One thing they did know was land. Though it wasn't the rich African soil their families were violently uprooted from a generation earlier, it was land they had worked. Despite being largely uneducated in a hostile country that had recently codified their unequal status through Jim Crow laws, these turn-of-the-century farmers were committed to creating something of their own. They had endured years of the backbreaking, neo-slavery known as sharecropping, scrimping and saving their meager earnings. Many supplemented what little they earned in the fields by putting in equally long hours at the steel and turpentine plants dotting the South.
This brutal work would pay off. By 1910, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, nearly one million black farmers owned 15 million acres of the nation's land--roughly 14 percent of the country's farms. A decade later, a USDA report revealed that one out of every seven farmers was black.
But this would all change. Today, there are 18,000 black farmers in America who collectively own less than 1 percent of all farms. Along with this 98 percent decline in the number of black farmers, the amount of black-owned farmland has decreased by 85 percent since 1910. African-American farmers have disappeared at three times the rate of their white peers.
North Carolina has been hit hardest. Though the number of the state's farms decreased 5 percent between 1992 and 1997, the decline for black-owned farms was 18 percent. Between 1982 and 1992, North Carolina lost more black-owned farms than any other state.
"It's amazing," says Gary Grant, a farm activist from Tillery, a mostly African-American community in eastern North Carolina. Grant heads the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, a national advocacy organization. "When we didn't have any education, we owned a whole lot of land," he says. "Now that we have a lot of education, we can't hold on to any land."
It's not as if these farmers didn't try--especially given the historical significance of land within the black community and what their turn-of-the-century predecessors had accomplished. Nonetheless, much of their land was lost.
Such loss has a number of causes. The general decline of American agriculture has affected all farmers, especially struggling small and minority-owned farms. Black migration from the South toward the middle of the 20th century left many aging farmers without children prepared to maintain the land. In addition, many black farmers' failure to pay taxes and prepare wills posed further obstacles to keeping land in their families.
But by no means is this the entire story. A government system stacked against black farmers is also at fault.
"The manner in which the USDA is providing services to black farmers isn't working," says Attorney Stephon Bowens, executive director of the Durham-based Land Loss Prevention Project. The project is one of only two law firms in the country specifically dedicated to preserving the family farm. Bowens feels the USDA's services are "clearly not designed to ensure these farmers can survive."
Much evidence supports Bowens' claims. In 1982, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued The Decline of Black Farming in America, a report implicating the USDA as a significant "catalyst in the decline of the black farmer." Eight years later, the House Government Operations Committee produced The Minority Farmer: A Disappearing Resource, which concluded the same.
In 1997, a class-action suit was filed against the USDA as a result of hundreds of discrimination claims from black farmers throughout the South and West. In Pigford vs. Glickman, the farmers alleged a wide variety of racist practices by their Farm Services Agencies (FSAs)--the local arms of the USDA--including unjust loan denials and delays, high interest rates, accelerated foreclosures and unnecessary supervision of accounts.
On April 14, 1999, the government settled by creating a two-tiered framework for compensating farmers. Under Track A, claimants applied for a tax-free payment of $50,000, some debt relief and a prioritized loan status. Under Track B, a higher standard of proof of discrimination was required for cash compensation of actual damages and debt forgiveness. In his opinion, federal Judge Paul Friedman wrote the settlement will "serve as a reminder to the Department of Agriculture that its actions were unacceptable," and should "deter it from engaging in the same conduct in the future."
But for many African-American farmers, the settlement was unsettling. "The Pigford decision, while monumental, was not fair, equitable or reasonable," says Bowens, who filed an objection for more than 100 unsatisfied plaintiffs. The arbitrary amount of $50,000 was less than most farmers pay for a tractor. It did nothing to solve the ongoing loss of land or curb discriminatory practices, since there were no significant actions taken against local officials. And since the settlement, USDA figures reveal that a substantial portion of claims have been denied, while others have been processed slowly.
By the end of 2002, a total of 22,837 claims had been put forth. Of the 21,591 Track A claims reviewed, 21,512 have been ruled on. Of these, 8,540, or almost 40 percent, were denied. As for Track B--commonly reserved for larger landowners--181 claims were submitted for processing. While the current status of those varies, a substantial portion have not yet been paid. An additional 1,065 claims from both tracks were never reviewed because they did not meet the proper submission criteria for reasons such as improperly filled-out paperwork.
Critics like Bowens and Grant have characterized the legal entitlement process as both random and subjective. Eligible farmers must have filed discrimination complaints within a specific time period, something a substantial number of affected black farmers didn't do because of lack of awareness of the process, or the burden of government paperwork. And many of those who did have since lost records of their complaints--a situation compounded by the USDA's own admission of poor record keeping. In addition, for those who have had claims turned down, the settlement provides no right to appeal.
Bowens further criticizes the Track B standard where, in order to prove discrimination, black farmers must identify a white farmer with a "similar-situated" operation who'd been treated differently. A near impossible task given that this white farmer, if found, would have to make their credit history available to the black farmer before the latter knew they were "a fit." And, says Bowens, the "only other party with access to this credit information is the government itself."
Though officials with the North Carolina and federal agriculture departments declined interview requests for this story, former USDA Director of Civil Rights Lloyd Wright does address the settlement and the inequitable practices that spawned it. Wright, who retired four years ago after 37 years with the federal agriculture department, has "been disappointed and surprised that many of the larger black landowners (Track B) have still not been paid." Even for a substantial number of the smaller farmers, he feels "some got so little so late."
Wright also emphasizes the lack of federal monitoring of local decision-making that for almost two decades prior to the settlement exacerbated farmers' frustrations and made many subsequent claims hard to follow up. The 1983 dismantling of the USDA's Civil Rights Division by Ronald Reagan left it without investigators until the office reopened in 1997. "You can't settle or address a claim if you don't have anyone investigating the claim in the first place," says Wright, acknowledging the discriminatory practices of local FSA officials. "The department (USDA) could have corrected this if they had some real oversight, but they never have. Local officials had no fear of being reprimanded."
Some doubt such oversight would have made a difference. "I think they (USDA) wanted to get rid of the black-owned family farm," says Grant, the Tillery farmer, noting even with its Civil Rights Division intact "there were cases going back to the 1970s where still nothing was being done."
Another former USDA civil rights Director, Rosalind Gray, testified last year in the related case of Garcia v. Veneman that, after all of the recent Pigford investigations, claims payments and proven examples of discrimination, "there still has not been any change in the way programs are administered." The systemic exclusion of minority farmers from local decision-making positions, added Gray, "remains the standard operating procedure for FSA(s)."
It's a procedure, says Grant, created and maintained by "the local good-old-boy network" that continues to "steal our land." Such networks, especially in the South, are synonymous with the farmer-elected county committees that administer loan and other farm programs. "The institutionalized decentralization of the federal program unavoidably meant that local discriminatory attitudes determined who got what as regards the massive amounts of federal tax dollars [loans]," testified former USDA Deputy Under-Secretary Dallas Smith, in Garcia. The North Carolina farmer began his government career in Bladen County in 1965. Smith went on to say, "the conduct of the county committee mirrors the attitudes and prejudices of the local power structure, which invariably is a white, male world hostile to minorities."
The sum of such local networks--along with a parent agency reluctant to intervene--is an ongoing loss of land for those who can least afford it. At the current rate, African-American farmers in North Carolina and the country risk extinction within the decade.
Apparently, the legacy of institutional racism that brought about the suit is far from over. Bowens reports he's "still receiving hundreds of calls each year complaining about discrimination."
The relationship between government and the black farmer has long been marred by inequity. In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman introduced Field Order #15 deeding "40 acres and a mule" to recently emancipated Africans in parts of the South. But President Andrew Johnson soon reversed this policy to avoid further antagonizing Southern white farmers. Most Southern black families never received their allotments.
Still, despite increasing white resentment, intimidation and violence--and the introduction of Jim Crow laws--black families accumulated a substantial amount of land in the South. This trend continued up until World War I, when the early stirrings of the Great Depression were already being felt. A mass migration ensued as many black farmers left their land in search of jobs in northern factories abandoned by workers off to war. More land was lost upon the official start of the Depression in 1929 as cotton prices plummeted and over half the nation's black banks--institutions ensuring access to loans for black farmers--folded.
While Roosevelt's New Deal reforms of the 1930s provided some opportunities for black farmers, they did not stop the northward migration. The trend persisted from the 1940s through the 1970s. This agricultural brain drain combined with the poor record-keeping of many black farmers--lack of wills, deeds, tax payments--to create an environment ripe for abuse. In 1964, a study commissioned by the Johnson administration found substantial evidence of discrimination against black farmers by the USDA, including the denial of loans and credit for those registering to vote, the usurping of federal funds by local white officials, and the absence of any black farmers on any agricultural committee in the South.
It was the cumulative weight of such practices that led Timothy Pigford--a farmer from Riegelwood in eastern North Carolina, who was repeatedly denied USDA loans--to become the leader in a 1996 class action lawsuit against the federal agency.
Today, almost five years removed from the settlement of that suit--outside of thousands of largely inadequate claim payments and some African-American additions to local agriculture committees--little has changed. But by no means has the settlement stemmed the farmers' struggle for justice. North Carolina is home to a number of active national and local organizations pushing for protections and reparations for the black farmer, including Bowens' Land Loss Prevention Project, Grant's Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association and Concerned Citizens for Tillery.
While more equitable compensation for past wrongs is important, for Bowens, stopping the ongoing loss of land is paramount. He'd like to see a federal program that encourages black youth toward agriculture. The estimated number of black farmers in the country under age 25 is now less than 2,000.
Bowens also wants to do away with the county committee system, which perpetuates the dominance of local white farmers who compete with black farmers, then determine if the latter should receive loans. He cites the case of a North Carolina client who had oil under his farm. Evidence revealed the county committee conspired to force him into default, allowing for the property's purchase at minimal cost by one of the committee members. After much pressure and litigation, the USDA finally returned the land to the black farmer.
"It's like feudalism," says Bowens, invoking the decentralized medieval system in which land grants were compensation for faithful vassals, and serf labor was exploited. "It's that intentional.
"When you have counties full of blacks and you can barely place one black farmer on the county committee, there's something wrong," he adds. "There's also something wrong with a government that allows such a system to exist."