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Challenging the USDA

black farm in Georgia
Photo: Vickie A. Smith

* In 1920, 1 in every 7 farmers was black; in 1982, 1 in every 67 farmers was black.
* In 1910, black farmers owned 15 million acres of farmland; in 1982, black farmers owned 3.1 million acres of farmland.
* By the late 1980s, there were fewer than 2000 African-American farmers under the age of 25.
* Today, there are fewer than 18,000 black farmers, representing less than 1% of all farms in America.
Though civil rights legislation was supposed to have eradicated racism, at least on the federal level, a 1982 report issued by the Civil Rights Commission stated that the USDA was "a catalyst in the decline of the black farmer." That year, African-Americans received only 1% of all farm ownership loans, only 2.5% of all farm operating loans, and only 1% of all soil and water conservation loans. That year, too, the Reagan administration closed the USDA's Civil Rights Office - the very arm that investigated discrimination complaints.

In 1984 and 1985, the USDA lent $1.3 billion to farmers nationwide to buy land. Of the almost 16,000 farmers who received those funds, only 209 were black. By 1992, in North Carolina, the number of black farms had fallen to 2,498, a 64% drop since 1978.

Despite some new regulations by the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) designed to offset discriminatory lending practices, and the restoration of the USDA's Civil Rights Office under President Clinton, black farmers are still not getting adequate help. A recent USDA report showed that loan applications by white farmers were processed in 60 days whereas black farmers' loans took 220 days. The 1990 Minority Farmers Rights Act, which authorized $10 million a year in technical assistance to minority farmers, has delivered only $2-3 million a year, and is in danger of being de-funded altogether. Also, less than 5% of USDA research funds are directed toward problems of limited resource farmers. Most rural African-American farmers do not have access to essential legal assistance and thus fall prey to land speculators and unscrupulous lawyers.

Lawsuits against the USDA
In 1994 the Land Loss Prevention Project, founded in 1983, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit on behalf of black farmers, turning key information over to Congress to investigate discriminatory practices by the USDA in the 1980s and early 90s.

In 1996 1000 black farmers filed a $3.5 billion class action suit against the USDA, exposing the illegal denial of loans, disaster relief and other aid during the 1980s and 1990s. After years of pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congress passed the Agriculture Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 1999, which promises relief to black farmers. The bill waives the 2-year statute of limitation on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, allowing farmers who tried to file discrimination complaints at the USDA from January 1981 to July 1997 (the period when the USDA's civil rights investigative arm was closed), to file new complaints today.

On January 5, 1999, the USDA settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay $50,000 to each black farmer participating in the class action. Unfortunately, for many, this settlement is too little too late. When denied USDA loans, many black farmers were forced to take out commercial loans at much higher rates and are now facing huge debts and foreclosure. The Land Loss Prevention Project, in conjunction with the National Black Farmers & Agriculturists Association (BFAA, founded in 1997) is currently planning another suit to further challenge USDA practices.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
A member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Congresswoman Eva M. Clayton, an African-American Democrat from North Carolina spoke at a March 1999 black farmers rally at the Federal Courthouse in Washington.

"There is reason to despair...There are several reasons why the number of black farmers is declining so rapidly. But the one that has been documented time and time again, is the discriminatory environment present in the Department of Agriculture...the very agency established to accommodate the special needs of farmers...Once land is lost, it is very difficult to recover...We stand here today in despair over this history. Yet, we also stand here today in hope that justice will prevail, and that the record will be set right for those farmers who have been wronged..."

Read Congresswoman Clayton's complete remarks

Despite valiant efforts by black families to acquire and hold on to farms, and brief periods of government support, the obstacles posed by natural disasters, and by political and economic assaults prevailed. Between 1920 and 1993, African-Americans suffered a 96% decline in land ownership. Yet, despite the mass migration of blacks from the rural South, most African-Americans - like Charlene Gilbert - still have family in the rural South, which they view as a "homeplace." Black farmers have continued to struggle and organize to save a tradition that runs through their veins.

my name is written on the land

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