When Marjorie Jamison drove to Indian Trail in Union County on June 13 to visit family friend Bernard Singleton’s new farm, she expected a relaxing day away from the stresses of city life and quarantine, not to be the target of a hate crime.
Jamison was picking blueberries at Singleton’s Nebedaye Farms with her family — her husband, also named Bernard, and their 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter — when a man drove up on a motorcycle, yelled the N-word at the group, revved his engine loudly, then drove off.
Jamison had been too engrossed in her task to notice, but once she regrouped with her husband, he confirmed what had happened, as did another Black woman who was there with her own son.
“I thought that’s what I heard but I didn’t want to think that’s what it was,” the woman told Jamison.
The incident was a wake-up call for the mother of two.
“I was really kind of surprised that that happened, because I had never experienced anything like that so blatantly in my face,” Jamison said.
According to Singleton and multiple other people that Queen City Nerve spoke with who have experienced harassment while visiting the farm, similar incidents have become all-too-common there, only increasing as discussions around racial injustice have picked up across the country. Singleton stated that young men on four-wheelers and in pickup trucks waving Confederate flags have driven by many times and yelled similar things as the man on the motorcycle, while others have been caught roaming the property late at night only to claim they ran out of gas before getting back in their cars and driving off.
A hate crime in Union County
While there’s not much Singleton can do except arm himself and equip cameras in an attempt to identify passersby who accost him and his visitors, he is now taking legal action against a neighbor who he said has harassed him for months.
According to Singleton, 62-year-old Frank Rohrback, who lives diagonally across the intersection of Mill Grove Road and N.C. Highway 218 where Nebedaye Farms is located, has fired shots over the farm, repeatedly yelled the N-word at Singleton and his visitors, and threatened to kill three people there, including Singleton.
On July 1, Union County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Rohrback and charged him with ethnic intimidation. He is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 25. Attempts to reach Rohrback were unsuccessful.
Ethnic intimidation is a misdemeanor in North Carolina and carries a maximum 120-day sentence. While the charge was part of a hate-crime bill that passed in 1991, the state still lacks a hate-crime law that applies to race- or religion-based felonies, such as when a white man murdered three of his Muslim neighbors execution style inside their Chapel Hill condominium in 2015.
Singleton said he refuses to be bullied off of the property, which he subleases from Carolina Farm Trust alongside Serendipity Flowers and Crown Town Compost, all part of the Mill Grove Farm Co-Op.
“These are things that happened way back when, and while we’re focusing on other things, that’s still happening here in Union County,” Singleton said of the recent hate crimes when we visited after Rohrback’s arrest. “People wonder the reason why there’s not many Black farmers, because this type of shit. It ain’t going down like that this time.”
Singleton recalled that after Black Lives Matter protests began in Charlotte and across the country in late May, Rohrback became more belligerent. The neighbor began flying a Confederate flag, writing down license plate numbers of the farm’s visitors, and shooting his gun in the air while staring across the intersection at the farm.
Singleton responded by firing off his own guns, though that resulted in calls to the police.
“This is Union County. Everybody shoots around here. When the week ends it’s like Fourth of July,” he said. “But a black man with a gun causes a problem. I’m the only person who ever had the police called on him for gunshots.”
No charges were filed against Singleton for those incidents. A look at Rohrback’s record shows he was arrested on March 1 for misuse of 911 and resisting arrest, then arrested again on April 10 for failure to appear in court.
A long road to Nebedaye Farms
After moving to Charlotte in 2011, Singleton and his daughter turned a NoDa Storage unit into a studio apartment and lived there until they were able to find more appropriate housing. Singleton launched Bennu Gardens in 2014 with nothing but some seeds he had bought from food stamps. He has since expanded the operation into three locations. He began farming the land at Mill Grove in spring 2019 with a focus on harvesting moringa, a superfood grown in Africa and Asia that Singleton has been learning to grow successfully in the Charlotte area over the last three years.
He has plans in the coming months to build a “sustainability schoolhouse” on the property to help teach agricultural entrepreneurship, known as agripreneurship — how to grow, process and preserve food, along with how to market a business.
“It’s a self-sustaining school. What we have on our own is not dependent on people who do not give a fuck about us,” he said. “There was a debt but they aren’t going to pay us; we know that.”
He sees farming as a path to self-sustainability for African-Americans, and hopes to work with underserved youth and unemployed adults in Charlotte. He pointed out that the traumatic history of slavery has kept many away from the industry, and quoted Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, who said, “The land was the scene of the crime, not the criminal.”
“We left the land because of the intimidation,” Singleton said. “And if we allow this to continue unchecked with what [Rohrback] is doing, we’ll be going through the same cycle 100 years later. We really have to address that.”
‘We don’t have to be that way’
Though Jamison’s young children weren’t aware of what had happened on June 13, the incident stuck with her well after she left the farm. Her family stopped at Colonel Francis Beatty Park in Matthews on the way home and she found herself wondering how many white people around her felt the same way as the man on the motorcycle.
“At the time I was thinking, how is it that someone has the hatred in them to feel the need to express something like that — to take the time out of your day, your moment, your drive and yell that out at a few Black people who were minding their business?” she said. “I just felt really sad, for myself and the kids, but even for that person and our country. We don’t have to be that way, we could be so much better, there’s just systemic things in place that prevent us from getting to that point.”
Singleton said he plans to continue hosting regular events at Nebedaye Farms despite the harassment. He recently hosted the staff of Leah & Louise for a field trip of sorts, and on another day threw an all-day rice-harvesting party that ended with a Gullah-style meal, cooked mostly with ingredients grown right there on the farm.
As for Rohrback, who he said has quieted down since his July 1 arrest, Singleton won’t back down from what he believes.
“We actually are getting a sign out here that says Black Farms Matter and I know that’s going to stir some shit up,” he said, laughing loudly. “I have to be ready for that. I have to be the one to stand my ground. I ain’t going nowhere.”