African American farmers believe that USDA policies are discriminatory against them, while favoring White farmers. By 1910, and just two generations out of slavery, African American farmers had amassed more than 16 million acres of land and made up about 14 percent of farmers. Many freed African Americans believed , after being told by various political figures, that they had a right to own the land they had been forced to work as slaves, under the “40 acres and a mule,” policy proclaimed by Union General William Sherman. That promise was unfulfilled. .
Today, African American have fewer than 4.7 million acres. African American farms in the U.S. plummeted from 925,000 to fewer than 36,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest farm census. And only about one in 100 farmers is African American, as reported in THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.
They were able to overcome the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the newly freed slaves — a military order, later rescinded. But over the last century, they faced one obstacle after another because of their race.
Farmers needed loans to expand, to buy seed, to bridge the time between harvests. But lenders — chief among them, the USDA — often refused to give them money, and often rushed to foreclose. Suppliers and customers undercut them. Laws of inheritance led to the breakup of homesteads.
Now the government wants to make amends by providing billions of dollars in debt forgiveness for farmers of color as part of the pandemic relief package. But a judge has put the money on hold in the face of lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program is unfair — reverse discrimination.
Today’s African American farmers and the descendants of African American farmers who struggled and lost their stakes argue that they are the ones who have been the victims of injustice:
The Virginia farmer who barely was able to keep part of his farm when the USDA threatened to sell it at auction. The Kansas man who lost the land his grandparents once homesteaded. The Arkansas farmer who is holding on by a thread, praying the federal aid will come through in time.
It was racism, says farmer John Wesley Boyd Jr. And it still is.
“I think discrimination is still pervasive. I think that it’s done in a much subtler way,” Boyd says. “I don’t think you’re going to see many USDA officials spitting on people now or maybe calling them colored, but they aren’t lending them any money — the way they lend white farmers.”
“I’m owning land that many of my forefathers worked when it was scotch free. You know — slave labor, man,” says Boyd, his black cowboy hat casting a shadow over his face. “I’m just trying to make them proud.”
Like the other African American farmers, Boyd has encountered prejudice in many ways. An example: Boyd’s wife, Kara, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, recalls the time her husband took a load of soybeans to the grain elevator and got a low price for it. Too much trash or moisture in it, he was told.
When Kara Boyd brought in another load from the same field, she got a better price. But when her stepfather, who is white, took a load out of the same field, she recalled that he was told: “Man, these are the best beans they’d seen and how many more could he bring them?”
Boyd recounts how, unlike their white counterparts, African American farmers who fell behind on a payment would see their loans immediately accelerated, and no negotiations. They would be given just 30 days to pay the full amount or they were pressured to sign their deed over to USDA under a program which purportedly allowed them to lease and later buy back their land when their financial situation improved.
But that typically didn’t happen because USDA’s local county committees — comprised mostly of white local farmers — would be given first option on such leases. That’s how Boyd says he lost his 46-acre tobacco farm in 1996. It ended up in the hands of a white farmer who was a member of the committee.
These kinds of practices prompted U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to approve the landmark settlement of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit filed by African American farmers in 1999.
The settlement provided about $1 billion to 15,000 farmers who said USDA unfairly turned them down for loans because of their race between 1981 and 1996. A second round of $1.25 billion stemming from that lawsuit was approved by the court in 2011 for people who were denied earlier payments because they missed filing deadlines.
“It is up to the Secretary of Agriculture and other responsible officials at the USDA to fulfill its promises, to ensure that this shameful period is never repeated and to bring the USDA into the twenty-first century,” the judge wrote.
Though USDA paid more than $2.4 billion under the Pigford settlements, state taxes eroded recoveries, debt relief was incomplete and reports before Congress show the settlements did not cure the problems faced by minority farmers.
USDA spokeswoman Kate Waters says the agency is committed to rooting out systemic racism and reducing barriers to accessing services. She says the department plans to launch an Equity Commission later this year to identify problems and fix them.
Congress, meanwhile, approved a $4 billion debt relief program for 16,000 farmers of color in March as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.
The funding was intended to remedy past discrimination in USDA loan programs, and to provide $1 billion for outreach and technical assistance for what it calls socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — a group that includes not only African American farmers, but also Hispanic, Native American and Asian producers.
White farmers have filed lawsuits in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, and Minnesota. In June, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard issued a nationwide, preliminary injunction halting the program.
The Texas case is led by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and brought by America First Legal, a nonprofit started this year by Stephen Miller and other senior members of former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Sid Miller, who is suing in his personal capacity as a farmer and not on behalf of the state, contends the debt relief is unconstitutional because it excludes white farmers based on their race or ethnicity. He argues USDA no longer discriminates against farmers of color and called the loan forgiveness a “backhanded way” of offering reparations.
“It is just flat wrong,” Miller said. “Us Republicans and old white guys, we get accused of being racist all the time, but this is racist by the administration. It couldn’t be a plainer case of racist.”
For Abraham Carpenter, a 59-year-old African American farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables near Grady, Arkansas, the injunction means he has to wait and hope for help with about $200,000 in loans, even as rain has wiped out hundreds of acres of watermelons, turnips, collards and other crops.
“I’ve seen some really, really tough times, you know, but I’ve always been able to survive because of God’s blessing and his mercy and his grace. And they are still upon us,” Carpenter says. “So I am not going to say I am going to go belly up. I am going to work a little harder and I am going to pray a little harder.”