In rural California, a Liberian family finds an agricultural refuge

  • Roosevelt Tarlesson among the tomatoes on his family farm in Guinda, California, where he and his relatives use both modern organic agricultural practices and traditional Liberian techniques.

    Sacramento Bee/Zumapress.com
  • Members of the extended Tarlesson family perform an African war dance during the cultural festival in Guinda.

    Carl Costas, Zreportage.com/zuma
  • Alice Toe and Cynnomih Tarlesson, in traditional African dress, stoke a cooking fire.

    Sacramento Bee/Zumapress.com
 

On a historic 50-acre ranch in Northern California, Cynnomih Tarlesson and her nine children drop watermelon seeds into the ground. Behind them, her father, Roosevelt, uses a tractor to churn up the dirt for tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant -- along with some lesser-known crops, like the Tarlesson-named 'Billy Goat Pepper,' from the family's native West Africa.

When war erupted in her Liberian hometown in 1990, Cynnomih and her family fled their farm and lived for over two years in the bush, foraging for berries, shoots and small fish. After several years in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, Cynnomih, now 43, finally received permission to come to the U.S. as a refugee, along with 25 younger siblings and children (biological and adopted). They joined her father, Rev. Roosevelt Tarlesson, in Vacaville, Calif., where he had lived since the 1970s.

Vacaville was a peaceful escape from the harsh refugee-camp life in Ivory Coast -- plenty of food, friendly neighbors and teachers assisting their transition to U.S. life. Yet in this suburban environment, the family's job prospects were low and financial pressures high. They missed farming; they missed the land. So in 2007, the Tarlessons secured a loan to buy property in nearby Guinda, population 254. 'When refugees are brought to this country, they are put in cities, making minimum wage at factories. Why? They know how to farm. Let them farm!' says Rev. Tarlesson, who's pushing this idea with resettlement agencies at the national level.

In Liberia, the Tarlessons were subsistence farmers, but in Guinda, Rev. Tarlesson says, they hope to become 'a major health food producer.' They are already selling eggplant and peppers to a large Asian grocery in Vacaville and to a community-supported agriculture program in Oakland, and hope to expand to organic chicken.

'Here, you have to make your own rain,' Cynnomih laughs. 'In Liberia, we didn't have to do that. I'd just plant the seeds with my baby on my back, and wait for the rains to come!'

The Tarlessons had to learn modern farming techniques, as well as irrigation and when to plant in a seasonal environment. (Cynnomih is earning a permaculture certificate from Woodland Community College.) Yet the family also relies on traditional Liberian agricultural practices, like transplanting crops and filtering soil by hand through a screen to get the best yield. Organic principles come naturally to the Tarlessons, who were used to farming without chemicals or crop manipulation.

'Whatsoever that I lost, I know God has replaced (with) this,' says Cynnomih with a soft smile, gazing toward the greens hills just across the road. She loves the view from her kitchen down to the road, where she can watch as her children scramble off the school bus to pluck after-school snacks from the fields.

It's surprising enough that a family of Liberian farmers ended up in this sleepy California ranch town, but the Tarlessons are merely the latest chapter in the long -- and mostly forgotten -- history of African-American farmers in Guinda.

Guinda was founded by Green Berry Logan, son of a slave mother and Caucasian father in Arkansas, who came to California in 1858. Because California entered the Union as a free state, escaped slaves there were not subject to the Fugitive Slave Act. Tiny Guinda became known as a safe place for black people to live and farm. In the late 1890s, the U.S. Geological Survey officially designated the hills 'Nigger Heaven,' a name that remained on government maps until the 1960s, when Guinda resident Bill Petty lobbied to have it removed.

Petty's relatives were some of the original settlers. They came from North Carolina in the 1890s and started one of the town's first businesses: a butchery. Petty's own father, a Civil Rights activist in North Carolina, fought for the right to vote in the 1930s. 'We went to church one night,' says Petty. 'Came back and the house was burnt down.' His father 'decided it was about time to get the family out of there.' So they joined their relatives in Guinda.

Like Petty's family, Royce McClellan's great-great-grandfather came west to Guinda. Royce's mother ran Carmen's, a roadside craft store that sold jewelry she made from shells and water-smoothed rocks. Although Royce McClellan identifies as African-American, her great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, and some family members have been Caucasian. 'So we're all mixed up,' she says.

Today, African-Americans constitute just under 11 percent of Guinda's population; 69 percent of the town is Caucasian, and the remaining 20 percent are Latino, Asian and multiracial. But the locals are proud of the fact that they were, from the beginning, a multi-ethnic community.

The role of minorities in California history is often undervalued. As in most of the West, the cowboy archetype looms large. Yet this iconic figure is remembered mainly as a weathered-skinned, cowboy-hatted Caucasian and (occasionally) Latino. African-American history in California is often focused on the Great Migration of the black Southerners who came to the state's cities in the early 20th century.

'It's not black history, it's American history -- American history that's been forgotten!' Bill Petty says at Guinda's annual Black History Month celebration, which includes exhibits, a community potluck, musical performances, and recollections from longtime residents. This relatively recent event was organized by Clarence Van Hook, who moved here in 2000. Like the Tarlessons, Van Hook knew nothing of the town's heritage before he bought his farm, but he yearned to return to a landscape like that of his rural Arkansas upbringing. The elderly African-American woman who sold the place to him 'told me that she was so pleased that it was another African-American who was buying it.' Van Hook joined Guinda's all-black Methodist Church and asked the pastor if they'd ever celebrated black history month. They hadn't. So Van Hook offered to take it on. 'I headed over to the library in Woodland and went through the archives,' he says. 'If I had known then what I know now, I'd probably have majored in history!'

Along with Professor April Harris of Santa Rosa Junior College, Van Hook is uncovering the crucial farming contributions by African-Americans here and throughout the state. Early California landowners recruited black workers from the Southern U.S. to till their farmland. Some of the newcomers brought modern farming technologies that allowed them to cultivate more land faster, as well as heirloom species of plants like apricots and figs. Farmers like Logan became experts in the hybridization of local crops with plants from 'back home.'

'The Tarlessons are adding another piece of the history of blacks in this area,' Rev. Tarlesson says proudly. They are the only refugee family here, but feel at home in the town. And in a sign of historical synchronicity, a descendant of Guinda's founder, Green Berry Logan, visited the Tarlessons' home country in 1903. Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves –– so the Tarlessons, too, can trace their family roots back to U.S. slavery.

For the descendants of the original Guinda settlers, their property -- their families' first land that they could call their own -- is symbolic of their ancestors' emancipation. And for the Tarlessons, their swath of land symbolizes peace and a new beginning. 'It takes me far away from a lot of troubles,' says Cynnomih. 'I grow my own food, I harvest like I'm back home. It keeps me safe, being here, this place, this little town called Guinda.'

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz