, learning how to compost, taking care of chickens and growing their own plants.

“I think a lot of times people don’t realize how important it is to know how to produce your own food and how to take care of your own basic needs,” Chandler said.

One of the eager young growers is 8-year-old Rebecca Parker, who says she hopes to one day become a farmer.

“I like having a greenhouse because we can plant mostly anything inside of a greenhouse,” Parker said.

“Let’s say we like to plant tomatoes,” the student said. “We can plant tomatoes when it’s winter, and that’s something that I really like.”

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