The numbers tell a sad story, but not the whole story. In 1920, black farmers in the United States owned 15.6 million acres of land; by 1999 that number had fallen to 2 million, and it's still dropping by 1,000 acres per day. In 1910 there were 926,000 African Americans involved in farming; at the end of the century, just 18,000 remain, and they're going under at five to six times the rate of white farmers.
Given those numbers, members of the US Civil Rights Commission didn't need a crystal ball when they predicted in 1982 that black farmers would be extinct by 2000.
But they didn't take into account African American farmers who simply refuse to quit.
Ben Burkett farms land his great great grandfather homesteaded in 1886 in the hilly uplands of Petal, Mississippi. Lloyd Shaffer and Eddie Ross farm in the Mississippi Delta north of Jackson. Thessalonians Jackson has 40 acres a hundred miles west, and Sam Cooper raises a few cattle on a tiny acreage in Chatom, Alabama.
I met them in southern Mississippi to talk about farming. Sam pulls out a billfold full of photos of his mountainous prize bull, Blackie, and Blackie's beautiful offspring. "Blackie's a pet," he tells me.
Ben's daughter is studying at an agricultural college, and now she tells her Dad how he ought to be farming. He laughs. "She done me just the way I did my father." And just as his father told him, he tells her, "I ain't farmin' out of them books! Y'all stop it!"
Lloyd Shaffer took over the family farm when he was sixteen, the year both his parents died. He can't even remember a time when he wasn't farming. Thessalonians Jackson and his young son Mark are taking up herb growing.
Eddie Ross went straight from high school to farming. "I just loved being around the farm animals. Everybody else that worked in a factory, they had this one little block of land with their house on it and that was it. But when you got out to the guys that had the cattle, they had open space. Open land. Back then it was 40 acres, but it looked like a big place to me. A place where you could run around. That's what I always wanted."
These strong, stubborn men knew they'd have to pay for the independence of farming with hard work and plenty of natural adversity. But they were surprised to find that the biggest stumbling block wasn't the tornadoes or floods or hail or drought. It was the federal agency that was supposed to help them: the United States Department of Agriculture.
A level playing field
Modern farming is a game where, as Ben puts it, "you've got to put out a lot of money to make such a little bit of money." So for the vast majority of farmers, operating loans are an annual fact of life. They use money from an operating loan to buy "inputs" such as seed, fertilizer, and chemicals at the beginning of the farming season. Then, given a reasonably successful year, they pay off the loan at the end of the season from their gross. Since credit for farmers can be hard to come by, the USDA and its agency, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) are in the business of helping farmers—particularly beginning and low-income farmers—obtain credit.
But for black farmers, dealing with the USDA has been like turning the clock back 60 years to the pre-Civil Rights South of the 1940s. For example:
On three separate occasions, the white FmHA loan officer took Lloyd Shaffer's loan application out of his hand and threw it directly into the wastebasket. Once Lloyd was kept waiting eight hours, from the time the office opened until after it closed at night, while white farmers came and went all day long, conducting business.
Ben Burkett, Mississippi state coordinator for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, borrowed from the FmHA from 1978 to 1985. He says it always took "four, five, eight months—even a year—to get a loan." It's supposed to take 30 days for a decision. Last time he applied for an operating loan in February. He didn't get it until July. By then it was too late to do any good. "I turned it down," he says. "Sent it back."
The FmHA told Sam Cooper that his loan to purchase new land for his cattle had been approved, so he spent $5,000 for fencing and was then told that they'd changed their minds—no loan, no land, and Sam was out $5,000.
A white USDA employee in one Virginia county brought a loaded gun to work and used it to intimidate Phil Haney II, a black farmer asking about his USDA loan application. His punishment? A one-day suspension with pay.
Thessalonians Jackson, a Vietnam veteran, tried many times to get a loan to raise cattle but never got one. "The Vietnamese—we were told they were our enemy, and they can get a loan for fishing or whatever. Makes you kind of wonder what's going on."
"All we're asking for is a level playing field," says Eddie Ross, who's been entangled in lawsuits with the USDA for more than a decade.
It's not much to ask. But it's very difficult to get.
The class action lawsuit
In 1997, six black farmers, including Eddie and Lloyd, filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA for racial discrimination in denying black farmers access to federal farm operating loans, disaster payments, and other support that the agency is mandated by law to provide to low-income farmers. Twenty-five thousand black farmers filed claims under their lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman.
Their case was a strong one. Their charges of racism were not only supported by the evidence the lead plaintiffs presented about their own situations. They were also supported by the government's own reports, investigations, and studies in 1965, 1970, 1982, 1990, and three in 1997. All of them, including Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman's civil rights listening sessions held throughout the nation in 1997, had concluded that the USDA was treating black farmers unfairly by taking longer to process their loan applications and denying a higher percentage of their loans. In one case, the USDA's own investigators discovered that loan applications for white farmers in one Mississippi county took an average of 84 days to process while those of black farmers took 222 days. And in farming, timing is everything.
The USDA does provide a remedy for farmers who believe they've been treated unfairly: They can file a claim with the agency's civil rights complaint office in Washington, DC.
There's a hitch, though. Ronald Reagan shut down that office in 1983, and the USDA never informed farmers. So for the next 13 years, until the office was reopened by the Clinton administration, black farmers' complaints literally piled up in a vacant room in the Agriculture building in Washington.
The lawsuit against the USDA was a hard-fought, confusing, three-year battle. Black farmers' traditional allies, like Democrats in Congress, the NAACP, and Jesse Jackson, were either late in offering support or remained silent, while unlikely allies Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans cleared away the most formidable legal barrier: the two-year statute of limitations on civil rights complaints. There were rallies and protests, in the South and in Washington, DC.
Farmers were jailed on two separate occasions when, during demonstrations, they attempted to enter the Agriculture building in Washington and talk to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.
But the farmers' persistence appeared to pay off. In November 1999, the suit was settled out of court for an estimated $450 - 600 million, the biggest settlement in history for a civil rights case. However, the settlement was negotiated by the lawyers for the two sides without the plaintiffs present. In fact, the plaintiffs were barred from participating. The terms the lawyers agreed to were spelled out in a document called the consent decree.
A victory gone sour
"I hate the consent decree," says Eddie. "I disagreed with it then and I disagree with it today."
Eddie Ross and Lloyd Schaffer sit at a kitchen table in Eddie's new, sand-colored brick home outside the tiny town of Flora, Mississippi. Besides being two of the lead plaintiffs in Pigford v. Glickman, they're friends, with farms a few miles apart. They've spent three years traveling around, getting farmers to sign onto a lawsuit that both now say resulted in a settlement that is neither fair nor equitable to the farmers.
"We didn't ask for every farmer out there to go out and have to plead his own case, and that's what's happening in this lawsuit," Lloyd says.
What's wrong with pleading your case?
For one thing, it's not the way a class action suit normally works. If a person is admitted to the class (in this case, African Americans farming between 1982 and 1997), he or she normally collects a share of the settlement based on the lead plaintiffs' evidence, no further questions asked. But the consent decree in Pigford v. Glickman requires that each individual farmer prove discrimination by a "preponderance of evidence" in a one-day minitrial.
Often, the evidence the farmers need is nearly impossible to come by. For example, the consent decree calls for a black farmer to show that a white farmer "similarly situated" got a loan when the black farmer didn't.
"It's impossible to prove 'similarly situated' unless a white farmer's willing to turn over documentation," says Eddie. "It's suicide for a white farmer to do that. The system will never help him again."
A second problem with the settlement was that nobody got punished. In the end, the USDA admitted to "bureaucratic delay" but not racism, and the mostly white county committees that discriminated against black farmers in loan decisions are still in place, still not chosen democratically.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the consent decree from the standpoint of the individual farmer is that $50,000 is not nearly enough, particularly for a farmer who's lost his land.
"It's a joke," Eddie says.
"Nowadays $200,000 will not buy a substantial amount of land for a good operation, especially on a cotton farm," Lloyd says.
Eddie ticks off a list on his fingers. "A new tractor? $125,000. A new planter? $40,000. A cotton picker? $20,000. A better technology cotton seed? One bag, $300. The total cost of raising cotton? $550 per acre."
Compared to the $3 billion in claims the farmers asked for in their lawsuit, $400-600 million isn't much of a victory.
So all six of the lead plaintiffs filed letters with the court objecting to the terms of the consent decree. They, along with 400 other farmers, also showed up to object to the settlement at a fairness hearing, but they achieved no substantial changes in the consent decree.
With no good choices left, most farmers reluctantly went along with the agreement. "The farmers were so excited that they're gonna get this over, they went to sign,"Eddie says.
As a result, many of them permanently lost any chance to recover their losses, because instead of 80 to 90 percent of the claims being paid, as their attorneys had originally led them to expect, 40 percent of the claims were denied. That meant that 8,025 black farmers who filed claims got nothing.
And that's not even the big picture.
From the standpoint of the African-American community as a whole, one of the worst long-term failures of the settlement is its failure to restore lost black land to black hands.
The eroding African-American land base
Usually, comparisons of the relative economic status of whites and blacks are based on income, and they show a small but persistent gap that surprises no one these days. But when comparisons are based on assets rather than income, the small gap becomes a yawning chasm, according to Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, authors of Black Wealth, White Wealth.
They define income as what people receive for work, retirement, or social welfare; wealth is what people own, including land. Wealth is not used to purchase necessities but to "create opportunities, secure a desired stature and standard of living, or pass class status along to one's children." In this sense, wealth is more important than income. And because wealth reflects not only contemporary resources but those passed from generation to generation, the disparity in private wealth reflects inequality that is a product of the past discrimination.
Oliver and Shapiro document a striking disparity. For example, the average college-educated white person earning $38,700 has a net worth of $74,922 and net financial assets of $19,823, while a college-educated African American earning the same salary has a net worth of $17,437 and net financial assets of $175.
This hidden economic divide, which in part reflects unequal access to loans—farm and home mortgages, farm operating loans, and disaster payments—explains why it's been so difficult to eradicate the economic and social inequalities between blacks and whites, despite better opportunities and more equitable salaries.
It also demonstrates why the loss of African American-owned farms through lack of access to operating loans, money to buy land, and disaster relief—and the inadequate compensation for their loss—is devastating to the African-American community. Black-owned land that's foreclosed on by the USDA rarely ends up back in black hands.
"Up in the Delta, which is 80 percent black, they took acres and acres and acres,"says Ben Burkett. "I don't know of any that went from white hands to black hands."Gary Grant, head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, says that 53 percent of the USDA's land holdings once belonged to African Americans.
The situation is urgent, he warns, and calls for emergency measures to help keep the remaining black-owned land - an asset worth $250 million - in black hands: "African Americans who are heirs to property in the South should be aware of who is being impacted as they decide to sell the land their ancestors, grandparents, and great grandparents struggled so hard to obtain. Our urban brothers and sisters need to understand that the only real power in the United States is land."
What passes for justice
Was the lawsuit a failure, then?
"I don't know of any farmer who's happy about it,"says Ben Burkett. But he also sees a small victory. Even though the lawsuit was not a success from a financial standpoint, it did raise awareness of black farming and minority land ownership—and the plight of small farmers in general. It also opened doors. At a co-op in Holly Springs, Mississippi, for example, "they pooled their money, and they're gonna buy 239 acres. The co-op will farm it together."
Eddie and Lloyd see the lawsuit as a defeat and a disaster, the end of black farming in the United States.
Nevertheless, they intend to keep on farming as long as they can. "You have no other choice,"Eddie says. "You can either lay over and die or keep trying to live. That's it."
Another job? He's thought about it, but not for long. "Farming is in my blood. Where could the average farmer go? No other job experience. All he did was farm."
He's also intends to keep fighting, even though he no longer expects to see justice done any time soon: "That power inside says I gotta keep going... til another warrior step up and fight this battle. ... Til another soldier come up and say, ...Well, you take you a break and get you a little rest. Get you a little sleep. And then you come back and relieve me.' And that's all we can do."
Finding hope, coming home
Civil rights leader Bernice Johnson Reagon once said, "If in moving through your life, you find yourself lost, go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start again from there."
That statement may hold the key to the relief soldiers that Eddie, Lloyd, Ben, and the others are waiting for. Because quietly, unobtrusively, more like a flock of swallows than an army, the troops are beginning to arrive. But they're coming from a surprising direction.
African Americans who went north during the Great Migration are coming home, returning to the South in significant numbers, settling in the poorest counties. Sociologist Carol Stack, who has been studying the phenomenon for years, says we may be witnessing a Great Return Migration.
These people don't fit sociologists' "migrant profile." They're older - in their thirties, forties, and beyond. And they're heading for places "far from big cities, far from Sunbelt industry, way below national and even state averages for income, linked historically to the traditional southern cash crops, and skewed demographically by generations of out-migration."
Ben Burkett has noticed it, too. "That generation of black people that went to Chicago, a number of them are coming back. And they're coming back with money. They're buying the old farm they used to work on. I know one, he put in 6 acres of catfish. Another one put in 130-200 acres in crops. Another, he's deceased now, came back and farmed his old farm until he died."
What on earth for?
Their reasons can't be weighed in economic terms alone, Stack says. "Some of them have great passions and dreams, some have acquired achings and fears, and all of them have acknowledged, to varying degrees, the ways in which a people can feel bound to their land."
They're coming home, and they're bringing with them the skills and strategies to capitalize on the organizing the farmers did during the civil rights movement and their recent lawsuit. They're helping build networks and coalitions that grow, using structures and strategies that establish them locally as people to be contended with.
It's true that you can't go home again, because home is a time as well as a place. But you can return to a particular piece of earth that's in your blood and your heart.
And when you get back to your home ground, the first job that needs doing is some relief soldiering. Because Eddie, Lloyd, Ben, Sam, Thessalonians, and the thousands of others who've held down the home front for 150 years in this long, long battle for land need to get a little rest.
Carol Estes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Carol is managing editor of YES! Magazine.