This Juneteenth, Chef Adrian Lipscombe Aims to Preserve Black Foodways
Juneteenth has always been a day of celebration for Adrian Lipscombe, chef-owner of Uptowne Café & Bakery in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Texas-native grew up observing June 19 as a holiday with family and friends over barbecue in the park. Last Juneteenth, Lipscombe was invited to New York City to commemorate the day of liberation with food at the James Beard House, and by Juneteenth this year, Lipscombe hopes to have raised enough funds to launch her new initiative to preserve Black foodways: the 40 Acres and a Mule Project.
Lipscombe, who is also a city planner and mother of four, was floored by an immediate outpouring of support for the project, which aims to pay tribute to Black foodways and protect agricultural traditions through education. “I want to leave stepping stones for others to move forward,” she says. “If we’re able to move the wheel a little bit or move it a little bit faster for our children to have an easier time to get education, to get access to food, to get access to land ownership, I’m going to try my damned best to get towards that for them.”
In recent weeks, Lipscombe had begun receiving unsolicited monetary gifts—a peculiar byproduct of the current movement to support Black-owned businesses in light of the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and nationwide demands for justice.
“But I couldn’t see myself taking money unless there was a cause for it to go toward,” she says. The cause was made clear to her the following morning—she would buy 40 acres of farmland.
“It really means something when you say strongly, ‘40 acres,’ but also account for what you’ll do with those 40 acres,” she says. “And so the thought came to farm and learn farming techniques from Black farmers to preserve their knowledge.”
The phrase “40 acres and a mule” was established during the Reconstruction Era by a group of Black ministers who advised Union General Sherman that reparations in the form of land ownership would offer a viable pathway to self-efficiency and economic stability for formerly enslaved persons. The government order, Special Field Order No. 15, called for land redistribution, but it was implemented and overturned within the same year. Yet “40 acres and a mule” remains an everlasting symbol of economic empowerment for many.
“My great-grandfather bought a lot of land and his kids got the land once he passed away, so that’s security,” Lipscombe says. “When we had our first kid, we bought a home. Owning land means you have freedom, and that you have ownership within the USA.”
The 40 Acres and a Mule Project will be developed in the Coulee Region, a southwestern Wisconsin area known for organic farming. Growing up in the South, Lipscombe gained an early appreciation for agriculture while planting and harvesting crops on her family’s land. For her, farm-to-table has always been the way things were done. “A lot of Black chefs are working with farmers—we’ve been doing it,” she says. “Our families were farmers. We grew up on a farm. Farm-to-table is not new to us. Garden-to-table is not new to us. It’s ingrained in us.”
Lipscombe has been deeply troubled by the number of Black farmers driven out of farming by decades of discriminatory practices. “The Black farmer is suffering right now,” she says. They own less than 1% of rural farmland in the United States and the number is dwindling.” There’s urgency in protecting the legacy of Black farmers.
The chef describes the 40 Acres and a Mule Project space as a “sanctuary” where Black farmers and Black chefs can gather and “make those deep-tied connections back to each other, realizing the relation is food and family and land.” Early-stage plans include a multi-use space that will honor the layered history of the African Diaspora and Black food culture by preserving the techniques of Black farmers, cataloging seeds, archiving literature like cookbooks, recipes, and menus, and documenting the stories of Black farmers and elders—both to offer a library of wisdom and to ensure they aren't erased or forgotten.
The 40 Acres and a Mule Project “is providing an opportunity for us to understand how Black foodways work,” says Lipscombe. “As a chef, this is really personal because we’re putting food to plate. But to understand the hardship and ache that happened for the food to get to our plate, makes it important and part of the reason why we have the ‘soul’ in food.”