Justice For Black Farmers

This article discusses the racial discrimination southern black farmers experienced from the USDA.

In my small rural North Carolina community, farming was huge. My house was completely surrounded by tobacco farms. My first childhood job was in tobacco farming. During the summers, most of the neighborhood teens and I earned money to buy school clothes from tobacco farming. Almost everyone was involved in tobacco farming in some aspect.

Black tobacco farmers were very much part of this landscape. They owned large swaps of land and grew lots of tobacco, corn, and other crops. They were the most powerful and respected people in our community. Some of them did quite handsomely for their families. In my rural neighborhood, they made up most of the black middle-class.

Black Land Loss

In the seventies and eighties; however, I noticed that a strange thing had happened in my community and across the south. Many black farmers had sold their farms or lost them to foreclosure. Although many of these farms had been in black families since after slavery, white farmers or developers had bought them for pennies on the dollar. The resulting transfer of land and wealth from the black community to the white community was staggering. It is estimated that black owned land dwindled from about twenty million acres to three million acres from 1910 to present.

Why had so many black farmers sold or lost their farms to foreclosure? The answer is simple. There was a conspiracy to steal their land. Here is how the conspiracy worked. Tobacco farming was once very lucrative until smoking became disfavored. Hence, many tobacco farmers started struggling financially, especially black tobacco farmers. Like their white counterparts, black farmers tried to save their farms by applying for federal loans, subsidies, etc. from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) (now Farm Services Agency), a division of the United States Department of Agricultural (USDA). However, FmHA often denied loans to black farmers based on race.

Without access to capital, black farmers could no longer afford to farm. Additionally, their children were often uninterested in fighting and carrying on the family tradition of farming. It was hard backbreaking work with unpredictable results. To avoid foreclosure, selling the farm seemed the only solution although foreclosure for some black families was sadly inevitable. White bankers were all too happy to foreclose on these black families, take from them this most valuable black asset, and funnel it to their friends, families, etc.

In fact, I remember an experience with a respected black farmer in my neighborhood. His name was Mr. Eddie Tate Sr. but we called him Mr. Eddie. He was a major farmer and a strong proud black man. His sons and I were very good friends. I was at his house all the time. On one of those occasions, a white man drove up to Mr. Eddie’s huge white house. After Mr. Eddie finished talking to the man, he told me the man was trying to take his farm but he would never allow it to happen. That happened many years ago but I have never forgotten it. It impacted my life and is the source of the passion I have for this issue now. I respected, then and now, Mr. Eddie’s intelligence and tenacity to stand up to this conspiracy.

Class-Action Lawsuit

In 1997, several black farmers sued the USDA, in a lawsuit called Pigford v. Glickman. The two original plaintiffs of this lawsuit were my neighbors. Ultimately, the lawsuit eventually became a class-action lawsuit and resulted in the USDA admitting to racial discrimination against black farmers and agreeing to a multi-billion dollar settlement.

Many black farmers; nevertheless, have yet to see a dime of that settlement because they were never notified of the settlement and therefore missed the deadline to file applications for consideration. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of Dr. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, the federal government, i.e., Congress, the White House and the USDA recently agreed to provide an additional $1.15 billion for claims brought by these farmers.

The Fight Continues

Notwithstanding the additional $1.15 billion, the settlement is yet meaningless unless Congress provides the money to fund the settlement by March 31, 2010. Please light up the telephone lines of your Representative or Senator over the next few days. This settlement will not undo the damage done by the lost of so much black land; but it will help some black farmers feel a sense of justice at last.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Augustus Corbett, J.D.
Augustus Corbett practices personal injury, criminal defense and family law in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. Mr. Corbett is author of the book, "How Public Schools Fail Black Boys." He speaks often at seminars, conferences, etc. He has a B.S. in chemistry from North Carolina A&T State University and is a graduate of the North Carolina Central University School of Law.

Copyright The Corbett Law Firm, PLLC
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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