Sitting at her kitchen table, Kimberly Ratcliff watched some of the 400-head of cattle she manages on her family's ranch, while speaking lovingly of the close-knit community of ranchers she leads.
“There have been wonderful people, and great relationships in every community I've lived in,” Ratcliff, 42, told the Herald-Press Friday. “But here, where the ranches, families, and our livelihoods are part of the equation, it feels much deeper – much closer.”
Aside from managing the family cattle business, Caney Creek Ranch in Oakwood, Ratcliff also serves as president of 100 Ranchers, a non-profit organization to unite agriculture producers and promote local agriculture.
African Americans make up most of the group, but that's by circumstance, not design. Membership is open to all. Ratcliff considers 100 Ranchers to be a community organization with roots in African-American history, rather than an African-American group.
100 Ranchers has members in Freestone, Anderson, Houston, and Leon counties, as well as several other counties throughout the state.
Founded in 2006, 100 Ranchers had one president, Dwight Boykins, before Ratcliff took office in 2012. The presidency is a volunteer position. Ratcliff intends to keep working for her fellow ranchers, as well as the community.
“Education and agricultural career training are essential for our future,” said Ratcliff, who runs programs on her ranch for several school districts. “It's also easier to weather bad times, like the 2011 drought, when you do it as a community.”
The group started when Ratcliff's father, Wesley Ratcliff, met with friends from Prairie View A&M University to discuss ranching business.
A familiar name in Palestine, Wesley Ratcliff ran for state representative last year as the Democratic nominee.
“He grew up in segregated schools, and Prairie View was traditionally a black college,” Kimberly Ratcliff said. “100 Ranchers grew from those meetings.”
Like her father, Kimberly Ratcliff, a former Wall Street marketing executive, has blazed a few trails. In East Texas, however, ranchers like Ratcliff are not unusual.
“At roughly 40 percent, East Texas has more black ranchers per capita than anywhere else in the United States,” Ratcliff said. “It's because of the Trinity River.”
At the end of the Civil War, Ratcliff said, many former slave-owners abandoned their slaves along the Trinity River. Many of those former slaves became sharecroppers, and eventually landowners and ranchers.
“The history books back that up,” 100 Ranchers member and former professional basketball player Guy Manning told the Herald-Press. “Freestone County was populated and operated by mostly black families. Some farms have been in families since they were part of reparations after the [Civil] war.”
Community, Ratcliff said, is something she learned from her father.
“We moved to Carmel, New York, when I was in the fourth grade,” she said. “Shortly after we moved in, someone spray-painted 'N-word, go home,' on our car.
“My father wouldn't let us wash it off. For two years, he'd drive us around, saying that someone in the community did it, and the community would see it. Two years later, they found the suspect and prosecuted him.”
Ratcliff works with students and does dozens of speaking engagements a year. She hopes 100 Ranchers will help make the idea of an African American rancher more mainstream.
“Racism still exists here,” she said, maneuvering the terrain in her 4-wheel drive and surveying fields of cattle.
“Our group is like a microcosm of what we should strive for as a society. All ethnicities are welcome – and everyone's culture is respected.”