With a sloped back, cracked hands, and veined and muscled arms, Destin Samford, a sharecropper now generations away from Minkah, his African ancestor, cultivates a field in Alabama. In August, he turns away from the white-orange sun fading against a wine-colored sky to scan the earth speckled with cotton bolls framed by green leaves. He bends, back curved and crooked in places, to pull a boll of cotton from the tough spiny casing, marking the beginning of the harvest.
– Diane Glave
History Of Black Farmers And Their Loss
People of African descent have a life-long legacy of farming, cultivating and working the land, long before they were stripped from their homeland and forced to till the soil by their pale-faced masters. Farming originated as a way of life; a means of survival.
For centuries, farming techniques were passed down through generations, and even today many farmers remain although the number of those of African descent seems to dwindle continuously.
According to “Black Farming and Land Lost: A History,” in 1910, nearly one million Black farmers in America owned a total of 15 million acres of land; but by 1969 they held only six million acres.
In 1920, Blacks owned 14 percent of the nation’s farms; today, there are only 18,000 Black farmers, representing less than 1 percent of all farms in the country.
There is a very logical explanation for why this drastic change in the amount of landownership by African Americans occurred.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment granted freedom to more than four million Black Americans and, at the point, the government did attempt to integrate these freed men into U.S. everyday life. Most notably, in 1865 General William T. Sherman’s Field Order #15 (most commonly known as the “40 acres and a mule” promise) was put into place. Unfortunately, when President Andrew Johnson came into power he reversed the policy, and most African Americans never received the much-needed land.
The following year, the Freedman’s Bureau was formed to aid freed Blacks and poor Whites, and 45 million acres of public land in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida were opened to settlers regardless of race.
“According to Black Farming and Land Lost: A History” This created the first major opportunity for Blacks to own land and many were able to take advantage of that by working as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. During the next 40 years, Blacks acquired nearly 15 million acres of farmland.
White Southerners, not at all pleased with the massive uprising of African Americans, started to implement laws that restricted the rights of Blacks, and so came the birth of the “Jim Crow” era.
Segregation of Blacks in all factions of life became routine, and racial tensions began to rise significantly with the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to the Library of Congress, the hardships Blacks had to endure at the hands of racist Whites, coupled with the plummeting costs of cotton, and the onslaught of the Great Depression caused many African Americans to search for refuge in the Northern states, which were in desperate need of bodies to run factories during World War I. An estimated one million Blacks had left the South by 1930, consequently defaulting on their farm loans, crushing Black-owned banks and marking the first Great Migration.
The Grower of Trees, the gardener, the man born to farming, whose hands reach into the ground and sprout to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
– Wendell Berry
USDA discrimination and Pigford lawsuits
For African Americans who continued to farm, the government continued to make it extremely difficult for them to acquire and/or maintain their land.
In 1964, a study done by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission exposed how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked against Black farmers by denying them ownership and operating loans, disaster relief and other aid. The government agency would also deny credit to Black farmers who were connected with Civil Rights activists or the NAACP, and those who had registered to vote.
In 1967, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF) was created to help African-Americans and poor people produce a livable income and improve/maintain their way of life. Although these were strides in the right direction, Blacks still encountered widespread discrimination.
Black farmers decided to fight back. Litigation against the USDA for discrimination against African American farmers began in August 1997 with two lawsuits brought by Black farmers-Timothy Pigford and Cecil Brewington. This was the first time the problem began to be recognized on a large scale. In numerous years leading up to the lawsuit, many African American farming families complained that they were not receiving fair and timely treatment, when they applied for farm loans or assistance.
According to the National Agriculture Law Center, the farmers alleged that they were being denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer for loan approval than were non-minority farmers. The Black farmers also maintained that, because of discrimination they were experiencing at the hands of the USDA, they were facing foreclosure and financial ruin. The lawsuit also claimed that the USDA was not responsive to the numerous discrimination complaints that the farmers brought forth. The USDA’s Civil Rights Office closed in 1983, and after that point, the complaint logs just continued to build and back-up with continued inaction.
On April 14, 1999, Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman approved Pigford I, a settlement agreement and consent decree resolving the class action discrimination suit between the USDA and Black farmers. It claimed the agency had discriminated against Black farmers on the basis of race and failed to investigate or properly respond to complaints from 1983 to 1997.
However even after the settlement agreement, many voiced concern over the large number of applicants who filed late, and reported deficiencies in representation by class counsel.
A provision in the 2008 U.S. farm bill permitted claimants who hadn’t received a determination, giving them another opportunity to petition for relief in civil court.
On February 18, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the claims, but money to pay has yet to be appropriated due to numerous blockages by the U.S. Senate. To date, they have stopped an appropriation bill passing seven times.
Most recently, Republican Senator Tom Coburn was responsible for the hold-up. The Democrats and Republicans have been involved in negotiations, and it was expected that the bill to end the decades-long settlement was going to be passed by unanimous consent. This requires all senators to support the measure. Coburn went against party leadership and single-handedly blocked the measure for the second time this year.
According to an aide, Coburn blocked the measure because he wants the costs to be offset so they do not add to the deficit. The aide also claimed that Coburn is trying to make sure the funding goes to people who were actually discriminated against, and therefore have a right to the money.
The Farmer is the lord of lands,
The birth-right baron of the soil,
Although the callous-badge of toil
He wears upon his brawny hands
– Andrew Downing
Taking it to the streets
The National Black Farmers Association Incorporated (NBFA) is a non-profit, community organization founded in February of 1995 by John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer from Virginia, who is determined to hold onto his heritage, and to save his farm from foreclosure caused by racial discrimination by the USDA.
Boyd founded the association, after encountering the USDA’s discriminatory practices firsthand and meeting many more Black farmers who shared this experience.
On December 12, 1996 Boyd led NBFA members in a march to the White House. He went to meet with President Bill Clinton and to testify before Congress. The plight of Black farmers caught the nation’s attention, but Boyd’s pursuit of justice continues to this day.
In an effort to increase the support and bring attention to the Black Farmers Bill, Boyd recently led a peaceful march from the USDA headquarters to the U.S. Capitol atop an orange tractor he named “Justice.” Prior to the march, Boyd drove “Justice” through the streets of Washington for a week, calling on the Senate to pass funding for claims stemming from the class action lawsuit.
Working the farm is a fulfilling lot
One is full of hope even, when hunger gnaws the gut.
So, with your prayers, raise your eyes to heaven
Ask that your family be showered with blessings
–Gil L. Gregorio
From the mouths of farmers
“It’s a racist thing. Blacks get their money late and always have. That’s just the way that it was when you were farming,” said James Connor, who was a Black farmer for more than 30 years. “They would hold your money. Then they came up with this program (USDA settlement), and when President Bill Clinton was in office he set the money aside for the Black farmers, but when President Bush came into power he just shut it down and cut it off. All the while the lawyers were getting paid, but nobody was getting any money.
“People were coming in applying for the money and (they) weren’t even farming. I met with people from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) two or three times, filled out papers, and nothing came of it. Then when I heard about the USDA settlement, I filled out the applications for that and sent it in, and I haven’t heard anything from that either. It’s like they are picking and choosing who they want to give it to.
“I farmed all my life, and I had to quit farming. It got to the point where the prices were set to where you couldn’t come out of the hole. We made good crops, but we just couldn’t get the prices for it. You need to be able to pay your bills, and it became a waste of my time so while I was still young I went to work as a tractor-trailer truck driver.
“It (farming) was good in the beginning,” continued Connor. “There weren’t any problems. But then the government came out with that set-aside policy, that required you to set so much land aside and not farm it, and that didn’t help anybody. They were still suppose to pay you for the land but we never received any payment. It was just a way to get you out. When I started out farming in Lake Providence, Louis, and there were at least 15 to 20 Black farms in my town, now there can’t be more than one or two,” explained Connor who had 1200 acres of land.
“I farmed for 30 years growing up with my father and then another 10 years on my own. It was hard to walk away. Farming was a good life. You are your own boss, and you make a living. I enjoyed it. You were making your own living without having to ask anybody for anything. Even if I had the money now I would want to go back. But at this point, I would just have to put it towards my retirement. I’m 62-years-old now.
“It all started with the FHA office, when the superintendents were against the Blacks. I fought it so long. But then I just gave up on it. Then with this USDA settlement, I tried again, and still nothing, and I have just given up on it now.”
Thus thirty smooth years did he thrive on his farm:
The Genius of plenty preserved him from harm:
At length, what to most is a season of sorrow,
His means are run out,–he must beg, or must borrow.
Efforts to support Black farmers
In 2003, David Roach, founded Mo’ Better Food, an organization that strives to convince the African American community to feed itself by finding Black farmers and bringing the foods they grow into the Black community.
African American farmers make up less than one-third of one percent of all farmers in the state of California while agriculture in the state is a $28 billion a year industry and ships food all over the world. Very little of that is being pumped back into African American communities.
In 1996, Mo’ Better Food held a conference to address these issues and brought together African Americans involved in urban gardens, agri-business, and farm cooperatives to answer the question: “Who will supply Mo’ Better Food in the African American community?”
The conference discussed the rapid decline of African American farmers and how this has negatively impacted the health of Black communities.
Mo’ Better Food launched its first Black farmers market at McClymonds High school in West Oakland in 1998 and began planning for the development of a cooperative grocery store in the city which opened as the West Oakland Food Collaborative in 2003.
Regardless of these efforts, Black farmers today are still awaiting restitution and hoping for the day that and justice is served once and for all.