********** Correction (9/1/98)
Because of an editing error, the city of Pavo, Ga., was
misidentified in a story on Page A-1 Sunday.
MAVO, Ga. -- Willie Head Jr. stands outside his single-wide
mobile home and surveys his 72-acre farm.
A rusty plow. An old tractor with a worn tire. Dusty rows of
peas and turnip greens irrigated with a sprinkler a city dweller
might use in a garden.
Head, a 44-year-old man who has lived his whole life on a farm
in Brooks County, Ga., has fought the weather, pests, low crop
yields and poor market conditions like all other farmers.
But Head says there's one thing he can't fight: a
government-run agricultural credit and financial assistance
system that federal officials recently admitted is rife with
racism against AfricanAmericans and other minorities.
"I don't feel like I'm part of America," said Head, who is
black. "I don't feel like I'm an American citizen."
Head and about 500 other farmers from 13 states are seeking
$2.5 billion in lawsuits filed against the U.S. Department of
Agriculture that say the government and its employees routinely
have denied black farmers equal opportunities for loans,
disaster aid payments and grant programs designed to help
farmers expand their operations or improve their efficiency.
The USDA admits it is guilty.
In a 1997 internal report, the separtment acknowledged that
"minority farmers have lost significant amounts of land and
potential farm income as a result of discrimination by
Government loan information reveals the extent of the problem:
In 1994-95, for example, the USDA lent farmers $1.3 billion. Of
the 16,000 farmers who landed a loan, only 206 were
The difficulties facing black farmers were made worse by a lack
of action by the USDA. The department cut all employees at its
civil rights complaint office in 1983, so thousands of
complaints made by black farmers were stuffed into an unmanned
office in Washington and ignored until recently.
In January, Head and 14 other farmers went to Washington and
met with President Clinton. After four hours, Clinton promised
to help the farmers and has urged Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman to resolve the discrimination case.
But the case remains in mediation, and a Feb. 1 trial date
approaches. One major stumbling block: The government wants to
address each discrimination complaint on its own, and the
farmers are seeking class-action status that would let them
settle all cases at once.
Meanwhile, the farmers are fighting to keep their farms and
families alive. They're hoping a settlement will not only
jump-start their farms, but will put an end to the racism they
say has nearly eliminated a way of life that's been part of
African-American culture for centuries.
"It's a call to the land," Head said. He began farming at age
6, when he snuck away from his parents and, to their amazement,
drove a tractor in a perfectly straight line down a farm field.
"Our goal is to hold onto our land," he said, "because without
land, as a people, you haven't got anything."
`NOT A NEW ISSUE'
The roots of racism in American farming reach back to the days
of slavery, and since then white landowners have maintained
their hold. Black land ownership has fallen steadily since its
peak in the early 1900s.
The government knew about the discrimination for years and,
until recently, ignored it, said John Sparks, a special
assistant on civil rights for Agriculture Secretary Glickman.
"It's devastating, and it's not a new issue," Sparks said.
"There have been reports and reports and reports from groups
that have looked at this over the last 20 or 30 years and no one
ever did anything about it."
Unlike some other areas of society, black farmers have not made
gains in political power in agriculture. Lawyers for the black
farmers say racism in the USDA was perpetuated by the
department's two-tiered system that gives almost exclusive
financial control to county lending committees.
When government money becomes available, it is handed down to
the county committees, which government officials acknowledge
consist almost entirely of white members.
In Brooks County, where Head lives, the county is 44 percent
African-American -- yet no member of the county committee is a
Those threeor five-member elected county committees have great
power to review applications and determine eligibility for
"The structure of the USDA is geared toward white control,"
said Al Pires, a Washington attorney representing the black
farmers. "It's completely white, and [there are] no counties in
the South where there's even two black votes."
In Georgia, minorities hold membership on 11 of the state's 84
Farm Service Agency county lending committees. While the
population of Georgia is 28 percent black, only 44 of the 417
federal Farm Service employees in Georgia, or about 10 percent,
Nationally, about 20 percent of the USDA's 6,018 Farm Service
employees are minorities. In Florida, there are nine minority
Farm Service employees in a statewide work force of 66.
But a white government loan administrator in Georgia said
people shouldn't let the lawsuit stain all white USDA employees.
Charles Bobo, a white Farm Service administrator in Turner
County in central Georgia, said he has worked hard to ensure
minority farmers are aware of available government help.
"I've done an outreach program and sent fliers out to black
congregations and churches," Bobo said. "I'm positive we haven't
had any discrimination."
Pires said county lending committees and loan officers operate
with great autonomy, and for decades some manipulated black
farmers into accepting their reasons for denying their loans or
for delaying payments.
The lending agency named in the suit, long known as the
Farmer's Home Administration, recently was renamed the Farm
Service Agency. Complaints also were filed against the
Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.
In all, roughly 50 farmers from Georgia and four from Florida
(one from the Panhandle and three from Central Florida) are
plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the USDA.
One Arkansas loan officer, according to a complaint that is
part of the lawsuit against the USDA, told a black farmer his
disaster relief request amounted to "too much money for a nigger
Despite the high number of complaints, a top federal government
loan officer in Georgia said he finds it hard to believe all of
the discrimination complaints made by black farmers are
"I honestly don't believe anybody's [loan applications] were
rejected because of their race or delayed because of their
race," said Raymond Bryant, a white man who is farm loan chief
for the USDA in Georgia. "But there's always the possibility
that [discrimination] occurred somewhere."
Black farmers said in their lawsuit that when they argued or
complained, they were generally told by loan officers to file a
complaint, but the complaints often were handled by the very
loan officers who had just rejected the loan applications.
Some complaints, the lawsuit contends, were thrown in the
trash, and others were simply ignored by county lending
committees or given meaningless "ghost investigations."
If they continued pushing, black farmers eventually were told
to file complaints with the Agriculture department in
Washington. But in most cases that led to little relief, and
eventually highlighted what some call one of the most
embarrassing revelations in the history of the USDA.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan reduced the USDA budget by
eliminating the department's civil rights complaint division.
The move put an end to any federal investigation of complaints
filed by black farmers.
But the lawsuit says county loan officers didn't tell black
farmers the office had been closed. As a result, the complaints
from black farmers just kept piling up without investigation or
resolution in the office that used to house the complaint
When agriculture officials finally realized in 1996 there was a
problem, they opened the office and complaint forms and saw
complaints spilling out of drawers and file cabinets.
"They had boxes and boxes of complaints that had never even
been looked at," Pires said. "For 13 years, no one's been doing
anything, and it was total chaos."
That revelation landed hard in Washington and led to intense
pressure from some members of Congress to reduce the backlogs of
complaints and to make some kind of deal with the black farmers.
"People have lost their land, people have lost their families,
people have lost their marriages, and it was all planned," said
Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga.
McKinney, who is black, said members of Congress need to
overcome their fears that a settlement with black farmers will
hurt them in elections back home.
"This is never about feel-good politics, this is not about
posing for pictures," McKinney said. "This is about righting a
wrong, and ultimately this is about money."
Head said he received a couple of government loans in the early
1980s and grossed $69,000 in income with the help of those loans
in 1984. But since then he was denied loans several times and
was forced into bankruptcy, he said.
Since organizing a local black farmers cooperative a few years
ago, Head said he's had to enlist his elderly father to sell his
goods at the State Farmer's Market in Thomasville because white
buyers won't deal with him.
ONLY A GUEST
Leo Jackson of Pineview flipped a 5-gallon pail recently and sat
down in a barn he used to own. Later he walked the land he used
to farm and wiped dust off a tractor he used to drive.
Jackson is a guest now on a piece of rural Georgia farmland
where he used to pursue his dream of being a self-sufficient
farmer. After struggling for 13 years to build his farm, someone
else is now growing cotton there.
"I'm broke, and I can't borrow a dime anywhere," said Jackson,
38, who is unemployed and lost his land and farm equipment to
Jackson's story of farming failure is fairly typical of black
farmers who say they've been held back by a system of government
programs run almost exclusively by white men.
Jackson was a machinist at a General Motors plant in Albany
until he gave it up to fulfill what he hoped was his destiny as
a third-generation farmer. He put down $9,800 to buy 102 acres
and began to raise hogs and grow cotton, peanuts and
He landed a couple of loans and began to do well. Then he
planned to expand -- the only way a farmer can remain profitable
these days is to upgrade equipment and enlarge the farm. To do
that, all but the biggest corporate farms rely on government
Government loans are to farms what water is to crops. Farms
today will dry up and wither away without government loans given
at interest rates far below what banks charge.
Farming is an expensive business and rarely turns a true
profit, said Gabe Jordan, a spokesman with the Georgia
Department of Agriculture.
To keep prices low in the supermarkets, the U.S. government
provides farmers with low-interest loans, grants and price
subsidies to offset their huge capital costs for equipment, land
In the South, irrigation is the key to success, and Jackson
hoped in 1995 to get a government loan to buy another tractor,
essentials like seed and fertilizer but especially irrigation
Five times he applied, and each time he was denied. The
reasons: too much outstanding debt and poor farm managerial
skills. Without more loans, Jackson was in deep financial
trouble. Eventually, he crumbled.
Jackson said county agents regularly played paperwork games to
keep him out of the fields. For example, Jackson said they moved
slowly in processing his loan requests and appeals --
intentionally, he believed -- to prevent him from turning a good
A government loan officer who said he knows Jackson said
privacy laws prevent him from discussing specifics of Jackson's
Mitch Willcox, a white loan officer who reviews loan
applications for 13 central Georgia counties, said he is hurt by
the USDA's sweeping admissions of racism by government
"That makes me feel kind of bad, because I think we've bent
over backward to help all farmers regardless of race," said
Willcox, who said he was legally unable to comment on any
charges made by African-American farmers in his area.
In 1995, Jackson said USDA lenders kept his loan application
hanging so long he never had an opportunity to buy seed and
plant a crop. "The farm was just laying there, and there was
nothing I could do," he said.
On another occasion, Jackson learned that other farmers in
Wilcox County were taking advantage of a government program that
helped them offset operating costs in a dry growing season.
When he approached the county lending committee, he said the
white loan officer told him he'd run out of applications.
Jackson said the officer used that tactic so long the program
ran out of money before he could qualify.
"They'd just tell you anything to get you out of the office,"
Jackson said. "I was like everybody else. I thought they were
telling the truth until I started looking around and saw other
people were benefiting from these programs."
Pires, the attorney for the black farmers, said loan officers
often used the stall technique to ruin black farmers but, at the
same time, made it appear they were loaning money equally to
"They'd give him less than what he needs, or give it to him
late," Pires said. "It's very cleverly done, and it protects
them in terms of the numbers they provided to the government."
Pires said another tactic by lending committees was to give
black farmers initial loans, then deny future applications and
imply their farm failures were due to incompetence. But some
black farmers said farming skills had nothing to do with their
failures. Instead, some said, they simply trusted the government
to treat them with fairness and dignity.
Farmer Milton Cochran of Pelham, holder of a bachelor's degree
in chemistry and a master's in business, said his relationship
with government employees began to sour when he and his fellow
black farmers organized a small cooperative.
Local white farmers and the lending committee became enraged,
Cochran said, when his cooperative signed a contract with a
Japanese company to provide them with large amounts of soybeans,
a main ingredient in the Asian staple food, tofu.
After that, Cochran said he had trouble getting loans, and once
was issued a check for $4,000 in disaster assistance when the
data he provided supported a claim for four times that amount.
When contacted, several USDA employees said they are forbidden
by privacy laws from discussing individual claims made by
"When you create a multinational relationship like that, you
create quite a threat to the establishment," said Cochran, 39.
"They certainly reacted to that."
Since losing his farm last year, Cochran has taken a temporary
assignment with the Commerce Department overseeing grant
applications from businesses that want to expand. But he hopes
someday to make it back into farming.
"If we don't make a stand now, we aren't going to have any more
black farmers out there," Cochran said. "We don't want to go the
way the American Indians did as a people."
`THE LAST PLANTATION'
Charles Bryant, a retired USDA lending agent from Valdosta, said
he never treated any farmers differently based on their race.
Still, even Bryant, who is black, acknowledges that racism
probably does exist in the USDA.
"There may have been some discrimination; don't forget we're
living in America now and there's discrimination," Bryant said.
"I'm saying I didn't do it."
USDA employee P.L. Jowers of Moultrie also said he has never
used race as a factor in determining who gets a government farm
"We give everybody the same opportunity; to the best of our
ability we've done the best we can," Jowers said. "But there are
more non-minority farmers, and we don't have any control over
who comes in."
But Sparks, the USDA civil rights specialist, said the
complaints by black farmers were far too consistent to ignore.
"I don't know if there was a concerted conspiracy to take land
on a mass scale," Sparks said, "but it's fair to say that a lot
of what these [black] farmers said happened to them did happen."
Since the USDA's civil rights report and the lawsuit, the
department has tried to level the playing field for black
farmers. Some lending agents who were frequently complained
about transferred or asked to retire early; the civil rights
office has been reopened; and, prior to the filing of the class
action lawsuit, the department settled roughly 230 civil rights
complaints for about $4.7 million.
But change comes slow in the USDA, a huge government entity
once labeled by Abraham Lincoln as "the people's department" but
now known to many black farmers as "the last plantation."
"You've got an institution there that's 150 years old," said
Sam Taylor, director of the Association of Black Farmers in
Washington, D.C., who helped get the black farmers organized.
"You just can't turn an aircraft carrier around in a narrow
river, especially not overnight."
M. Jack Luedke/staff
1. Photo: (b/w) Willie Head Jr. and his father Willie Head Sr.
are struggling to hold on to their Brooks County farm. "All my
equipment is outdated," said Head Jr. He also has no shed to
protect his. Head and other farmers met with President Clinton
to discuss their discrimination case. Clinton promised to help.
2. Photo: (b/w) "All my equipment is outdated", said Head Jr. He
also has no shed to protect his.
3. Photo: (b/w) Leo Jackson, 38, is now a guest on a piece of
Georgia farmland where he used to pursue his dream of being a
farmer. Jackson's story of farming failure is typical of black
farmers who say they've been held back by a system of government
programs run almost exclusively by white men.
4. Photo: (c) Leo Jackson looks over the land he used to farm in
Wilcox County, Ga. He once owned the land, but it went into
foreclosure in June. He is now a guest at his former farm, and
says "I'm broke, and I can't borrw a dime anywhere."
5. Photo: (c) Willie Head Jr. "tops" some of his tobacco crop on
his Georgia farm. Head says discrimination has made it hard for
him to get the loans he needs to keep him afloat.
6. Photo: (c) Charles Dennard holds up a bunch of peanut
plants. Dennard farms 67 acres of land in Georgia, 49 of which
are his own, and also works full-time at a battery factory.
Still, he was $60,000 in the red last year, and he says that is
one reason he is having trouble getting loans from the