WASHINGTON — I am a descendent of good country people who turned the soil, planted seeds, watered roots and nurtured the tender shoots that sprang from the earth. They did it when they had to. And they did it when they didn’t. They did it because the land was theirs, and that has made all the difference.
I’m lucky. I was born to parents who both came from property-owning families, tough rural folk who toiled from “can see to cain’t,” who labored under a scorching Alabama sun, who battled drought and bugs and bankers to keep the land for their children and their children’s children.
Not all farmers managed to keep that inheritance. Some lost their land to the vicissitudes of nature — drought and flood, frost and plagues. Others simply gave up and sold for what little they could get. Farming has never been an easy way of life.
But black farmers were dogged by an additional difficulty: the racism of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local bureaucrats denied them loans, delayed their payments, refused them information and, in some cases, even disputed their deeds.
That blatant discrimination contributed to the stunning loss of black-owned agricultural land over the 20th century. In 1910, black Americans held title to at least 16 million acres. By the end of the century, black ownership had dwindled to about 2.4 million acres, according to researchers.
Recognizing a pattern of gross racism, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit — initiated by a black North Carolina farmer named Tim Pigford — in 1999. Since then, the government has paid out around $1 billion to settle claims. But the initial fund wasn’t large enough to provide recompense to all the farmers who were injured, and their representatives have struggled for the last decade to persuade presidents and lawmakers to provide them some measure of justice.
On Nov. 19, finally, the U.S. Senate agreed to set aside an additional $1.15 billion for black farmers. (The Senate also set aside $3.4 billion to repay native Americans for federal mishandling of a land trust managed by the Department of Interior.) In a sign of the seriousness of the claims, the payments were approved with no objections.
Still, controversy lingers over the black farmers’ settlement. The House, which has already approved the funds, will have to take another vote; some House Republicans have vowed opposition to what they see as a vast scam. Tea party firebrand Michele Bachman (R-Minn.) has even pledged to hold hearings and “investigate every single claim before it goes out.”
Bachmann and her ilk are just playing to the preconceptions of a noisy claque. Any member of Congress ought to know that the settlement already provides a system for ferreting out fraud among those seeking compensation. Many fraudulent claims have already been denied.
But there was also plenty of real racism. Just ask Shirley Sherrod. (Yes, she’s also the former USDA employee who was the victim, ironically, of a set-up accusing her of discriminating against a white farmer.) She and her husband were members of a South Georgia farming collective that received $13 million in compensation for the contempt and hostility they suffered at the hands of local USDA officials.
Still, even the Senate’s extraordinary action cannot restore the economic prospects that black farmers lost to a long season of injustice. As I know so well, family property confers benefits over generations. My fortunes were boosted by a toehold in the propertied class purchased with the sweat and tears of long-dead ancestors.
Conversely, the heirs of black farmers who lost that toehold may never have enjoyed quite the same opportunities. They did not have access to the equity that might have secured college educations or entrepreneurship. That’s a harvest forever lost.