How Reporting About Food Led to a Story About Slavery

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Early on in my career as a national correspondent, an editor told me to always leave room for a story to jump in front of you. Stacie Marshall, who inherited 300 acres of farmland in north Georgia and discovered her ancestors had enslaved seven people, was one of those stories.

I’m a reporter for the Food section, based in Atlanta, and I am always looking for ways to tell more stories from the fields where our food grows. A few weeks before Covid turned all of our lives upside down, I went to an organic farming conference in Athens, Ga.

My plan was to sit in on a few sessions, have a chat with Alice Waters, the California restaurateur who was keynoting, and see if I could find something interesting to report.

I slipped into a workshop for Black farmers about marketing their produce and their farms in new ways. There were two white women in the room: me and Ms. Marshall. Toward the end of the session, she stood up and told her story. She was trying to figure out what to do to make amends, in a small way, for a wrong that still confounds and divides the nation.

I introduced myself, and she invited me to the farm in a place called Dirt Town Valley. Three weeks later, the pandemic hit, and I set her story aside and began reporting about how the food supply and all the ways we feed ourselves were affected by Covid.

That summer, social justice protests spread throughout American cities, and I started thinking about how to cover food in a way that spoke to this moment in history. Much of my job involves traveling around the country. Since the pandemic had grounded me, I was looking for stories to tell that were within driving distance. So I called Ms. Marshall.

For a feature like this, gathering details and peeling back layers are essential. That comes only with time. And with the world slowing down, I had a lot of time. It was one pandemic silver lining.

I made trips to the farm when I could, spending time just talking with her and the two other families who are featured in the story. I went to church with them, and I showed up when Matthew Raiford, the chef who was running that original farming seminar, drove 400 miles to visit Ms. Marshall’s farm and offer advice on how to cook her grass-fed beef, rebuild her pastureland and have deep discussions about the realities of racism in farming communities.

I teamed up with Nydia Blas, a freelance photographer in Atlanta whose work explores, among other things, the identity of young Black women and girls. She’s Black. I’m white. The way we experienced the story in Dirt Town Valley was different, and the conversations we had after we spent time reporting there greatly informed the way the story was framed.

Bridging the urban-rural divide posed another set of challenges. Nydia and I are city people. Very few of the people we interviewed ever read The New York Times. My being from Atlanta helped, but still we had to spend time getting to know our subjects and letting them get to know us before edging into difficult conversations and pulling out the camera.

Writing the article brought its own issues. I had discussions with editors who worried about telling a story about slavery and racism centered on a white woman. Others suggested a deeper dive into the topic of reparations. In the end, though, just telling Ms. Marshall’s story simply and from a deep well of detailed reporting seemed the most honest way to present what was happening in Dirt Town Valley.

The article resonated. Readers who were in similar situations reached out to Ms. Marshall when the piece was published online. There were people whose families had been involved in the Tulsa race massacre, or who, like Ms. Marshall, had inherited some family land that had once been worked by people their families had enslaved.

But it also had some negative consequences. The day the article landed in print, a rumor started going around that she was giving away her land to Black people.When a man whose family has ties to the Ku Klux Klan warned Ms. Marshall that some people don’t like seeing Black and white people together, she took the threat seriously.

Sheriff’s deputies promised to do extra patrols to make sure Ms. Marshall and the two Black families in the story — the Mosleys and the Kirbys — were safe.

That night, the Mosleys came by to pray with her. They were old family friends who had guided her ever since she was a girl. Then she went across the road to visit the Kirbys, a Black couple who once worked for her grandfather and now, in their 70s, were coming to rely on Ms. Marshall the way one might a daughter-in-law. They made her a plate of greens cooked in fatback and boiled yams.

“I think I have experienced the worst and best of my community today,” she said.