On the day set aside to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, hundreds of North Carolina black farmers met individually with attorneys from the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin, seeking recompense for decades of discrimination.
Appointments and walk-ins were welcomed on Monday at the Durham Marriott City Center. Farmers were called to file their claims to receive part of a $1.25 billion settlement the Obama administration signed into law aiming to rectify decades of discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, addressed the crowded Marriott ballroom, saying, "Thank you for all the work and contributions you've made to North Carolina." He stated that it was unfortunate this situation ever occurred, and that "at least today, Congress set aside funds to accommodate you."
McKissick said he was pleased with the current progress of gaining justice but noted that he was "most concerned for the people who couldn't make it here." After thanking the attorneys, McKissick assured farmers that he and the attorneys were "there to serve, regardless of the county you come from."
Farmers came from all across the state, including Sampson, Hertford, Franklin, Robeson and Stokes counties. One woman traveled from out-of-state: Brenda Waller of Halifax County, Va., explained that "a lot of us who got our documentation in Virginia got it after the designated time. By the time it filtered to us, the date had passed."
Waller, who is filing on behalf of herself as well as her deceased father, understands well the discriminatory practices that were employed against black farmers. Her father, who died in 1991, was a sharecropper and "had no opportunity to purchase the land he worked," she said.
Waller, who farmed tobacco from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, said there was a general concern among black farmers that "you weren't going to get it" when they applied for loans. "There was a window of people who didn't have the opportunity to apply because they were told not to apply because we wouldn't get it," she added.
Waller also said the banks would turn down loans on the basis of "no credit history," making it harder for black farmers who had just graduated from college.
Waller was given the opportunity to do her own financing because her dad had farmed for several decades and had built a reputation. Waller says of the woman who allowed her to finance the land: "Perhaps her conscience softened her heart."
Still, Waller remained a bit skeptical of why she was allowed to finance. "The deal was set up almost as a test to see if I could actually come up with the funds and maintain it," she said.
Though black farmers have long been aware of discriminatory practices made by the USDA and banks, Congress has also been aware and is working towards a solution, said State Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat. "This is something that never should've happened," Luebke said. "It's shameful."
Although Luebke is happy with the settlement, he expressed the same concern as McKissick for the farmers who were absent or simply do not know about the settlement. He told the farmers in attendance to "pass this information on to your friends who are not here."
Prince Snowden of Rose Hill began farming in 1981 and stopped in the mid-'80s for lack of money because he "couldn't get a loan. They were giving white people loans but not black." Snowden recalled that a white farmer who farmed down the street from him "got $500,000 to upgrade his equipment." He said the bank "refused to give me an application" and "said there wasn't any money or funds." Snowden, who once farmed corn and soybeans, has since leased his farm out.
Snowden and Waller are generally optimistic about the settlement and receiving their claims, but Waller still has concern for other black farmers, especially those who lack detailed paperwork that would prove discriminatory practices. Waller said much of the discrimination occurred 30 years ago, and many farmers believed the statute of limitations had run out on filing claims. Even if the farmers did file for a loan or complaint, she explained, they may have destroyed their own paperwork in the meantime, believing it was too late to do anything. She intended to ask the lawyers about such situations and report back to her fellow Virginian farmers.
There was also concern regarding whether farmers would be able to adequately prove discrimination. If attorneys asked whether the farmer had previously complained of discrimination, and the farmer had not, the concern is that there might be no claim.
Attorney Stephen Coe said the lawyer's job is to get a full, complete and compelling story to the decision-makers; he said they seek to turn no one away and desire to hear each farmer's story. Coe made it clear that the attorneys were "not the decision-makers in this case" and that in order to gather a complete story, a detailed account was needed for each filing.
Depending on which track the claimants choose, a few farmers could receive up to $250,000. Most of settlements will be up to $50,000 and will go to those who farmed between 1981 and 1996.
Leaving the meeting with his lawyer, Snowden felt positive about his outcome. When Waller's name was called to meet with a lawyer, she headed in saying, simply, "I'm optimistic."