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How southern black farmers were forced from their land, and their heritage

African Americans have lost millions of acres of farmland across the South during the last century, in a trend propelled by economic forces, racism and white economic and political power. Most of the losses occurred since the 1950s. John Yang talks to Vann Newkirk of The Atlantic, which highlights the story in its September issue, about the origins of what Newkirk calls “the great land robbery.”

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    When it comes to understanding financial inequality in this country, economists often point to the absence of African-American generational wealth as a principal factor, resources passed from parent to child.

    As John Yang reports, for many African-Americans, one source of the problem goes back decades.

  • John Yang:

    Over the past century, African-Americans have lost millions of acres of farms they owned across the South. It's a trend propelled not just by economic forces, but by white racism and local white political and economic power.

    It's not just a legacy of the Jim Crow South, either. Most of the losses have occurred since the 1950s. That history and its lasting effects are the subjects of the cover story of the September issue of the "Atlantic" magazine. It's written by Vann Newkirk, who's a staff writer at the magazine.

    Vann, thanks for joining us tonight.

    What is important about this story? Why did you want to tell this story? What is important, you think, that people should know from it?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Well, right now, the country is in the middle of a lot of debates over the racial wealth gap, over the status and economic prosperity or lack thereof of African-Americans here, and also about reparations, perhaps. And I wanted to, with this piece, re-center the conversation on the South, on black folks in the South who often get left out in this conversation, on one of the places where the deficit has been the most extreme. And that's in farming, and then the ownership of land.

  • John Yang:

    You call this, as the headline, is "The Great Land Robbery." What happened? Give us an idea of what happened.

  • Vann Newkirk:

    So, what happened was, during — pretty much after the middle of the 20th century, federally-funded farm programs, they were put out there to give small and middle-sized farmers loans to support farms, to keep them going through bad economic times. They systematically disenfranchised and also discriminated against black farmers.

    So they didn't get the loan amounts. They were denied loans that they were entitled to. And often, these local USDA programs were used as bully pulpits, or forces to actually push black farmers off their land.

  • John Yang:

    And some of this was actually accelerated or exacerbated as a result of the civil rights movement, that this was a reaction to the civil rights movement.

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Right. So, most of the USDA funding was actually leveraged through locally elected boards. And guess who could not vote in the South?

    So, what would happen is, these boards were dominated by the segregationists, and if you were a black farmer who needed money to grow your crops next year, one of the ways they could ensure you never joined the NAACP, or never went out to vote or to march against segregation was to hold that money in their hand and say, you're not getting this money unless you toe the company line. And so, what they did to black farmers who didn't do that, who did go out and join the NAACP and these organizations, they took their money from them.

  • John Yang:

    And you also talk about the lasting effects of this, not only the loss of sort of family wealth, but also the political effects.

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Right. Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, these were states that were, if they weren't majority black going into the Great Depression and beyond, or close to being about half black. And what prompted the "Great Migration", quote-unquote, that saw millions of black people leave the South, was a fact that a lot of them had their land stolen.

    Maybe, and I think this is probably what happens, if they hold onto that land, if they're able to make money in the South and have — and vote in the South and have some type of stake in the future of their kids living in the South, perhaps those three states at least stay majority black.

    What happens to the Electoral College if we have three majority black states? What happens to the Senate? You know, those are big questions.

  • John Yang:

    You told the story through, in part, through a woman in her 60s. Now, she's the third generation of her family to be working the same farmland. The family was a able to hold on this land. Her name is Willena Scott-White, and let's take a listen to a little bit of what she told you.

  • Willena Scott-White:

    It's dear to me that my children know what my ancestors went through, first to be where we are and who we are, because I'm a firm believer that if we don't know our history, then we repeat the mistakes over and over again.

  • John Yang:

    Knowing your history, she says that families were denied their history by having their farmland taken away. Talk about that and the other effects of this, the impact it has on families.

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Well, I talked to dozens of farm families for this story. And the reason why Willena's particular story and character got to me is because she is a historian. This is in her bones. She wants to build a museum in the delta to honor not just her father and grandfather, but all the other farmers who came before her.

    I think she embodies the idea that what we're talking about here is s not just money, not just the access to land, but the ability to put down cultural roots, to have a place to call your own. That's history, right? That's a thing that I do not believe we quite understand. It's lost when people are forced to move, when they are denied the ability to own the land under their feet. They're denied a bit of their history.

    These people who live in the delta now, black f folks who live in the delta now, they are in this place that was built with their hands and work, that they are part of but not allowed to actually hold any part of.

  • John Yang:

    You're also talking to serve out a lot of this land through various transactions is now held by pension funds, by venture capitalists, by hedge funds. You seem to hint that you think these transactions were somehow unethical?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    I believe that it's possible through totally ethical means at this point, so many decades away from the original theft, to receive the land legitimately. You know, if you buy it from somebody who owned it and they don't have the lineage of the land, they don't know where it came from. That's a legal purchase.

    What I try to make the point of in the piece is that it probably doesn't matter whether an individual company got its land portfolio in a place where predominantly black folks lived and worked, and should own the land. It doesn't really matter if they got individual plots of land ethically or legally. What matters is that at some point, the land was taken unethically and was taken away from these black folks illegally.

    What is our legal, ethical, moral responsibility as a people to rectify that?

  • John Yang:

    Well, I really ask that. You talked about reparations earlier. How should we be thinking about rectifying this?

  • Vann Newkirk:

    I do not believe the current reparations debate — and it's a well-meaning and well-intended effort to try and quantify every single thing that was done to black people since slavery. That's an amazing effort, and I believe over the last five to ten years, there have been people doing work that folks have not been able to approach in 150 years on quantify, in terms of a dollar amount. I think that approach, though, has lost the focus on land and land ownership, and collective land ownership in some ways. And the sentimental and cultural and generational meaning of attachment to a place, and having m mobility by choice, instead of by being forced. I think that's a dimension that should be added back to this conversation, is the original promise of reparations was a land grant, was 40 acres and a mule.

    You know, people didn't love it because it was — had certain monetary value. They loved it because it gave them a place to call home forever, gave them something to give to their children. Not just money, but a sense of belonging, a place they can put their name on. And that's — I do believe the current reparations debate is missing a little bit.

  • John Yang:

    Vann Newkirk, its cover story, "The Great Land Robbery," in the September issue of "The Atlantic" — thanks so much.

  • Vann Newkirk:

    Thank you.

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