After more than a decade of struggle
African-American farmers win compensation
Published Feb 25, 2010 9:37 PM
On Feb. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the latest settlement
to provide compensation and resources to African-American farmers. An
organization that represents African-American farmers, the Federation of
Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund — founded in 1967 —
welcomed the announced settlement.
Demonstrations took place during February in support of the demands put forward
by African-American farmers seeking an end to land loss and the racist policies
of the USDA, which have driven millions of people from the rural areas of the
South for decades. Rallies were held in Washington, D.C.; Little Rock, Ark.;
Memphis, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; Columbus, Ga.; Columbia,
S.C.; and Richmond, Va.
The farmers were demanding a resolution to the 1999 legal settlement which was
supposed to provide compensation for decades of systematic discrimination by
the USDA. However, the federal bureaucracy placed enormous roadblocks to the
farmers receiving settlement funds.
Only 15,000 African-American farmers were able to navigate the complicated
paperwork to collect compensation reported to have averaged a mere $50,000 per
family. Most of the farmers were excluded, and in 2008 the U.S. Congress
acknowledged the problems and granted additional time for another 70,000 people
to apply for compensation.
Despite this supposed commitment to speed up the processing of applications for
compensation, Congress cut $1.5 billion in funding that President Barack Obama
had included in the first budget of the current administration and specifically
designated for Black farmers. Obama has included a similar amount in the budget
for the next fiscal year that is now going before the Congress.
According to Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus,
“The primary issue now, I think, is that there’s not money
appropriated to pay the successful claimants.” Despite the fact that the
Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress, there is no real commitment
to address the problems of African-American farmers.
In a demonstration outside the USDA on Feb. 15, John Boyd, the National Black
Farmers Association president, presented legislators with 538 ears of corn and
packets of forget-me-not seeds, demanding that each member of the House of
Representatives and Senate include the $1.5 billion in the 2010 budget for
compensation. “Our long journey to justice should now come to a
successful close,” said Boyd.
Boyd continued by stating, “We have endured many hardships, waited many
years and traveled many miles. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part
and fund fairness for black farmers. Thousands of farmers who can’t be in
Washington showed their support by traveling long distances through snow and
rain to join our rallies. We’re here to represent them and get the job
done.” (PRWEB, Feb. 15)
In a Feb. 4 press conference, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
responded to a question related to the ongoing plight of African-American
farmers. Gibbs said, “Clearly, it’s something important to him
[Obama]. It’s been an issue that has been worked on by the federal
government now in several different administrations and dating back many years.
Obviously, ensuring that justice is done is important in this situation.”
(PRWEB, Feb. 15)
Fund spokesperson Heather Gray said of the recent settlement: “After
years of negotiations and questions, for Black farmers who have never been able
to have their claims of discrimination against the United States Department of
Agriculture settled, there is finally some hope. The Obama administration and
attorneys representing Black farmers have reached a settlement in the second
phase of the lawsuit originally filed by Black farmers against the USDA in
1999.” (The Federation/LAF, Feb. 18)
According to the Fund executive director, Ralph Paige: “The long-awaited
settlement in this second phase of the Pigford lawsuit is a major step forward.
The $1.25 billion settlement proposed by the Obama administration is a vast
improvement over the $100 million offered by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill.
Now there is hope that the thousands of black farmers whose cases have been
pending can receive awards and damages after decades of
A history of discrimination and land loss
The plight of African-American farmers is by no means a new phenomenon and the
claims against the federal government did not originate in the lawsuit filed
during the 1990s. This problem stems from the legacy of slavery, the failure of
reconstruction and the ongoing discriminatory practices of the USDA and the
Although the abolitionist movement fought for decades to end slavery, it would
take a bloody 4-year Civil War to bring about the collapse of this institution
rooted in the extreme exploitation and oppression of four million people of
African descent. The question of what provisions would be made for the former
slaves, as well as for so-called free Africans, was discussed during the war
but was never formally settled.
In 1862 some Union army generals began to break up plantations in liberated
areas of the South and provide settlements for small African farmers.
In 1865 the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act developed plans for 40-acre plots
of land to be sold to former slaves at cheap rates. This land would have come
from evacuated plantations and areas that were unsettled during this
Nonetheless, by late 1865, President Andrew Johnson halted these initiatives by
the Union army to allocate small farm settlements for the former slaves.
Another agreement that was adopted in 1866 also made proposals for land
redistribution, but these actions lacked an effective enforcement mechanism and
consequently went largely unimplemented.
With the lack of governmental commitment to land redistribution in the South,
the acquisition of farms by African Americans took place on a largely
individual basis. Many African Americans were able to acquire land as a result
of the dire economic conditions prevailing in the South after the Civil
In a study issued by Bruce J. Reynolds in 2002 entitled “Black Farmers in
America, 1865-2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of
Cooperatives,” Reynolds says that “W.E.B. DuBois estimated 19th
century progress in land ownership by black farmers: 3 million acres in 1875, 8
million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900. The Census of Agriculture shows a
steady increase in the number of farm operators owning land in the South from
1880 to 1890 and again in 1900, but does not distinguish between white and
nonwhite owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 was the peak year in the
number of nonwhite owners of farmland in the South. In terms of acreage owned,
the census shows 1910 as the peak year for the South. More than 12.8 million
acres were fully and partly owned, respectively, by 175,290 and 43,177 nonwhite
Yet the rise of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the
abandonment of reconstruction by the federal government left African-American
farmers and their families open to systematic campaigns by the racists that
drove many people off their farms through force of arms and the implementation
of state laws that favored the former slave-owning elites. This process would
continue well into the 20th century, resulting in the loss of millions of acres
of land acquired by African Americans in the South.
These efforts to drive independent African-American farmers off their land was
coupled with the systematic denial of credit and the corporatization of
agricultural land that took hold during latter years of the 20th century. More
farmers began to look toward cooperative agriculture as a means to maintain
their livelihoods and access to land.
However, as Reynolds points out: “The population of independent farmers
is declining through farm consolidations and through contracting systems that
diminish decision-making requirements of farmers. As this trend continues, the
usefulness of cooperatives, as well as the capacity of farmers to organize
them, will decline.”
By 1992, the U.S. Census of Agriculture reported that there were only 18,000
African-American farmers remaining and land ownership was down to 2.3 million
acres. Since the early 1990s the conditions for African-American farmers have
worsened with the burgeoning economic crisis that has disproportionately
affected nationally oppressed groups in the U.S.
The plight of African-American farmers constitutes an integral part of the
overall question of national oppression in the U.S. It is inextricably linked
to the economic crisis and its impact on African Americans, resulting in
millions of job losses and home foreclosures. Consequently, the fight for
justice for African-American farmers must be raised alongside other demands,
including a real jobs program to employ the tens of millions of workers who are
bearing the brunt of the deepening economic crisis in the world capitalist
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